Timon of Athens (1592-1601)

The literary sources for Timon of Athens are largely derived from Plutarch‘s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans translated by Sir Thomas North (1579) or the Greek satirist Lucian‘s; Timon Misanthropus, which was translated into French by Amyot and later into English by Sir Thomas North (published in 1579, 2nd ed; 1595, 3rd ed; 1603). Some scholars suggest that Thomas Middleton may have collaborated with Shakespeare in this play and that it was included in the Folio of 1623 because the publisher was having difficulty obtaining the copyright for Troillus & Cressida. The current view is that the play was probably first performed in 1604 or alternatively abandoned and never performed and supposedly written a year earlier since Middleton began writing for the stage from 1602 onwards. The conventional date for the composition of Timon of Athens is closer to 1608-09 but computer analysis of the text carried out in the 70’s and 80’s now suggests a much earlier date, possibly any time after 1592 and no later than 1604. It must be borne in mind that Amyot’s French translation of Plutarch was available as early as 1559. The subject matter and style coincides with Edward de Vere’s long-term involvement in the dramatic and literary arts, and his generous patronage of poets, playwrights and artists in London. The play parallels the benevolence doled out in the beginning and becomes more cynical towards the notion of friendship echoing the words of the poem attributed to William Shakespeare: “Every man will be thy friend whilst thou has wherewith to spend….these are certain signs to know, faithful friend from flattering foe”. The austerities of Elizabeth’s reign were certainly replaced by the extravagant lifestyles lived among aristocrats in King James’s reign and the play may reflect that James Ist was well-known to have described himself as “the Greatest Fool in Christendom” and to have drawn a coterie of sycophants and dependents from literary circles such as Ben Jonson. He was fond of bestowing expensive gifts to his court favourites in the hope of future admiration and support. Foreign merchants and money-lenders were rife during his reign as he had inherited a surplus from Elizabeth and his reckless extravagance brought the kingdom into ever deeper debt. However, the earliest evidence of its performance is in 1674 by Thomas Shadwell who used the working title “The Manhater” and published his own adaption in 1678. Other scholars and commentators have argued that the play alludes to the rise and fall of the Earl of Essex or even King James Ist.

A Fool Who Persists In His Folly

Outside the house of the rich and affluent Timon of Athens a painter, poet and jeweller meet to bring offerings, a book, picture and gemstone. Inside the senators of Athens arrive and Timon arranges for a sum of money to be sent in payment of a debt by Ventidius, and another to further the marriage of a young man. Attending a feast that evening are Apemanthus, a controversial character, and an Athenian captain Alcibiades. Timon continues to dispense riches to those who make requests and we are informed that his wealth is now well nigh exhausted. In act II we acknowledge that Senators are pressing Timon for sums he borrowed from them, while Timon reassures himself with the thought that those to whom has been kind will when the time requires be kind and generous to him. However, in act III he soon realises the presumption of his folly when Sempronius, Lucullus and Lucius all refuse to lend him money. Furious at this response and angered at the continual stream of beggars at his door Timon decides to invite his “fair-weather friends” to one final banquet. Meanwhile in the senate Alcibiades is pleading for the life of a friend who killed another in an angry brawl, but his pleas are ignored. Timon holds the “mock banquet” of warm water and dry crusts and then curses and reviles all those attending, driving them away in a furious rage. In act IV Timon leaves Athens while his faithful steward, and other servants lament his departure. He goes to live in the woods, collecting berries, digging up roots in an attempt to assuage his hunger. One day while digging he discovers some gold and is then disturbed by the sound of a drum. It is Alcibiades on his way to assault Athens, and the now misanthropic Timon calls after him to lay the city to ruins and then gives him some of the gold. Apemanthus pleads with Timon to desist from attempting to buy respect from others and instead become a beggar of fortunes. Some thieves come to Timon hoping to deprive him of his new-found wealth, but he simply gives them what they want and encourages them in their stealing, just as nature, itself steals from everything else. His steward arrives but he is sent packing with “Hate all, curse all, show charity to none…”
In act V more ingratiating flatterers come to Timon but are reviled and sent away. Then Alcibiades makes his bid against Athens but is persuaded to take only one life that has offended him. News arrives of Timon’s death, an inauspicious omen, and decides instead to make a peace with the people of Athens.

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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,