It would be fairly safe to bet that no ten Shakespearean critics, chosen at random, would name Timon of Athens among their ten (or even twenty) favorite Shakespearean plays; the play has never been particularly popular, during Shakespeare’s lifetime or ours. In fact, no evidence exists that Timon of Athens was ever performed in Shakespeare’s day, and the play, never published in a quarto edition, might have been lost if the collators of the First Folio had not experienced difficulties with the inclusion of Troilus and Cressida and, therefore, looked for another of Shakespeare’s plays to print in its place.
As with Titus Andronicus, scholars have debated whether Timon of Athens was written entirely by Shakespeare. Because there are occasionally rough (and therefore “un-Shakespearean”) lines and passages in the play, some scholars have come to the hasty conclusion that another inferior playwright had a hand in the writing. As H. D. Sykes puts it, they “give to Shakespeare the great poetry the play contains and all the good blank verse, and to the ‘unknown author’ all the irregular, halting verse, jingling rhyme, and uninspired prose” (H. J. Oliver, Introduction to The Arden Shakespeare: Timon of Athens [Methuen: London, l959], xxiii).
Critics of the play have speculated that Shakespeare abandoned the play before it was finished and, indeed, that its primary value to the audience and the scholar is, as Louis B. Wright and Virginia LaMar explain, that it shows “how Shakespeare worked. . . . It probably is the only example of something in progress from Shakespeare’s workshop” (Introduction to The Folger Library General Reader’s Shakespeare: The Life of Timon of Athens [Washington Square Books: New York, l967], xv). Wright and LaMar further suggest that Shakespeare initially attempted to shape the subject matter of Timon of Athens (taken largely from Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives) into a satirical comedy, then abandoned this genre in favor of tragedy, but ultimately found that his material was workable for neither (xi-xiv).
Indeed, there does seem to be a fundamental difference between Timon of Athens and great tragedies such as Hamlet and King Lear. It seems more like a fable or a fairy tale than one of the Bard’s multi-faceted classics, as though it had not entirely completed the transformation from source material to Shakespearean masterpiece. King Lear, too, has a fairy tale basis, following a Cinderella-like pattern with the three daughters, but it transcends this model, taking on the complexity of character and circumstance which makes it almost universally relevant.
However, this is not to say that Timon of Athens is a failure or that its loss would have been inconsequential. The play can be both entertaining and intriguing, and while it is not as intricate or moving as King Lear, it does share some of the same themes.
Both Lear and Timon mistakenly believe that they are beloved of family and fellow citizens respectively; they both make the error of equating praise with love. Lear demands that his three daughters tell which of them loves him best before he will divide the kingdom among them. Timon similarly holds great feasts and extravagantly rewards his flatterers with gifts and money; consequently, he is surrounded by false and greedy “friends,” who will not, contrary to Timon’s beliefs, be equally generous with him when he needs their assistance. Just as Cordelia, who refuses to falsely praise her father in order to ensure her inheritance, loves Lear the most, the philosopher Apemantus, who likewise refuses to stroke Timon’s ego for personal gain, is most concerned for Timon’s welfare.
Apemantus is an intensification of Lear’s fool; he is not simply the conscience of a king, but of the entire society. His life’s work is to let each person know just how foolish and reprehensible he or she is. What Socrates says of himself, one might also say of Apemantus: “The state is like a big thoroughbred horse, so big that he is a bit slow and heavy, and wants a gadfly to wake him up. I think the gods put me on the state something like that, to wake you up and persuade you and reproach you every one, as I keep setting on you everywhere all day long” (The Great Dialogues of Plato, trans. W.H.D. Rouse [New American Library: New York, l956], 436-47). Apemantus takes his duties as a gadfly very seriously; he performs them constantly and with a sort of fiendish delight. Indeed, he seems to resent the fact that the misanthropic Timon has usurped his role: “Men report / Thou dost affect my manners, and dost use them. . . . / This is in thee a nature but infected, / A poor unmanly melancholy sprung / From change of future” (4.3.198-9, 202-4).
When Lear is betrayed and forcibly realizes his error, he becomes mad and rails against his daughters; on a barren heath, he is transformed from a rash king into a madman and eventually into a relatively sane human being. When Timon is beset by creditors and abandoned by all his supposed friends, he leaves Athens to live in a forest near the seacoast and falls into a madness of misanthropy from his almost equally mad philanthropy. Timon never surfaces from his insanity, and his all-consuming hatred of mankind is never expunged. His final message to mankind is a painfully bitter epitaph: “‘Here lies a wretched corse [corpse], of wretched soul bereft; / Seek not my name: a plague consume you, wicked caitiffs left! / Here lie I, Timon, who, alive, all living men did hate; / Pass by and curse thy fill, but pass and stay not here thy gait’” (5.4.70-3). Timon never returns to a moderate, reasonable range of behavior with which we, as human beings, are entirely willing to identify.
One of Shakespeare’s greatest talents was his ability to create sympathetic, three-dimensional human beings (be they essentially wicked or virtuous) in his plays and then to place them in all-too-human predicaments. This potent combination gives his plays a universal appeal and relevance which is sometimes lacking in his contemporaries. Many critics may maintain that the characters in Timon of Athens are not as well rounded and their dilemmas not quite as heart-rending as some of Shakespeare’s other creations, but, in fact, those characters are often both entertaining and enlightening; although Timon of Athens has not scaled the heights of King Lear, it has certainly reached the foothills of a Volpone, and perhaps even climbed a little further.