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An Imperfect and Magnificent World

By Ace G. Pilkington


Perhaps no other Shakespeare play has such large areas of uncertainty as Timon of Athens. Some critics regard it as a collaboration and suggest a variety of co-authors, including Thomas Middleton and George Chapman. Others believe the play is unfinished or at least unrevised, and it is difficult to see how two authors (one of whom, in most cases, would have been brought in to polish, complete, or re-work the other’s manuscript) could have combined to leave Timon of Athens in its present state.

Further uncertainties are the result of the text itself, printed only in the First Folio and possibly even then only because there were problems with the quarto publisher of Troilus and Cressida, which was originally meant to appear between Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar. The text of Timon of Athens suffers additionally because it was printed from the author’s “foul papers,” a version that would usually have been cleaned up and clarified by a copyist, and because it was set in type by the man H. J. Oliver calls “the more inaccurate of the two main compositors of the First Folio, . . . ‘Compositor B’” (The Arden Shakespeare: Timon of Athens, ed. H. J. Oliver [London: Methuen, 1982], xvii). It is likely, because the play was not performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime, that there was no “prompt copy,” or stage version of the text (which would have made the compositor’s work substantially more accurate, no matter what his personal inadequacies).

Nor do the uncertainties stop there. Timon of Athens is (like Troilus and Cressida) a work that does not fit easily into the standard genres. It seems to be a tragedy, but it also has strong elements of satire that push it in the direction of comedy; schematic, almost allegorical, situations that make it resemble a morality; and a reconciliation at the end, when Alcibiades refuses to seek vengeance, that foreshadows the romances. It has even been called an extended dramatic lyric and compared to The Phoenix and the Turtle.

Perhaps it is this spectrum of genres that makes many scholars hesitate to identify the play’s sources with certainty. There is Plutarch, of course; and on the basis of the material shared with Coriolanus and Anthony and CleopatraTimon of Athens is usually dated between 1607 and 1608. But beyond Plutarch there may be Lucian’s dialogue Timon the Misanthrope, either directly or filtered through derivative versions (Shakespeare might have encountered Erasmus’s Latin translation in school.); William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure; the anonymous morality play Everyman; and a play called “old Timon,” which may be earlier than Shakespeare’s version. Peter Levi suggests other possibilities—Marston’s plays about corrupt courts, Jonson’s Volpone, and even (from a Greek text that Shakespeare’s scholarly friends may have shown him during his visits to Oxford) The Birds of Aristophanes (Peter Levi, The Life and Times of William Shakespeare [New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1988], 288-89).

Part of the fun of watching a production of Timon of Athens comes from these very uncertainties, from being able to see a play that Shakespeare’s contemporaries did not, and from looking over Shakespeare’s shoulder as he works, the very roughnesses showing the way to the polish of other plays. Another part of the fun comes from immersing oneself in the classical culture of Elizabeth’s England, a time when a middle-class boy like Shakespeare could emerge from the local grammar school fluent in Latin, “soused in the classics,” as A. L. Rowse says Shakespeare and his contemporaries were (What Shakespeare Read and Thought [New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1981], 14).

Ben Jonson’s much quoted line, “And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek,” from the First Folio, gives modern readers an entirely false impression of what Shakespeare knew. An Elizabethan boy arrived at school at six on summer mornings and seven in winter, working until five in the afternoon with breaks for breakfast, lunch, and a fifteen-minute interval for decorous play at three. He had Sundays plus Thursday and Saturday afternoons off, with about six weeks of additional vacation time during the year. This rigorous regime began at the age of seven (petty school students learned the basics, starting at the age of four or five) and continued until about the age of fifteen, by which time, in Robert Payne’s words, he “could not be anything but learned. He would know whole books of Virgil by heart, and he would be able to argue a case in court as vehemently as Cicero” (By Me, William Shakespeare [New York: Everest House, 1980], 31).

