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Timon of Athens /

Further Reading: Timon of Athens

Bullough, Geoffrey, ed. “Timon of Athens.” In Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 6, pp. 225–345. 1966. Reprint, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; New York: Columbia University Press, 1975.

Bullough reprints excerpts from two primary sources—“The Life of Marcus Antonius” and “The Life of Alcibiades” in Sir Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes; two possible sources—Lucian’s “Dialogue of Timon” (translated from N. da Lonigo’s 1536 Italian version) and John Lyly’s Campaspe (1584); and several analogues—M. M. Boiardo’s 1487 Timone, William Painter’s 1566 Palace of Pleasure, the 1581 edition of P. Boaistuau’s Theatrum Mundi (translated by John Alday), and an anonymous Timon manuscript play intended for an academic performance sometime after 1601. Plutarch provided Shakespeare with “the general statement of misanthropy,” Timon’s relationships with Alcibiades and Apemantus, the anecdote of the fig tree (5.1.237–44), and Timon’s two epitaphs (5.4.81–86). Most of Shakespeare’s material came, however, from Lucian, who developed the Timon legend into “a tale of excessive liberality, base ingratitude, disillusionment, withdrawal and revenge.” Bullough speculates that the protagonist’s “extreme misanthropy and . . . self-severance from humanity” led Shakespeare to abandon the Timon story for that of Coriolanus, a narrative that would “give a richer opportunity for a tragedy of wrath and ingratitude.”

Cartelli, Thomas. “The Unaccommodating Text: The Critical Situation of Timon of Athens.” In Text, Interpretation, Theory, ed. James M. Heath and Michael Payne, pp. 81–105. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1985.

To fault Timon of Athens (as many have done) for its single-minded commitment to a protagonist with a “stubbornly inflexible point of view” and for its failure to generate “unresolvable conflicts” is to impose on the play an aesthetic that privileges complementarity, compromise, and mediation of tensions and conflicting pressures. When the play’s own “peculiar dramatic aims and organization” are accepted rather than resisted, Timon emerges as a “radical experiment in the psychology of theatrical experience . . . [one] that requires its audience both to identify and to engage in a critical dialogue with a character who is at once its bane and its ideal, its representative and its accuser, the anatomizer and embodiment of its own values and assumptions.” Cartelli claims that Shakespeare deliberately denies both the protagonist and the audience “recourse to strategies” designed to accommodate the consolation and “outlines of reconciliation” typically associated with tragic closure. “[W]hat finally distinguishes Timon from Shakespeare’s other tragedies is not its failure but its refusal to be complementary.”

Elam, Keir. “ ‘I’ll plague thee for that word’: Language, Performance, and Communicable Disease.” Shakespeare Survey 50 (1997): 19–27.

In an essay that further develops his earlier analysis of the language of pestilence (see the entry below), the author explores the “three-way pathogenic dialectic” of speech act, performance, and epidemic in Timon of Athens, Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, and Love’s Labor’s Lost. Elam reads Timon against the backdrop of King James’s patent creating the company of the King’s Servants (19 May 1603). The document contains three royal speech acts: two performative rites of nomination—the naming of an acting company and of the epidemic (“plague”) that upstaged the king’s triumphal entry into London—and one rite of suspension that directly linked the first two by postponing theatrical performances until less infectious times. Focusing on Timon’s illocutionary signature, “the contagious curse,” Elam argues that the play provides “an altogether darker and less reassuring version of the epidemic-creating performative power of language than James’s decrees.” The protagonist’s “plaguey imprecations translate the epidemic into the epideictic, giving rise to a series of formidable oratorical performances, ironically replete with a contagious theatricality of their own.” Ultimately, however, Timon’s identification of speech with infection leads to his own destruction when his language “implodes” and he is “done in by [words].”

Elam, Keir. “ ‘In what chapter of his bosom?’: Reading Shakespeare’s Bodies.” In Alternative Shakespeares, 2, ed. Terence Hawkes, pp. 140–63. London: Routledge, 1996.

In answer to the question “Whatever happened to semiotics?”—the systematic study of how signs function in signification and/or communication—Elam observes that current critical movements (new historicism, cultural materialism, and feminist criticism) have appropriated the terminology and methods of semiotic analysis for their own ideological ends. The notable shift in the study of Renaissance drama from language to a concern with the body as the principal object of inquiry or analytic desire—specifically the “split, suffering, diseased, tortured and transgressive body”—leads Elam to propose a performance-based “post(humous) semiotics” of Shakespeare’s plays in which the “medicalized” body is recognized not as signifier but as symptom, and the stage body as “the material bearer of the symptom.” With its “veritable outbreak” of plague references and its misanthropic protagonist who continually bequeaths disease to both his on- and offstage audiences, Timon of Athens (probably written after a 1603 visitation of the plague) illustrates a “pestilential poetics” that objectifies the Puritan “anti-aesthetic . . . of drama as pathology.” The Poet’s talk of secretion (1.1.27–28) figures dramatic poetry itself as bubonic plague or venereal disease. As an example of “drama’s capacity in performance to transform the symptomatic into the signifying,” Elam discusses Peter Brook’s 1974 “stripped-down colloquial French” Timon, in which the director emphasized a “shifting . . . spatial semiotics . . . of vicinity and distance” and used the bodies and different accents of his multiethnic group of actors to “disrupt automatic cultural categories.”

