Defending Timon

For those readers who don’t cruise the comments, reader Ren has been on something of a friendly crusade to promote the lesser-known Shakespeare play Timon of Athens.  I thought it would be fun to shine to spotlight a bit and give us all an education in why Timon has gotten a bad rap, and why we should revisit. Some foundation for you to work with, Ren: A google search of “Timon of Athens” returns 369,000 results.  Comparatively, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” returns 21 million.   (In Timon’s defense, “Pericles Prince of Tyre” only rings up 72,000 hits.) According to Amazon, there are 10x as many books on Hamlet as there are on Timon. IMDB does claim that somebody made a Timon movie in 2009, though no meaningful details about popularity, release dates or box office are available.  Before that there was a TV adaptation in 1981, almost 30 years ago.  Macbeth?  50+ hits, and that’s just for title match.  And that includes one last year, two this year and one next year. Clearly the world has missed out on this hidden gem.  Enlighten.  (And please take this challenge in the light-hearted manner it is intended, I’m not trying to be argumentative about it.  I’m genuinely curious to shed some light on a play that I’m clearly not alone in not knowing enough about.)

10 thoughts on “Defending Timon

  1. Anonymous says:

    Well, *should* we be defending 'Timon'? After all, it's not by fluke that 'Hamlet' has so much more written about it. I've seen a production of 'Timon' helmed by a director I very much admire (Lucy Bailey at Shakespeare's Globe; she can be a little hit-or-miss, but when she hits, she *HITS*!) and yet most of what I took away from it was the abiding impression I'd just spent an evening watching a grown man crawling around in his pants (and worse).

    In defence of 'Timon', there are some stonking lines. "Thy mother's of my generation: what's she, if I be a dog?" from Apemantus, if you are – as I am – a fan of early "yo mamma" jokes. And not forgetting Timon's:

    "I am Misanthropos, and hate mankind.
    For thy part, I do wish thou wert a dog,
    That I might love thee something."

    Which truly sums up the way I feel about humanity sometimes.

    The play is in many ways OH SO RELEVANT to our financial times, and it has plenty of delicious insults. But is it a very good play? Don't tell us how you can tell it's underrated; tell us *why* it's underrated. Tell us why we should pay as much attention to Timons as we do to Hamlets and Lears. Having seen the play, I'm not convinced, so give me something extra to work with. 🙂

  2. Herman Melville's favorite Shakespeare play was "Timon of Athens."

  3. Ren du Braque says:

    Hi, this was from a blog that you've recently mentioned. Here's a quote from the review by Nick Walton called Timon of Boston, "This play is rarely performed and has a reputation for being unwatchable, unstageable, and unshakespearian – but Bill Barclay and his cast have produced a terrific piece of theatre, which not only gives audiences a great night out, but also silences those critics intent on labelling this play ‘Bad Shakespeare’. Bill’s production cleverly balances the play’s comedy with its satiric bite. Timon moves (quite literally) from throwing feasts to throwing stones – and Allyn Burrows delivers a masterclass in capturing the infinite variety contained within Timon’s misanthropic tirades."

    Just to whet your appetite, this is the story of riches to rags, optimism to bitter hatred, generosity that hides mendacity, sumptuous feasts that can't seem to satisfy. In the end, Timon spends more than he can afford and learns some cruel lessons! Does this sound familiar? It is also an exploration of cynicism. I could go on, but ahh… just trust me on this. You'll find great stuff here, but you've got to read and hear for yourself. What's the worst that could happen?

    It's only fault is that it's a little lyrically light. I believe it is quite original in its subject matter.

  4. Ren du Braque says:

    Anonymous just made my task harder, and I don't deny the bitterness of the play. There are disturbing philosophical questions posed in this play… that's what made it interesting. And of course, watching all of the parallels between Timon and Alcibiades and wealth and war, and witnessing the lightning quick and violent reactions to disappointments. Why are people in this play (and nowadays) so angry?

  5. Ren du Braque says:

    Just one more comment! The moment Timon annonces "I am Misanthropos" is really a moment of a profound and shocking metamorphosis. This transformation was high drama. Perhaps we can identify with the final state of Timon, but Shakespeare wants us to feel good about Timon in the beginning too. The genius of the play is putting us through that change. That's my defense.

  6. There are some structural difficulties in Timon that led some early commentators to suggest that it was not written entirely by Shakespeare. However, others have suggested that it is unfinished and represents an intermediate text that Shakespeare intended to rework by going back to it and perfecting the verse and making other such changes.

    That aside, I like the play and think it has a great deal of power. I have no doubt that with good direction and acting it could be mesmerizing.


  7. Structurally Mark Van Doren suggests that it's two plays in essence, and that S. fell back on lyricism and didn't bother to connect them.
    That makes a lot of sense to me. The contrast is stark, and it's hard to actually care about Timon as much as we care about what he represents–he's like two diametrically opposed icons. The poetry *is* better than the plot line I think.

  8. Ren du Braque says:

    Before the "blogger" settings turn the page on Timon, I'll add one more comment. Recently in the New York Times income inequality, philanthropy and Lance Armstrong were mentioned. Basically, in these articles the journalists struggle to come to grips with how money is used to buy itself honor, prestige and friends. After reading Timon, the ruthlessness of competition and Timon which lies underneath his generosity becomes understandable. Regarding his split personality, I can't read like he's two characters. He's one that splits. That division and what it represents for us is very interesting.

    Last point. I believe that even the Shakespeare that doesn't measure up to the standards he made for himself with Lear and Hamlet is much more interesting than the majority of "classic" literature. I recently read "House of Mirth" by Edith Wharton. Timon is, in my opinion, much better, clearer and more profound.

  9. Hehe, Ren, since diving head-first into Shakespeare (15 plays in, I believe), nothing compares. Hell, even some music isn't as visceral as reading the bard.

    Of all the novels I've read in-between the plays, only John Gardner's Grendel, Wuthering Heights, and the Iliad come close to the emotional and physical enjoyment of Shakespeare. Not even Thornton Wilder's "Bridge Over San Luis Rey" could compete.

  10. Now that I'm down to only a handful of Shakespeare plays not read, it's good to hear that there's apparently still something to look forward to.

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