Payne declares that Shakespeare “could, if necessary, have written his plays in Latin” (31) and cites the example of Richard Quiney, one of Shakespeare’s friends, who, at the age of eleven, wrote a letter to his father: “The letter, which survives, was written in fluent Latin of remarkable delicacy and refinement” (32). Equally interesting with the schoolboy’s proficiency is the fact that his father was expected to read and understand the letter. “To be educated was to know Latin; to know Latin was to be a gentleman” (Rowse 14), hence, Shakespeare’s frequent Latin jokes, his multitude of classical allusions, and his eleven plays with Greek or Roman settings.

Indeed, in this context Timon of Athens makes considerably more sense. If one imagines many members of Shakespeare’s audience as Elizabethans (or Jacobeans) who had been educated almost as though they were Romans (with some Greek from the New Testament toward the end of their school careers), then Timon as the type of the misanthrope becomes a familiar character, the Latin names and the senators in what is ostensibly a Greek play entirely understandable, and Alcibiades, whose story is only briefly sketched, a well-known figure from history. In fact, Shakespeare gives us Greek culture as it came to the Romans, modified by, but an essential part of, their own vision of the world.

There is no better example of what Shakespeare’s audience would automatically have brought to Timon of Athens (if they had had a chance to see it) that modern audiences may not than the story of Alcibiades. For them, Alcibiades, even in his brief appearances, would have been a delicate counterpoint, a parallel and contrast to Timon: active where he is passive, powerful where he is helpless, and repeatedly forgiving where Timon is perpetually bitter. Alcibiades was a student of Socrates, outstandingly brilliant even in that company.

During the long war between Athens and Sparta, Alcibiades advocated the daring strategy of rebuilding his city’s war-depleted fortunes by seizing Syracuse, a rich Spartan ally. He was appointed with two others to command the expedition, and all might have gone well if his political enemies had not accused him of impious actions and had him recalled to stand trial. On the way back, Alcibiades, who had no desire to be a martyr, jumped ship and deserted to the Spartans, where he provided such treasonably good advice that the Athenians were soon in deep trouble.

However, the democratic, pleasure-loving Greek general was not entirely comfortable in Sparta, which, at the best of times, was a rigorously disciplined, intellectually impoverished, and aesthetically barren armed camp. Besides, Alcibiades had been rather too friendly with the wife of Agis II, king of Sparta, and Sparta was now (three years after his arrival) no safer for him than Athens had been. Once again he left in a hurry; this time ending up at the court of the Persian satrap, Tissaphernes.

From there, he plotted the overthrow of democracy in Athens and secured Persian support for the oligarchy that took power in 411 B.C. The oligarchs, who had hoped to negotiate a peace with their fellow autocrats in Sparta, faced a rebellion in the firmly democratic Athenian navy; they had also blundered badly in not recalling Alcibiades as a reward for his support. As a result, when the navy invited him to lead them, he accepted. What followed was a series of splendid victories for Athens and, of course, the rapid collapse of the oligarchy.

Once again, all might have been well if only his city had trusted Alcibiades; he seemed undefeatable, and the Spartans avoided meeting him in battle. But he was forced temporarily to leave his impoverished fleet in order to raise money, and while he was gone, in spite of his stern warnings, his subordinates fought an engagement without him and, inevitably, lost. Success was still possible, but Athens blamed her brilliant general and removed him from command. He went into voluntary exile (before something worse happened to him) in the Thracian Chersonesus.

Alcibiades tried twice more to help the city that he loved but could not trust. In 405 B.C., the Athenian fleet anchored near where he was living, and he rode down to the shore to warn them that their position was extremely dangerous. The fleet refused his advice with insults, and, as any good storyteller would expect, a few days later, the Spartans destroyed most of the Athenian navy and soon won the war. Alcibiades emerged from his retirement and headed for the Persian court, seeking help for Athens, but the Spartans, who had good reason to worry about him, arranged his assassination.

Robert Speaight says that the Alcibiades material in Timon of Athens “was evidently the germ of an important sub-plot, in which the ingratitude of Athens to Alcibiades would run parallel to its ingratitude towards Timon” (Shakespeare: The Man and His Achievement [London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1977], 294). Yet even without expanding the story, Shakespeare could have counted on many members of his audience to supply the details, to use their “imaginary forces” to furbish the imperfect but magnificent world he had sketched for them. Perhaps, if he had looked four centuries into the future, he might have expected modern audiences to do the same.

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