Timon of Athens (rhymes with “Simon”) was written by Shakespeare (whatever that means) in 1605-1606. Queen Elizabeth I had been dead and buried for years now, and her successor, James I (not a son, but a Scottish relation well enough in the clan), fully aware that he was far from the most popular king in town, was busy currying favor with all manner of petty nobles to a degree that far outstripped his treasury. The play can be read as a commentary on contemporary politics or a simple morality tale – or if you want to go deep and return to PHIL 1113, an examination of classical Greek philosophy.
In brief, Timon, Duke of Athens, has cultivated favor and social cache by throwing wild parties and being exceedingly generous to every friend and hanger-on – so much so that he runs out of money. The creditors come calling (they always do) and Timon reaches out to a series of friends to ask for a friendly loan. Then a loan with interest. But it seems like everyone secretly hated Timon all along, because no one is willing to lend him any money, and his creditors won’t back down either. (Also, wars are expensive, and his general Alcibiades is intent on moving forward.)
Timon cannot believe his turn in fortune and takes to the hills to live in a cave as a misanthropic hermit. People come by to visit – his old steward Flavius, the hangers-on, Alcibiades, Apemantus the Cynic – and he lashes out at each of them in turn. Even to his old general Alcibiades and Apemantus the Cynic, he’s awful. The hangers-on? No margin at all. No forgiveness. Timon lives in a cave, with nothing, surrounded by his newly reformed thoughts about humanity, a small casket of gold he’ll never spend. The banquet now replaced by roots and medlars.
I found a magnificent online production of this play starring an incredible Timon. I’d watch it again just to see him go nuts on camera as a jolly duke, and then as a faithless and misanthropic cave dweller.
Debt! Loyalty! excessive loyalty! war! Identity and the inner circle of friends! Do our friends change our identity? What does it mean to be a good person? What is money? Should we trust one another or do our selfish and angry natures doom us to solitude and bitterness, having torn one another apart?
Something that struck me about this play is its contemporaneous setting in Athens, with Timon and the Greek senators, sums of money discussed in talents. No reference to any convent or nun or priest, no mention of church or god, no peek into Italy or England or France. This is Greece. Especially after reading Cymbeline, which combined many settings and periods in history, Timon of Athens reads as a straight story. Of course there is some fantastic writing and plenty of poetry to chew on.
Most smiling, smooth, detested parasites,
Courteous destroyers, affable wolves, meek bears,
You fools of fortune, trencher-friends, time’s flies,
Cap-and-knee slaves, vapors, and minute-jacks.
Of man and beast the infinite malady
Crust you quite o’er! – Timon, Act III Sc. 6
But why has Shakespeare chosen to offer to miracle, no deus ex machina, no salvation? Timon dies and – that’s it. The way he lived his life didn’t work out so well and we as an audience are left to sit with that. Given the popularity of Succession and the principal character and family scion, Logan Roy, I think my readers will relate if I say that Timon is the proto-Logan who dies bitter and unredeemed, and ultimately unloved. It’s a cautionary tale about the perils of materialism. As they say – you can’t take it with you. Perhaps Timon might have done better to cultivate more authentic friendships. But then again, as the Duke of Athens, he’s screwed. No one is coming to his palace to be his authentic friend. They all want banquets and favors. Careful what you wish for….
The Duke of Athens appears in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the perenially unhitched Theseus, trying to marry Hippolyta. My in-house medieval literary consultant tells me that for Dante and Boccaccio the Duke of Athens was shorthand for a leader in bad faith, whose soul was made wretched and hollow by sour gold. The historic Walter VI of Brienne (and Duke of Athens) was connected to the house of Anjou, and was invited to Florence in the 14th century to help them defeat Pisa (what could possibly go wrong). Bad to worse indeed:
Stoked by a conspiracy that emanated from inside the Wool Guild, a mob surrounded the Palazzo Vecchio on Saint Anne’s Day, July 26, 1343. After a brief siege, the Florentines deposed Walter, forced him into exile, killed members of his French retinue, and ransacked their homes. Saint Anne’s Day was declared a public holiday and was honored for generations thereafter. (as cited above)
You can read a modern perspective on Timon of Athens courtesy of the The Folger Shakespeare. I was about to say, onward from the Greeks! But my next Shakespeare play is Pericles, Prince of Tyre. ‘Ere I go. Back to more Tudor Greeks. After which I have seven more plays (out of 39) to complete the Shakespeare Project – all from his late career – including King Lear, which I don’t know at all (!!!), Coriolanus, and Antony and Cleopatra.