Shakespearing #33: Timon of Athens

Shakespearing #33 by David Foley

Timon of Athens

33 Timon of Athens

Timon of Athens is supposed to be one of the plays Shakespeare collaborated on. The speculation is that Thomas Middleton (Women Beware Women) wrote about forty percent of it. To make matters worse, according to James Shapiro, “individual scenes [are] divided between the two, suggesting that the collaboration…was unusually close.” Which, I suppose, only matters if, like me, you keep pontificating airily on what “Shakespeare” is “doing” in his plays. The question of what Shakespeare is doing becomes vexed when you’re not sure who’s doing what.

Other than that, the idea of Shakespeare collaborating doesn’t bother me that much. Maybe it’s because I’m a playwright. When I was in college and double-majoring in English and Drama, I experienced a bit of a tug of war, pulled on one end by those who saw Shakespeare as literature and on the other by those who saw him as theatre. To literary types it might be unnerving to find out that Shakespeare didn’t always work alone, but theatre is a collaborative art, and it’s easy enough to imagine Shakespeare wanting to share the burden of a play, or another playwright wanting to avail himself of Shakespeare’s know-how. I suppose I’d be more troubled if it were revealed that Shakespeare had collaborated on one of the great, unified masterpieces, like Hamlet or Lear, but Timon is a mongrel kind of play, though like many a mongrel it packs some power in its yap.

Trying to track down the current thinking on the Timon collaboration, I found (in Wikipedia) this quote from Melville: “it is those deep far-away things in [Shakespeare]; those occasional flashings-forth of the intuitive Truth in him; those short, quick probings at the very axis of reality:—these are the things that make Shakespeare, Shakespeare. Through the mouths of the dark characters of Hamlet, Timon, Lear, and Iago, he craftily says, or sometimes insinuates the things, which we feel to be so terrifically true, that it were all but madness for any good man, in his own proper character, to utter, or even hint of them.”

The first thing you can say about that is that it’s really Melvillean, and then you can worry whether those “sharp, quick probings” in Timon are Shakespeare or Middleton. But then you think maybe he’s right. Aren’t there moments in Shakespeare when you feel suddenly, like Pip in Moby Dick, bobbing alone on that mind-breaking sea?

It’s Timon’s curses that first made critics want to give chunks of the play to Middleton, as when he cries to the earth:

Teem with new monsters, whom thy upward face

Hath to the marbled mansion all above

Never presented!…

Dry up thy marrows, vines, and plough-torn leas,

Whereof ingrateful man, with liquorish draughts

And morsels unctious, greases his pure mind

That from it all consideration slips—

 Maybe that’s Middleton, but he seems to have been studying Lear, another mind sent bobbing out on that sea.

And Timon’s generosity is as terrifying as his bitterness. The play may (for all I know) reflect Middleton’s sardonic view of friendship and advantage, but the dizzying speed with which Timon’s beneficence sails free of reality seems Shakespearean. It occurs to me that Lear’s cry, “O, let me not be mad!” rings through much of Shakespeare’s work. It’s not what Iago says or insinuates that seems “terrifically true,” but the ease with which he unmoors Othello’s mind from reason. And you can feel the terror of Melville and Shakespeare come together when Timon says to himself, “Lie where the light foam of the sea may beat/Thy gravestone daily.”


David Foley

David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the GreeksParadiseNance O’NeilThe Murders at ArgosA Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.

One response to “Shakespearing #33: Timon of Athens”

  1. […] Last week I mentioned a tug-of-war I’d felt in college between the Shakespeare-as-literature and the Shakespeare-as-drama camps, but now I wonder if I just don’t get academics in general. In his introduction to the Pelican edition of Pericles, Stephen Orgel of Stanford calls the play “a masterpiece—which is to say that by the standards of the Renaissance stage, it was very good theater.” At the same time, he says, Pericles “excites whatever interest it does today only because Shakespeare’s name is attached to it.” And even as I try to get my head around an understanding of “masterpiece” as “very good for its time” (or even of Pericles as “very good”), it occurs to me that if anything is keeping Pericles alive today it’s not Shakespeare’s name but Shakespeare. […]

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