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Shakespeare & Beyond

Misanthropes: Wyndham Lewis and Timon of Athens

Wyndham Lewis and Timon of Athens
Wyndham Lewis and Timon of Athens

By the end of Timon of Athens, the titular character is living in a cave, cursing his former friends and all of Athens. “I am Misanthropos and hate mankind,” he tells Alcibiades, a former friend and a visitor to his cave. Timon is what you might call “prickly.”

Some of the most engrossing illustrations of Shakespeare’s rarely performed tragedy come from Wyndham Lewis, an early 20th-century artist who was something of a misanthrope himself. Lewis was the founder of Vorticism, named for “Lewis’s belief that artists should observe the energy of modern society as if from a still point at the centre of a whirling vortex.” Vorticism blends Cubism, Expressionism, and Futurism, and incorporates abstract forms that recall industry, machinery, and urban architecture.1

Lewis, who was a writer and critic as well as a painter, would write about Timon in his 1927 book, The Lion and the Fox: The Role of The Hero in the Plays of Shakespeare. In it, he positions Timon as an idealist: “noble and immaculate.”2 In his introduction to a 2010 edition of Timon of Athens which includes Lewis’s illustrations, scholar Paul Edwards writes:

Wyndham Lewis and Timon of Athens

Marked-up trial proof for Wyndham Lewis’s “Alcibiades” from the “Timon of Athens” Portfolio, 1912.

It is likely that Lewis sympathised with Timon’s words (when he discovers his financial disaster), “Unwisely, not ignobly, have I given.” For Lewis, “wisdom” or prudence of the sort Timon refers to is a necessary hypocrisy in a basically imperfect and potentially treacherous world. Timon appears to belong instead to an ideal world of true nobility where this “wisdom” or prudence is not necessary—one that artists and philosophers may imagine, but one that will never exist in reality.3

In Timon, Lewis saw a critique of modernity’s brutality:

Lewis particularly admired the dynamic qualities of Futurism, but was skeptical of what he saw as the Futurists’ uncritical enthusiasm for modernity. He saw in the savage invective and brutal imagery of Timon of Athens a vehicle for his own critical attitude to Modernist fantasies of the total transformation of life.4

Lewis created his illustrations of Timon of Athens in 1912, well before he wrote The Lion and the Fox, hoping to publish an edition of Shakespeare’s play with the prints included. Instead, the prints were published as a portfolio, to Lewis’s disappointment—he still hoped that the illustrations would be published in an edition with Shakespeare’s text, and feared that the portfolio would damage its eventual sales.5

  1. Encyclopædia Britannica, “Wyndham Lewis,” March 21, 2017,
  2. Edwards, Paul, “Wyndham Lewis y el Timon de Atenas” in William Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, Timon de Atenas, tr. Angel-Luis Pujante. Madrid: Fundación Juan March, 2010, pp. 11 – 21.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Beale, Nigel, “Wyndham Lewis: overlooked scourge of mediocrity,” The Guardian, April 17, 2008,
  8. Encyclopædia Britannica, “Wyndham Lewis,” 2017.
  9. Trotter, David. “Apoplectic Gristle.” Review of Some Sort of Genius: A Life of Wyndham Lewis, by Paul O’Keeffe and Wyndham Lewis: Painter and Writer, by Paul Edwards. London Review of Books 23 no. 2 (2001): 16-18, Appears in The Guardian as “A most modern misanthrope: Wyndham Lewis and the pursuit of anti-pathos,”
  10. Baker, Phil. “Was he human?” review of Some Sort of Genius: A Life of Wyndham Lewis by Paul O’Keefe and Wyndham Lewis; Painter and Writer by Paul Edwards, The Guardian, November 17, 2000,