Hey, guys! And welcome to week dos of Shakespeare-a-palooza 3: The Shakespeare-ening! This week we’ll be dealing with one of those plays you’ve probably never heard of (like Troilus and Cressida or Measure For Measure. And especially King John.): Timon of Athens. Now, I’m going to be pairing that on Friday, so I’ll save anything about the plot and whatnot until then, but for now, let’s talk about the fact that Timon is one of those plays that… really is underrated.
You might be asking: how is that possible?! How is anything written by William Shakespeare, aka the Bard, aka the most recognizable English-language playwright ever even if you’ve never seen or read a play by him underrated?
Well, I’ll tell you. For one, not everything is Hamlet. Some of his stuff just… isn’t as good (see last week for an example). While the language is always there, the wit and humor and linguistic skill, some plays just don’t have the same resonance as others. I mean, not everyone can write Othello or King Lear all the time, right? Or even Much Ado About Nothing, which is my favorite of the comedies. (Beatrice and Benedick 4eva!)
But is that the case with Timon? Or is it just that, good or bad, some plays just seem to get lost? Well, let’s talk about Timon a bit, and see.
The biggest problem with Timon of Athens seems to be that it is rough around the edges. It needed a good editor. But what appears to be bad writing can, in one instance, been seen as a deliberate piece of characterization, and in another, a deliberate duplication in printing that would not have made it to production (as in, there were two choices for epitaphs, and the production got to choose which one it went with). So these aren’t necessarily faults so much as stylistic choices. But the third issue? Where characters appear and disappear, sometimes without saying or doing anything to further the plot? What about that?
Well… it seems to me that that is probably a product of making sure every person in the company got a part. We know that Shakespeare could be a bit slapdash (why did he write sixteen comedies when he could have written just one? To quote the Reduced Shakespeare Company.), but the rest of the play doesn’t suggest this to be the case. It takes a careful touch to do satire well, and Timon does. Not to mention that Shakespeare probably collaborated with Thomas Middleton on this, and two writers wouldn’t miss something so glaring as that. So I’m inclined to believe it was a reflection of necessity, aka actors demanding to be on stage and get paid. Or maybe to add to the spectacle of the first act.
So what does that mean for Timon? Why, if its criticisms can be explained, isn’t it more popular?
Unlike the great tragedies, Timon of Athens isn’t a straight tragedy. It is also satire, and can be categorized with the ‘problem plays’, which doesn’t mean the plays are problematic so much as that they’re difficult to categorize. And Timon is a play that is very difficult to categorize. It is, in short, an intellectual play. A play that means more, reveals more, and has more value to someone who can understand the philosophies at play, recognize the set pieces, and connect to the characters. Timon himself is likely based on philosopher Timon of Philius. Alcibiades, the general and ultimate savior of Athens, was present at the banquet in Plato’s Symposium, which an educated audience member would know. The play has a lot of Middleton’s signature style, making it markedly different from a solo Shakespeare endeavor.
Basically… Shakespeare was a man of the people. A writer for the masses. Timon of Athens stands out because it is less markedly populistic. It features dogs as a motif, but there isn’t a single dog playing a trick (yes, that’s a Shakespeare In Love reference. Shut up) throughout the entire thing. And when the majority of audience-goers at the time couldn’t read, it makes it difficult to become popular.
There is also, and perhaps most importantly, the nature of the main character. A lot of the enjoyability of the play revolves around whether or not Timon is a sympathetic character. Is his asceticism true and lasting, making him a moral figure betrayed by a licentious society and untrue friends, or is Timon himself as decadent and petty as the rest of them? There seems to be a divide here. People who regard the play well tend to stage the play as the former, while those who believe it a lesser work tend to have Timon’s behavior be just as debauched as his supposed friends. In one production, he even ate flamingo! In others, he eats next to nothing, proving himself a true student of the philosophies he preaches and a man trying in vain to win himself friends.
Perhaps because it is so difficult to categorize and understand a play–and a character–like Timon of Athens, it becomes a play that cannot be popular. As beautiful as Hamlet is, and as full of nuance, there is something universal about grief. We all know it, we all understand it, and we can all see something of ourselves in Hamlet. But with Timon? I suppose it all depends on whether or not we are presented a character we can identify with. A guy trying in vain to win friends being betrayed by a petty, self-centered society? I think a lot of us can see ourselves in that. And, in that case, Timon becomes someone maybe we wish we could be: a person who flips the deuces on society and leaves it, telling everyone to go fuck themselves. If he’s just as petty and debauched as the people he claims to hate? Well, no one wants to see themselves in that…
So. I guess I’ve talked enough. My apologies. I’ll be back on Friday to pair Timon of Athens. Until then!