Ellis-Fermor, Una Mary. “Timon of Athens.” Review of English Studies 18 (1942): 270–83. Reprinted in Shakespeare the Dramatist and Other Papers, ed. Kenneth Muir, pp. 158–76. London: Methuen, 1961.

In this frequently cited essay, Ellis-Fermor attributes the play’s failure to achieve critical favor to its being “unfinished,” both textually and conceptually. In addition to the “uneven” act construction, the author discusses the weak introduction of Apemantus, prosodic irregularities, the “patch-work effect” of even the best speeches, the “inexplicable appearance of the fool” in 2.2, and the unanticipated and disconnected (although powerful) trial scene in 3.5. The greatest problem, however, is Timon himself; lacking a family, a past, and a personality, he is too isolated and detached from his society and circumstances and thus proves “inadequate” to the play’s theme: the “hollowness of society and its relations.” Since Shakespeare never links Timon’s fate to that of the other characters, the play’s “resultant action” lacks tragic inevitability. Its faults notwithstanding, Ellis-Fermor finds marks of Shakespeare’s mature power in the imagery and prosody of the opening passages and in the first three scenes of Act 3: Timon is “a play such as a great artist might leave behind him, roughed out, worked over in part and then abandoned.”

Empson, William. “Timon’s Dog.” In The Structure of Complex Words, pp. 175–84. 3rd ed. London: Chatto and Windus, 1979. [First published in 1951.]

In this study of metaphoric language, Empson examines the ambiguity of the iterative dog imagery in Timon of Athens. The double meaning of dog as a symbol of fawning flattery and snarling, envious cynicism functions as an index to the paradoxical nature of the self-contempt and misanthropy linking Apemantus and Timon, the former eventually moving from cynic to flatterer while the latter reverses that trajectory. Most of the metaphors suggest hatred of dogs, but the curious thing about Timon is that it also praises dogs, for the fawning spaniel can be affectionate and loyal, and the cynic is often a “disappointed idealist” who values honesty and tells the truth. The puzzle is that the “rival pregnancies” of the metaphor remain separate, its conflicting judgments both presented and refused: dog never manages to become a symbol inclusive of cynicism and flattery, honesty and affection, “so as to imply a view of their proper relations.” For Empson, “the striking thing . . . is that the dog symbolism could be worked out so far and yet remain somehow useless.”

Fly, Richard D. “Confounding Contraries: The Unmediated World of Timon of Athens.” In Shakespeare’s Mediated World, pp. 117–42. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1976.

What Apemantus says of the play’s “radically disjunct” protagonist—“The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends” (4.3.341–42)—is equally true of the unmediated discontinuities and polarizing opposites that control Timon of Athens’s overall dramatic design, suggesting that “Shakespeare’s determination to avoid the middle ground of compromise and moderation extends far beyond the schizoid personality of his protagonist.” Timon, in fact, represents “an explosive climax [in] Shakespeare’s progression towards a play composed with ‘no midway.’ ” The discontinuities of the action, the central character’s absolute failure to enter into relationship with his Athenian society, the atomistic imagery and syntax, the “strangely bifurcated conclusion,” and the play’s difficulty in engaging the audience’s emotional involvement reveal that “every element of [Timon’s] organization reflects the nonparticipatory stance of the misanthrope.” Having created a play that “stubbornly resists all formal tendencies towards synthesis,” and having pushed the dramatic medium itself to its breaking point in Timon’s “suicidal silence,” Shakespeare suddenly pulls back to suggest a return to mediation and balance in the redeeming figure of Alcibiades, who promises, by “us[ing] the olive with [his] sword,” to make war and peace “prescribe” to each other (5.4.96–99). In doing so, the dramatist may have sensed the metadramatic implications of his experiment in “confounding” rather than mediating “contraries.”

Fulton, Robert C., III. “Timon, Cupid, and the Amazons.” Shakespeare Studies 9 (1976): 283–99.

