Timon of Athens is an experimental and ambiguous play. So much so, in fact, that this bleak picture of misanthropy is sometimes classed as a Comedy by editors and commentators. Though its presentation of a grand figure whose downfall results from his own shortcomings is chiefly tragic, Timon is also like a comedy in its final statement of reconciliation and in its considerable dose of social satire. In his attempt to combine such different themes, Shakespeare was continuing a line of experiments that included the Problem Plays and was to culminate in the Romances. Timon is an important step in this development, though its own contradictions remain unresolved.
The play reflects a 17th-century enthusiasm for social satire. Its crass Athenian money-grubbers, who coolly resort to preposterous excuses when they refuse to return Timon's generosity, resemble the Londoners of Ben Jonson’s more overtly satirical comedies. Shakespeare's Athenians are very bitterly drawn—Alcibiades illustrates the play's tone when he solemnly calls the city a 'coward and lascivious town'(5.4.1). The critique of Timon's false friends is often straightforward and uncompromising, as in the First Stranger's remarks in 3.2, but sharp comedy is nonetheless present.
In particular, Apemantus' speeches are full of crude jokes, as when he counters the insult, 'Y'are a dog' with 'Thy mother's of my generation' (1.1.200-201). Though the level of his humor is low, he is a typical ill-tempered buffoon of the 17th-century stage and is clearly intended as a comic figure. In fact, Apemantus' viciousness is often so exaggerated that it is comical in itself, which is characteristic of Timon, for the play's humor resides more in its situations than in its dialogue. Apemantus closely resembles Shakespeare's Thersites, of Troilus and Cressida. In Act 3 the sequence of hypocritical excuses offered by Timon's supposed friends as they refuse him assistance is amusing; we appreciate these men as comic misers. Timon's story was well known in Shakespeare's time, and he knew his audience would gleefully anticipate the absurd refusals of these familiar character types. Timon's mock banquet in 3.6 is likewise comic in its use of surprises anticipated by the audience but not by the guests. The hypocrisy of his miserly friends as they make excuses to each other for being unable to help their host—though they can find time to dine with him—is broadly humorous. Even in the midst of Timon's grimly inhuman transformation in Act 4, we see humor when Phrynia and Timandra encourage gross insults about themselves, so long as those insults are accompanied by gold. This behavior was traditionally associated with a comic stage figure, the greedy whore.
Timon's humorous aspects serve a serious purpose, and Shakespeare emphasized this by fashioning the drama to resemble the medieval Morality Play, which was intended to educate by combining moral lessons with vibrant, often comical entertainment. Because of this resemblance, Timon would have reminded 17th-century audiences that such a lesson was being offered. Following the morality tradition closely, Timon presents an hero who is totally involved in the material world and only realises its deficiencies when he encounters catastrophe and is rejected by his materialistic friends. Also like a morality, the play features many allegorical characters who symbolize particular vices and virtues. Timon symbolizes two: ideal friendship at first and misanthropy later. It is even thought that the most famous morality play, Everyman, may have particularly influenced the creation of Timon. However, in contrast with morality plays—a contrast much more obvious in the 17th century than it is today—Timon does not end with the hero's triumphant return to a proper appreciation of spiritual values, but rather with his decline into despair and a miserable death.
Timon can also be classed as a comedy because it culminates in a spirit of reconciliation. The traditional comedy ended in a spirit of wholesale reconciliation usually represented by a marriage, for like the morality play, it was intended to impart a sense of moral worth. Though Timon contains no hint of romantic love, it does nevertheless end in reconciliation and is therefore comedic in this most basic sense. With Alcibiades' ultimate rejection of vengeance when he declares he will 'use the olive witt my sword, / Make war breed peace, make peace stint war' (5.4.82-83), the play offers a final contrast with Timon's story. Alcibiades' response to the cold ingratitude of Athens is to take action in the real world rather than to dwell in helpless rancor. All along, this response inspires our sympathy more than Timon's monstrous misanthropy, and Alcibiades' story culminates on a fittingly positive note. Timon's decline has ended tragically, but the playwright gives us a final statement that demonstrates the play's ultimate theme: the greater importance of mercy as opposed to justice.
