Timon is one of the least performed of Shakespeare's plays, and could even be an unfinished script—though its limitations may be ascribed to shared authorship with Thomas Middleton (also involved in revising Macbeth if some scholars are right). The play breaks into two contrasting parts: first the heedless generosity of Timon in his prosperity, and second the unmitigated savagery of his misanthropy after poverty disillusions him about his "friends." The first half can be successfully performed as a satire on the venality of various professions (poet, artist, etc.) which even transpose effectively to modern dress, but the unremitting curses of the remainder become wearisome, though modern cynicism has helped revive interest in the play somewhat.The reviewers of the 2008 production at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre (London, UK) had mixed feelings about the play and the production. The great scholar E. K. Chambers thought the play showed symptoms of a nervous breakdown in the author, and the mystical tone of Shakespeare's later plays does show a major shift in perspective from this one.
The Specataor and Timon of Athens
Hugh Richmond, Shakespeare's Tragedies Reviewed, Peter Lang, 2015. 137-37.
Negative judgments have also been made about Timon of Athens, which seems so sketchy in some of its scenes that it has been conjectured that the text is mostly an incomplete draft, not a finished work. In his Shakespeare: a Survey, E. K. Chambers even thought its condition reflected a nervous breakdown on the part of its author, whom he still considered to be Shakespeare (283); but more recent disintergrationists such as Gary Taylor ascribe much of its spare style to Thomas Middleton.
There is no evidence of its early performance, but in a variety of versions its wry tone made it viable during the Restoration, and it has been frequently revived in our even more jaded era. In the recent Arden edition Anthony Dawson and Gretchen Minton, argue for its modern viability: “Though it may never have been staged in Shakespeare’s day and was rarely produced before the twentieth century, it has, over the past thirty or forty years, proved to be . . . brilliantly effective in performance.” (Arden, 1) They go on to note that “The play appealed especially to Karl Marx” (Arden, 71), adding that its concern with painful economic truths links it to The Merchant of Venice, and that “the long history of Shylock and the sympathies he has generated are a sign of the complexity, even the failure, of the effect to wrench that play to a comic conclusion.” (Arden, 81) We moderns find the mixed tones of Merchant seem uncharacteristic of a comedy, while the satiric overtones in Timon interfere with our potential tragic responses. In other words, it has only been modern intellectuals’ preference for ambivalent effects that has made the play viable, to which these editors attribute the excitement of “our mixed response to Timon.” (Arden, 9)
Certainly, in recent productions there has been more general recognition of the play’s oscillation of tone between bitter social satire and tragic despair, the first marked in the exploitation by hangers-on of Timon’s initial indiscriminate generosity; and both elements are mingled during his disillusioned misanthropy after losing (and regaining) his fortune. The satire allows of considerable humor in the mockery of the various professions’ exploitativeness, particularly in such modern-dress productions as that of the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival (1988). But the later phases of the play are so relentlessly devoted to Timon’s blunt denunciations of social corruption that this lighter satirical tone disappears.
However, Dawson and Minton argue that the modern success of Timon results precisely from the play’s achieving the wide diversity of tone Cinthio prefers, noting “the ineluctably mixed nature of its form. Its impurity gives the play much of its unique flavor.” (Arden, 27) The editors see in it traces of the structure of “the allegorical narratives of the late morality plays” (Arden, 31), with Timon as a kind of Everyman, even if his recognition of his early follies hardly leads to transfiguration. The Arden editors feel that the play achieves “a hybrid ending” (Arden, 37) mixing Timon’s tragic tonality with “the drums of Alcibiades’ military triumph,” and maintaining the options of its early phases “steeped in satire.” (Arden, 33) The later parts of the plot do evoke surprise and diversity by the introduction of Alcibiades and his whores, to whom Timon assigns his unexpectedly-discovered hoard of gold in his wilderness. Such abrupt divergences invite the question “Is the play a tragedy? A satire? An allegory?” (Arden, 27) It even has affinities to the grim humor and bleak ending of Jonson’s dark comedy, Volpone. Ingenious direction can hold audience attention in the lighter early banquet scenes. Furthermore, the Arden editors assert “our delight in invective” (Arden, 53) Nevertheless, the gloomy later parts of the play rarely display enough diversity to ensure spectator interest – or to justify any further attention here. Despite current claims for Middleton, the Arden editors finally conclude that “Shakespeare came up with this idea: of an experiment in character-making” (52-3), which obliges me to include some recognition that, almost incidentally, it does meet the requirement of popular mixed drama favored by Cinthio and Lope de Vega, and thus provides some interest for modern spectators.