Like other mythological representations, Cupid and the Amazons possessed double meaning for the Renaissance: the blindfolded or “hoodwinked” Cupid held lethal as well as erotic potential, and the Amazons symbolized both heroic virtue and unconstrained passion and ferocity. This doubleness mirrors the “radically broken world” of Timon’s Athens, in which splendor gives way to barrenness, friendship “dissipates in hypocrisy,” and the invectives in Acts 4 and 5 counterpoint the “sweet airs” of Act 1. Apemantus’s acerbic commentary on the masque underscores the show’s ambiguity, rendering the whole entertainment “suspect”; for when the moral implications of Cupid and the Amazons are understood, what appears on the surface to be a “celebration of love and social harmony” becomes a banquet of the senses and carnality. When Timon, the “metaphorical whore and bawd of Athens,” confronts two literal prostitutes in 4.3, his charge to them to infect the city with venereal disease “provides a crucial metaphoric reversal which fuses the play’s broken halves”: whereas Timon had been the food for Athens in the first three acts, now he will eat Athens. As visual suggestions of the “mastic and whoring” imagery central to the relationship between Timon and his city, Cupid and the Amazons “incarnate a unifying imagery within the play’s polar movement.”

Handelman, Susan. “Timon of Athens: The Rage of Disillusion.” American Imago 36 (1979): 45–68.

In this feminist-psychoanalytic study, Handelman interprets Timon of Athens as “a demonstration of the rage which refuses to accept loss.” Substituting male money for female milk and seeking “a male fantasy of exclusive brotherhood, based on an identity which needs to destroy the other,” the protagonist refuses to mourn the primal loss of union with the nurturing mother; to desire such a “gratifying union” would destroy his “illusion of narcissistic omnipotence.” For Handelman, the virtual exclusion of women from the play explains Timon’s misanthropy, since “accepting woman means accepting loss.” A world without the possibility of a Cordelia, the idealized embodiment of love and goodness, “splits itself apart,” thereby precluding the integration of self and other. Justice and a semblance of order may be restored at the end of the play, but without the mediating presence of women and their capacity for making sense of pain and loss, transforming those ills “into life-affirming energies,” no balancing order of love, mercy, and art is possible.

Jackson, Ken. “ ‘One Wish’ or the Possibility of the Impossible: Derrida, the Gift, and God in Timon of Athens.” Shakespeare Quarterly 52 (2001): 34–66.

Jackson uses Jacques Derrida’s recent work on the “gift” (Given Time: 1. Counterfeit Money and The Gift of Death) to illuminate Shakespeare’s “profound exploration of religion” in Timon of Athens. In contrast to Marcel Mauss, who emphasizes the principle of reciprocity (see Kahn below), Derrida calls “the gift, the impossible” because it demands something totally selfless, with no thought given to receiving something in exchange for one’s generosity. Timon’s passionately religious search for the gift that exists outside the circular economy of exchange “produces the critical crux” at the heart of the play’s scholarship—i.e., the central character’s sudden shift from a generous noble to a mad misanthrope. Only in the faithful steward Flavius’s offer of money to his former master (4.3.547–49) and wish that Timon “had power and wealth / To requite me by making rich yourself” (582–83) do we find a flash of the “gift”: that “pure obligation or ethics toward the other . . . not grounded on any economy of exchange, but grounded on itself alone: a religion without religion.” While “negotiating” the work of Derrida, Jackson frequently references G. Wilson Knight’s “The Pilgrimage of Hate: An Essay on Timon of Athens,” in The Wheel of Fire: Interpretations of Shakespearean Tragedy with Three New Essays (1930), calling his own essay a “ ‘postmodern’ mutation” of Knight’s “modernist classic.”

Kahn, Coppélia. “ ‘Magic of bounty’: Timon of Athens, Jacobean Patronage, and Maternal Power.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 34–57. Reprinted in Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender, ed. Shirley Nelson Garner and Madelon Sprengnether, pp. 135–67. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Combining elements of feminist, psychoanalytic, and new historicist criticism, Kahn argues that “a deeply felt fantasy of woman and of power animates [Timon of Athens] and provides a paradigm for its strikingly bifurcated action.” The “core fantasy” linking Timon’s initial liberality with his later misanthropy is that of the child who is both attracted to and fearful of union with “a seductively maternal female presence,” in this play figured as the goddess Fortuna, who generously gives and cruelly takes away. In the first two acts, Timon’s aggressive generosity reflects his identification with the bountiful mother; the way he gives, however—making the recipients of his bounty feel overwhelmingly indebted—leads to a “total disidentification” with the mother that takes “the form of an undiscriminating hostility toward all things human.” To make this fantasy of “maternal bounty and maternal betrayal . . . dramatically intelligible,” Shakespeare turned to the gift-giving practices and credit finance through which power was brokered at the court of James I. Under a patronage system that encouraged both king and courtiers alike to give and spend beyond their means, the ambiguities underlying gifts and loans often proved “lethal.” Timon’s concern with the social and psychological anxieties “resulting when bounty leads to indebtedness” renders it “a doubly topical play, linked to both the economic world and fantasy world of the Jacobean court.” Central to Kahn’s reading is Marcel Mauss’s The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, translated by Ian Cunnison (1925; reprint, New York: Norton, 1967). Mauss emphasizes the principle of reciprocity and the power relations involved in a gift exchange, especially those present when a “Big Man’s” extravagant giving makes him so superior to the recipient that reciprocity becomes impossible.

