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Timon of Athens /

Reading Shakespeare’s Language: Timon of Athens

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish), and those who are used to reading poetry, will have little difficulty understanding the language of poetic drama. Others, though, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static”—caused by changes in language and in life—intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his immense vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are no longer used, and many of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When reading on one’s own, one must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a Shakespeare play, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scenes of Timon of Athens, for example, you will find the words untirable (i.e., tireless), continuate (i.e., lasting), anon (i.e., soon), unclew (i.e., ruin), and hungerly (i.e., hungrily). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.

In Timon of Athens, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are words that are still in use but that now have different meanings. In the opening scenes of Timon of Athens, for example, the word happy has the meaning of “fortunate,” record is used where we would say “witness,” breathed is used where we would say “animated, inspired,” meat where we would say “food,” and harness where we would say “armor.” Again, such words will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Some words are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that Shakespeare is using to build a dramatic world. Timon is, as its title declares, “of Athens,” which is the setting for most of the play. For us, Athens is the cradle of democracy; in the play, however, Athens does not function as a unified social entity, and it seems anything but ideally democratic in the profound divisions that separate its classes. At the top of Athens’s social order are its aristocratic “Lords” and “Senators,” an economic and political elite of “happy [i.e., fortunate] men,” whose lives are filled not only with luxury but also with “ceremony” and “masques,” through which the elite elaborately “gratulate” each other. Their style of life is built on the labor of a servant class, which has no social standing; to the elite, a servant is no more than a lord’s “creature,” “one which holds a trencher.” Finally, beneath the servants come the dispossessed, represented in Timon of Athens by the Cynic philosopher Apemantus, who is usually addressed as “dog” by the elite. He, in turn, thinks no better of them; he accuses them of making “traffic” (i.e., trade, commerce, business) their “god,” and refers to their “ceremony” as the “serving of becks and jutting-out of bums.” Craving “no pelf,” he prefers instead “a little oil and root.”

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often in order to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech patterns or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of the play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. When reading the play, we need to do as the actor does: that is, when puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if the words are being presented in an unusual sequence.

Shakespeare often, for example, rearranges subjects and verbs (e.g., instead of “He goes” we find “Goes he”). In Timon of Athens, when Flavius says “Happier is he that has no friend to feed,” he is using such a construction (1.2.214). So is Timon when he says “More welcome are you to my fortunes” (1.2.20). The “normal” order would be “he is happier” and “you are more welcome.” Shakespeare also frequently places the object before the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “Him I hit”). The Painter’s declaration “A thousand moral paintings I can show” (1.1.105) is an example of such an inversion, as is the Messenger’s “Your honorable letter he desires” (114). The “normal” order would be “I can show a thousand moral paintings” and “he desires your honorable letter.”

Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often in his sentences words that would normally appear together are separated from each other. As with inversions, this is often done to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word. Take, for example, the Poet’s observation concerning Timon: “His large fortune, / Upon his good and gracious nature hanging, / Subdues and properties to his love and tendance / All sorts of hearts” (1.1.66–69). Here, the phrase “Upon his good and gracious nature hanging” separates subject (“His large fortune”) from verb (“subdues and properties”). Or take the Poet’s description of his own poem:

You see how all conditions, how all minds,

As well of glib and slipp’ry creatures as

Of grave and austere quality, tender down

Their services to Lord Timon.


In this sentence the nouns “conditions” and “minds” are separated from the verb “tender down” by descriptive phrases that make concrete the generalized “conditions.” To create for yourself sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, you may wish to rearrange the words, putting together the word clusters (“You see how all conditions, how all minds, tender down their services to Lord Timon”). You will usually find that the sentence will gain in clarity but will lose its rhythm or shift its emphasis.

Sometimes, in addition to separating basic sentence elements, Shakespeare also holds them back, delaying them until other material to which he wants to give greater emphasis has been presented. Shakespeare puts this kind of construction in the mouth of the Poet:

                                           Amongst them all

Whose eyes are on this sovereign lady fixed,

One do I personate of Lord Timon’s frame. . . .


Holding back the subject, verb, and object, the Poet begins the sentence with a subordinate clause (“Amongst them all whose eyes are on this sovereign lady fixed”). The effect is that the picture of the masses turning to look at Lady Fortune provides a context within which to set the individual representation of Timon himself. When the Poet does provide the main clause (“One do I personate”), he inverts the elements and gives us object-verb-subject, creating a more interesting rhythm than the “normal” “I do personate one.”

Finally, in many of Shakespeare’s plays, sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions but because Shakespeare omits words and parts of words that English sentences normally require. (In conversation, we, too, often omit words. We say, “Heard from him yet?” and our hearer supplies the missing “Have you.”) Frequent reading of Shakespeare—and of other poets—trains us to supply the words missing from elliptical speeches. Ellipsis serves a number of different ends in Timon of Athens. The principal end seems to be creation of dialogue that sounds conversational. When, for example, the Jeweler announces “I have a jewel here,” the Merchant replies “For the Lord Timon, sir?”—just as a speaker would in conversation, rather than using a complete and formal sentence: “Is it for Lord Timon, sir?” It is apparently with the same end that so often pronominal subjects are dropped before their verbs, though to the modern ear such ellipsis hardly seems to imitate informal speech. The following exchange, from a choice of many, provides (in line 301) one example in which Apemantus drops the pronoun thou before the verb “Shouldst”:

SECOND LORD  Fare thee well, fare thee well.


Thou art a fool to bid me farewell twice.

SECOND LORD  Why, Apemantus?


Shouldst have kept one to thyself, for I mean to give thee none.


