Symposium scene: banqueters playing the kottabos game while a girl plays the aulos. Attic red-figure bell-krater. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve got plans to re-read King Lear this year, and – as a kind of run-up – I decided to read Timon of Athens, whose parallels with Lear have been noted by many. I really enjoyed the play and was quite surprised to find, when I investigated its critical reception, that I’m in the minority. Many regard it as uneven, perhaps unfinished.

It’s based on two Greek sources: Plutarch’s Lives (which Shakespeare was plundering for Antony and Cleopatra) and Lucian’s satire, Timon the Misanthrope. Although Timon was published in the First Folio of 1623, nobody has yet found a record of a performance in Shakespeare’s lifetime. The phrase “seen better days” comes from the play.

The plot is straightforward. The rich Athenian, Timon, is a generous patron, flinging his money towards any well-wisher who happens to call on him. He is always giving banquets and splashing his wine about. However, the cynic, Apemantus, doubts that Timon’s friends are genuine – and they’re soon put to the test. Timon goes bankrupt and appeals to them for help. His servants are sent to three so-called friends, all of whom deny him. Timon invites them to one last banquet, where he pretends to compliment them before uncovering dishes of warm water, which he throws in their faces.

Timon retreats to the woods to live like a hermit. While digging for roots, he uncovers gold (presumably buried there by someone else for safekeeping). And so, history repeats itself, with false friends and other characters parading into Timon’s hermitage, seeking favour, while Timon rails against all mankind. He gives gold to the soldier Alcibiades, instructing him to wage a war against Athens. Alcibiades (who, like Timon, has been wronged by the Senate) wins the war, but promises to rule justly, punishing only those who showed Timon no mercy. Meanwhile, we learn that Timon has died and is buried on the seashore.

As you can tell from the above, it’s a plot of unremitting pessimism. It’s also a play of two halves; the first takes place in a city, and the second unfolds in the woods. In the first half we have some highly artificial elements, such as a masque with Cupid and some Amazons. Timon also has lots of characters, which places it in the Jacobean world of the city comedy.

I’m going to be controversial here and say that I don’t accept that Timon is unfinished, despite what Harold Bloom and others have asserted. It certainly seems to be uneven (veering between satire and tragedy), but that’s not the same thing as it being incomplete. Admittedly, the opening struck me as very unlike Shakespeare’s work; instead of the usual conversation between two minor characters in medias res, you have four archetypes (a poet, painter, merchant and jeweller) entering by different doors. I can’t think of Shakespeare using such an unnaturalistic device anywhere else.

And then there’s Timon’s simple plot, which goes forward in one register, a bit like a fable. In fact, when noting down my initial reactions, it reminded me of Aesop’s Fables. I felt there was a moral lurking in the background, perhaps something about not taking complements at face value, or not being extravagant, but it was soon engulfed by Timon’s existential crisis in the second half of the play. As in Aesop’s Fables, animals crop up a lot – particularly dogs.

I also picked up Biblical references, even though the play is set in a pagan world. The refusal of Timon’s three friends to help him is like Peter’s three denials of Christ; the banquet is like a satirical version of the last supper. Apemantus surely evokes the sacrament of the Eucharist when he says:

It grieves me to see so many dip their meat in one man’s blood. (Act I, Scene II).

The second banquet, in which Timon throws water in the faces of his guests, is the flipside of Christ’s transformation of water into wine at the wedding at Cana. Again, risqué Biblical satires don’t feel particularly Shakespearean. However, I think G. Wilson Knight hit the nail on the head when he wrote (in The Wheel of Fire):

Timon of Athens is a parable, an allegory; its rush of power, its clean-limned and massive simplicity, its crystal and purposive technique – all these are blurred and distorted if we search for exact verisimilitude with the appearances of human life.

The play is now considered to have been a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, and it’s the latter who perhaps gave it this allegorical quality. Middleton was a great exponent of allegory (A Game at Chess, for example, is both allegorical and risqué). The masque is also probably Middleton’s conception.

But there are many things that are Shakespearean, such as the memorable imagery. We have Fortune sat on her hill, wafting her ivory hand, and poetry as “a gum which oozes from whence ‘tis nourished” (Act I, Scene I). There is a lot of liquid in the play: water, blood, wax, wine, tears, milk, the sea. I wondered whether this liquidity had something to do with money, but on reflection, it felt more like something connected to the humours.

In the ancient world, the four humours, or fluid substances on the body, were understood to be blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. This idea was closely related to the four elements: earth, fire, water, and air. Earth was represented by black bile, fire by yellow bile, water by phlegm and blood by air. Each humour also corresponded to one of the four temperaments (sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic).

The idea of the ‘comedy of humours’ was also gaining popularity around the beginning of the 17th century – in plays like Ben Jonson’s Every Man out of his Humour (1599) – so the dominance of liquid, and the split between Timon’s personality in the first and second halves of the play, could be an attempt to imitate these ideas. During the play, Timon’s personality travels from sanguine to choleric; as Apemantus says of him: “The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends”.

The misanthropic rage of Timon in the woods was surely Shakespeare’s work, especially his incredible speech when he uncovers the gold:

This yellow slave

Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed,

Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves

And give them title, knee and approbation

With senators on the bench: this is it

That makes the wappen’d widow wed again;

She, whom the spital-house and ulcerous sores

Would cast the gorge at, this embalms and spices

To the April day again. Come, damned earth,

Thou common whore of mankind, that put’st odds

Among the route of nations, I will make thee

Do thy right nature. (Act IV, Scene III).

One of the biggest problems of the play is Timon’s misanthropy itself; the work projects a pessimistic vision of life in the way that Lear does, but Timon is much less likeable. His death does not (to me, at least) feel moving enough. But I agree with those who have said the piece is a transitional one for Shakespeare. It took him from the world of tragedy – centred on a single individual – into romance.

More than anything, Timon of Athens reminds me of those Ancient Greek vases, decorated with figures. Known as amphorae, they were made to transport liquids such as oil, perfume or milk; they were also illustrated with myths or scenes from everyday life (the one at the top of this blog shows a symposium: the part of a banquet when men drink together). The simplicity of the visual narratives – playing out in a single line – have a lot in common with this play, with its “its clean-limned and massive simplicity”.

Perhaps Shakespeare thought of the vases as he wrote?