Newman, Karen. “Cultural Capital’s Gold Standard: Shakespeare and the Critical Apostrophe in Renaissance Studies.” In Discontinuities: New Essays on Renaissance Literature and Criticism, ed. Viviana Comensoli and Paul Stevens, pp. 96–113. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Newman draws on John Guillory’s work relating to “cultural capital” and “literary canon formation” in order to examine “what constitutes ‘cultural capital’ in the late twentieth-century United States academy.” She contends that mass cultural forms—television, contemporary movies, musical forms like rap, and cultural icons like Elvis—are “fast superseding literature’ as cultural capital”; in the process, they are reducing the traditional canon to a “synecdoche”—Shakespeare and a handful of his plays “deemed properly Shakespearean.” Justifying Shakespeare’s centrality to contemporary cultural poetics, Newman makes Timon of Athens, the most “canonically problematic” of Shakespeare’s plays, her prime example to demonstrate that “canonicity is always a question of rereading [in terms of contemporary cultural interests], that it is produced, not ontological, natural, innate.” Her discussion of apostrophe and homoerotic relations in the play (a slightly revised version of her argument in the essay annotated below) deliberately inflates Timon’s canonical value in today’s academy, apostrophizing (i.e., reanimating) the play “by reading it as a chapter in the history of early modern sexuality.”

Newman, Karen. “Rereading Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens at the fin de siècle.” In Shakespeare and the Twentieth Century: The Selected Proceedings of the International Shakespeare Association World Congress, Los Angeles, 1996, ed. Jonathan Bate, Jill L. Levenson, and Dieter Mehl, pp. 378–89. Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1998.

Newman reads Timon of Athens “not in terms of what would recuperate it to contemporary normative historicist or psychoanalytic protocols in Renaissance studies, but instead by way of different economies of figure and address.” Central to her argument is the figure of apostrophe, which involves directly addressing an absent, dead, or inanimate being. Troping not on the meaning of a word but on its “circuit of communication” (i.e., its indirect manipulation of the “I/You” relationship in direct address), apostrophe functions as a figure of reciprocity and giving, thus animating and bestowing agency; however, it may also complicate that process by raising questions about the very identity of the addressee. Apostrophe is, therefore, “a preeminently suitable trope for Timon; it is the ‘gold’ of the play in its powers of performance and address.” Among the examples Newman cites are the poet’s “periphrastic apostrophe” that introduces Timon as “seemingly infinite, even supernatural . . . ‘bounty’ ” (1.1.8–9), the apostrophized walls of Athens (4.1.1–21), and Timon’s apostrophe of gold when digging for roots (4.3.28–53, 425–38). This last example leads Newman to privilege the influence of Plutarch over Lucian in an “act of critical apostrophe” that animates a different Timon of Athens, one insistently homoerotic. Plutarch’s characterization of Alcibiades, in particular, encourages a reading open to the play’s “sodomitical economy.” Applying Jacques Lacan’s “equivalence function of the phallus” to Timon’s apostrophed gold, Newman argues that Timon sets a “phallic standard” of male love and passionate friendship that “adumbrates another view of Jacobean gift giving.”

Walker, Lewis. “Timon of Athens and the Morality Tradition.” Shakespeare Studies 12 (1979): 159–77.

In sharp contrast to the standard negative assessment of Timon of Athens, Walker finds the work to be unified and coherent, largely as a result of its indebtedness to the medieval morality play tradition. Going beyond those who have simply noted the play’s fablelike qualities and the allegorical nature of its characters, Walker discusses specific features linking Timon to the earlier type of drama: e.g., the protagonist’s relationship to the generic Mankind figure (especially in his worldly phase); Apemantus’s choric function and the role of Mankind’s good and bad advisers; the symbolic use of music to register earthly power and “ironically to undercut that power”; the introduction of the masque, which recalls the role of the five senses in the morality conception of Mankind’s bondage to the world; the introduction of the Fool in 2.2 as a nexus between greed and lust that draws on the morality play’s linking of those two vices; and the portrayal of a corrupt Athenian society that reflects the fragmentation of the generic Mankind figure into representatives of different social classes and professions, all linked through the vice of greed, a pervasive theme of late-sixteenth-century morality drama.