Rather than capturing the informality of conversation, sometimes ellipsis can instead inform dialogue with a concise elegance that conveys the gravity and urgency of the topic being addressed by a speaker. Such is the case when the Messenger tells Timon of Ventidius’s desperate need for help: “Five talents is his debt, / His means most short, his creditors most strait” (1.1.112–13). By omitting the needless repetition of the verb are from the clauses “His means most short” and “his creditors most strait,” the Messenger artfully balances the clauses against each other, while at the same time in the very economy of his expression indicating the immediacy of Ventidius’s needs.

Shakespearean Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that books are written on the topic. Here we will mention only two kinds of wordplay, puns and metaphors. Puns in Timon of Athens usually play on the multiple meanings of a single word. Timon employs a pun to adorn his emotional address to the friends he invites to dinner in 1.2:

O, no doubt, my good friends, but the gods themselves have provided that I shall have much help from you. . . . I have told more of you to myself than you can with modesty speak in your own behalf.


In this speech told means both “narrated” or “related” and “counted,” the second meaning perhaps indicating Timon’s awareness of the wealth of his friends, should he ever need monetary help from them. More often in Timon of Athens, however, puns are to be found in Apemantus’s savagely satiric speeches, where their multiple meanings expose the improvidence of Timon’s gifts to his friends. “I doubt,” says Apemantus, “whether their legs be worth the sums / That are given for ’em” (1.2.249–50). In this speech, legs means both “lower limbs” and “courtly bows.” It will be a long time before Timon adopts Apemantus’s viewpoint, but when he finally does, he too will pun crudely on the body parts of his so-called friends, calling them “mouth-friends” (3.6.91), a term that may mean both “those who only mouth their friendship” and “those who are friends only so long as one feasts them.”

A metaphor is a play on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it shares common features. For instance, in the Poet’s statement “You see this confluence, this great flood of visitors” (1.1.51), the crowd that attends on Timon is translated through a metaphor into “confluence” or “flood,” a seemingly endless stream of people (to continue the metaphor). At Timon’s dinner for his friends in 1.2, he and Alcibiades bandy back and forth a metaphor in which a battlefield strewn with the bodies of fallen enemy soldiers is compared to a feast:

TIMON  Captain Alcibiades, your heart’s in the field [i.e., battlefield] now.

ALCIBIADES  My heart is ever at your service, my lord.

TIMON  You had rather be at a breakfast of enemies than a dinner of friends.

ALCIBIADES  So they were bleeding new, my lord, there’s no meat like ’em. I could wish my best friend at such a feast.


Later Timon, at this point markedly attentive to his friends, transforms them in another metaphor into musical instruments:

O you gods, think I, what need we have any friends if we should ne’er have need of ’em? They were the most needless creatures living, should we ne’er have use for ’em, and would most resemble sweet instruments hung up in cases, that keeps their sounds to themselves.


Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is suggested within the dialogue itself. We should always try to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations.

Consider, for example, the stage action that is suggested in the exchange between Timon’s servant Flaminius and the Lord Lucullus in 3.1. When Lucullus says to Flaminius “Here’s three solidares for thee,” it can reasonably be inferred that the speech is to be accompanied by the action of handing over money. This inference is confirmed by Flaminius’s angry reply “Fly, damnèd baseness, / To him that worships thee!”—a speech that also seems to demand an action, the hurling of the solidares at Lucullus. Therefore we, as editors, have added stage directions, set in half-square brackets to advise readers that they are editorial additions:

LUCULLUS . . . Here’s three solidares for thee. (Gives him money.) . . .

FLAMINIUS      . . . Fly, damnèd baseness,

To him that worships thee!

He throws the money back at Lucullus.


This is one of several places where the dialogue allows us to be reasonably confident about adding, in brackets, a stage direction suggesting the action.

On other occasions in Timon of Athens, the signals for stage action are not so clear. These occasions offer interpretive challenges in the absence of explicit stage directions in the Folio text. One such challenge arises with the sharply satiric commentary that Apemantus offers during the course of Timon’s dinner in 1.2. Apemantus’s commentary, which consists primarily of indictments of Timon’s friends’ flattery and of Timon’s gullibility, elicits not a single reply or comment from either Timon or his friends. This commentary might then be considered as delivered “aside,” a convention that allows dramatic characters to convey to the audience sentiments that, in the fiction, cannot be heard by the rest of the characters onstage. If Apemantus’s speeches are asides, the modern convention is to have them marked as such by the editor. One problem, however, with having Apemantus speak aside is that he has already been established as a character with no interest in keeping his contempt for his fellow Athenians a secret from them; in 1.1 he reviled to their faces some of Timon’s dinner guests (292–307). The convention of speaking aside therefore does not seem to fit Apemantus’s speeches. We appear to need another explanation why they go unregarded by the others at Timon’s dinner. Such an explanation may be suggested in the dialogue between Timon and Apemantus that takes place before Apemantus begins his commentary. Arriving at the dinner, Apemantus declares to Timon an intention to be intolerably disagreeable on the occasion—“you shall not make me welcome. / I come to have thee thrust me out of doors.” In response Timon arranges that Apemantus sit apart from the rest of the diners: “Go, let him have a table by himself ” (25–31). It seems, then, that Apemantus’s commentary is delivered from a site onstage that is to one side, or at a remove from the rest of the actors personating Timon and his guests. Therefore we, as editors, have marked his speeches as being delivered “apart,” not “aside,” and we leave it to our readers to decide for themselves whether Apemantus’s speeches simply go unheard by the others, or the others deliberately ignore what Apemantus is saying. However, we have, as is our usual practice, placed in half-square brackets the directions for the speeches to be delivered “apart,” as we have all the stage directions of our own creation, in order to make clear to readers that these are only our interpretations and thereby to encourage readers and directors to feel free to work out their own versions of the action.

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language so that the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action all become clear—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.