Nevertheless, Timon is also distinctly tragic. The protagonist is elevated above his fellow Athenians by his conspicuous kindness and generosity, and comes to his downfall through the same traits. We are made aware of the fateful vulnerability of human existence, as we are in such greater tragedies as King Lear and Othello. However, unlike in King Lear, with which Timon is commonly compared, compassion is seemingly defeated, as Timon rejects the efforts of the loyal Steward to offer comfort and turns instead to brooding exile. Alcibiades' reconciliation at the play's close comes too late for Timon. Like Coriolanus, Timon insists on a world of moral absolutes—he prides himself first on his ideal generosity and then on his extreme bitterness—and he is unable to accept that moral absolutes are not reliable guides to social behavior. He is isolated from the realities of the world, and his retreat into misanthropy is a psychologically plausible response to his disillusion—from one extreme, he can only leap to another. His moral sensibility is arguably noble in that it is superior to ordinary life, but this is also his tragic failing, for he cannot understand the practicality and compromise on which social behavior rests.
Significantly, it is a Senator, one of the governors of Athens, who first decides to call in Timon's debts, in 2.1, for the role of the state in Timon is crucial. In 3.5 the Senators banish Alcibiades when he seeks mercy for a deserving veteran. Here they demonstrate a basic failing, a legalistic and uncharitable demand for absolute obedience. In this absoluteness they parallel Timon; also, their ingratitude to the veteran is like the ingratitude that they (and others) show to Timon. Later, their hypocrisy when they attempt to recruit Timon to help defend the city against Alcibiades reminds us of the Lords who Hock to Timon's banquet in 3.6 after they have refused to help him. Thus, the evils of the play's world are summed up in the behavior of its leaders. This is highly important, for the callousness of the Senators and the other aristocrats produces a potential civic disaster—Alcibiades' threatened sack of the city—and thus demonstrates one of Shakespeare's favorite lessons; the immorality of a ruling class leads to catastrophe for the society as a whole. This theme is central both to the comedic tale of Alcibiades' exile and return, and to the tragic story of Timon's psychological collapse.
Like the problem plays, Timon addresses public issues with a disconcerting combination of humor and villainy. With its tragicomic mingling of themes, combined with its seemingly old-fashioned allegorical quality and the startling bitterness of its main plot, Timon was definitely an experimental play. For centuries, commentators have generally felt that the experiment was a failure, despite the play's many fine moments. (However, 20th-century readers tend to find its ambiguities—often the focus of earlier criticism-more intriguing than faulty.) Because it is centered on a character whose shallowness is evident both before and after his catastrophe, the play does not achieve the grandeur of the great Shakespearean tragedies. Timon's madness is not resolved through any final self-awareness, as in the cases of the other tragic heroes. A lesser figure, Alcibiades, provides the reconciliation at the end, and though his mercy extends to the 'fault forgiven' of 'noble Timon' (5.4.79, 80) Timon himself is excluded from it. Finally, the excesses that define Timon—his belief first that humanity is worthy of ideal friendship and then that it is only capable of evil—prevent him from having any meaningful interaction with his fellow human beings to the detriment of the play. The hero is initially aloof, and when brought low, his response is essentially withdrawal rather than opposition; such a moral and psychological progression is perhaps better illuminated in an essay or novel than on the stage.
Shakespeare presumably shared such misgivings for it seems probable that he abandoned the play before it was complete. However, the experiment was not wasted, for Timon marks a stage in the evolution of the playwright's work. The romances, soon to come, treat the same themes—exile and return, the deficiency of moral absoluteness, the transcendent value of mercy—and they do so in a fashion that may reflect lessons learned from Timon. The inhuman response of an aggrieved protagonist is no longer the dominant element in the plot; instead, attention centers on the innocent victims of such inhumanity, who typically are driven to the exile that Timon chooses for himself. Even so, the exile is not the crucial phenomenon that it is in Timon. In the romances, Shakespeare expands his concerns and explores communal attitudes with a focus on many characters. The somewhat esoteric, allegorical figures of Timon evolve into the symbolic yet lifelike caricatures of injured innocence and vague, impersonal villainy that animate the later plays. Moreover, the effect of change on behavior, an imperfectly developed aspect of Timon, becomes increasingly important, for the world of the last plays is powerfully charged with changeability.
The Tempest is a partial exception to some of these ideas, but it is there, in Shakespeare's final triumph, that a theme from Timon of Athens is displayed most spectacularly. The humane and conciliatory attitude of Alcibiades becomes the essential theme throughout, while in Timon its development is late and insubstantial. Thus, this flawed work retains its interest-aside from its many fine passages and strong theatrical presence—as an excellent demonstration of Shakespeare's continued growth as a playwright late in his career.
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