Sunday, March 20, 2011

Discussion: Timon of Athens

The play: Timon of Athens

The plot tweet: Timon gives too generously, goes broke, gets no help from so-called friends. He rails against mankind for two full acts, then dies quietly.

My favorite line:
Ceremony was but devised at first
To set a gloss on faint deeds, hollow welcomes,
Recanting goodness, sorry ere 'tis shown.
But where there is true friendship there needs none.


This week, my usual set of critics actually agrees on something: Timon of Athens is unfinished, which means Shakespeare abandoned it -- for reasons we'll almost certainly never know. There is no record of this play ever being performed in Shakespeare's lifetime, which is true for just a handful of his plays.

In his Lectures on Shakespeare, W.H. Auden points out the problems:
During the period in which he wrote Timon, Cymbeline and Pericles, Shakespeare was either ill or exhausted, and he worked on plays that he didn't finish. The verse in Timon is of his late period, but the play is imperfectly constructed. The Alcibiades subplot is perfunctory -- we don't know whom Alcibiades is defending. In the last scene Alcibiades changes character and style without warning, and throughout the play he has little relation to the main plot. When the senators come and plead with Timon in the cave, there is a sudden suggestion that he is a military leader. The bad senators die for no good reason. And the play is not strictly a tragedy, for Timon's death is unmotivated. He just passes away.
I especially appreciate Auden's final point. For me, the entire fifth act of Timon falls flat. Shakespeare denies Timon an on-stage death and instead focuses on the invasion of Athens, which is such a minor plot point that we hardly care who wins.

I also struggle with Timon as a character, possibly because Shakespeare makes no attempts to humanize him. In a situation that is unique among Shakespeare's heroes, Timon has no family relations, and we are given absolutely no information about his background (except for that vague military suggestion at the end of the play).

Timon doesn't have any soliloquies at the beginning of the play, so we don't know his real motivation for generosity. Is he simply a generous guy who is irresponsible with money? Or, does his generosity stem from his desire to be liked and/or to have power over others? Given his violent reaction to his friends' refusal to help him, I'm inclined to think that his motivations were not wholly unselfish.

Timon of Athens is rarely staged, but I saw a fantastic production several years ago at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, which is working on a "completion project" to stage every Shakespeare play by its 20th season. In this particular production, the scenery consisted entirely of playing cards -- a powerful visual reminder of the house of cards Timon creates with his false friends and unsustainable lifestyle.

Oddly, I remember the first part of the play very well, up to the banquet of water and stones. But I can't picture the end of the play at all, so I can't remember whether the cards also created the scenery for the cave/forest scenes. This is probably because, as we've already discussed, the ending of this play falls flat: Timon yells at a whole bunch of people, and then he dies mysteriously off-stage, and then some other stuff happens that we don't much care about. Maybe I got tired of Timon's ranting and raving and simply tuned out the second half of the play.

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