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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 21 November 2019

"Timon of Athens" by William Shakespeare

On Wednesday 20th November 2019 I braved the cold to go to Milton Keynes CineWorld to see Timon of Athens in a live broadcast from the RSC. As usual, I read the play first.

The Introduction to the Penguin edition that I read asserts that Timon was written by Shakespeare in collaboration with Thomas Middleton: “Many scholars now share the opinion that Timon of Athens is the product of collaboration between Shakespeare and Middleton (who specifically wrote A1 S2 and A3 S 1-5) "Middleton would have been no stranger to Timon of Athens’ interest in the relationship between money and morality. As a writer of city satires he was well versed in the depiction of avaricious societies, and commercially driven characters resembling Timon’s flattering lords would become common characters in some of his later works such as ... The Changeling (1622), ... written in collaboration with William Rowley. Middleton is believed to be responsible for the characterization of Flavius, the faithful steward, who injects moments of warmth and optimism into a play that is principally pessimistic in tone.

The story in brief
Timon is not one of Shakespeare's better known plays. The title character is a rich Athenian who spends his days feasting his friends and, with unlimited generosity, giving them expensive presents and lending them money. When his funds run out he then applies to his friends for loans and they all reject him, protesting that they would if they could but finding a variety of excuses to wheedle out of it. He invites them to a final feast where he serves stones and water both of which he flings at his guests. Then he storms off into the forest.

He spends a lot of time cursing the Athenians. These are some of Shakespeare's most inventive curses although they lead to some rather wearisome speeches. Then, digging for roots to eat, he finds gold.

Of course that attracts robbers, poets and painters seeking sponsors, and the senators of Athens seeking someone to fund their army to defend them against Alcibiades whom, in their pride and anger, they exiled.

So it's all about hubris.

There is a lot of foreshadowing. In the first scene the Poet suggests that when it all goes wrong, his dependants  will "let him fall down/ Not one accompanying his declining foot." In act one scene 2 Apemantus says "what a number of men eats Timon and he sees 'em not".

The character of Timon
Kathryn Hunter said in an interview before that Titus believed in friendship and that was a noble thing in which to believe. Alternatively, the Penguin Shakespeare asks "has his overspending become an addiction fuelled by vanity and egotism?" For me there did seem a dysfunctional element to Timon's generosity and refusal to consider where the money was coming from which leads me towards the second interpretation. But then why does Timon, in the woods, blame his friends when the fool was himself? Apemantus blames Timon and suggests he has been "undone" by his love of flattery: "Thou gavest thine ears, like tapsters that bade welcome/ To knaves and all approachers." (A4S3) In the end, of course, Timon spends money that is not his, having borrowed it from others, and his downfall must create problems for them, as well as for his newly unemployed servants (one of whom he has promised to pay a dowry so that he can marry his girlfriend; preseumably this doesn't happen).

The Penguin Shakespeare suggests that Timon's behaviour was paralleled in that of James I who inherited debt from Elizabeth I and increased it rapidly by spending extravagantly on favourites.

Best actors in the RSC 2019 production? 
Kathryn Hunter, starring as Titus, endeavoured to downplay the madness at the end, trying to inject humour; Patrick Drury made the very-much-supporting role of Flavius critical. Nia Gwynne, as a Welsh Apemantus, managed to make philosophical critique plausible. Anton Cross was a very funny thief.

The Plot: (clearly a spoiler alert)

Act One
Scene 1

The first scene is long by Shakesperian standards. Our usual scene setting citizens are a poet, a painter, a jeweller and a merchant. They are competing for Lord Timon’s patronage. He is top dog but there is a hint that all his flattering followers will abandon him the moment he loses fortune’s favour. Apemantus, very cynical philosopher, attempts a counterbalance to the cult of the blessed and wise and generous Timon.
"All those which were his fellows but of late –
Some better than his value – on the moment
Follow his strides, his lobbies fill with tendance,
Rain sacrificial whisperings in his ear,
Make sacred even his stirrup, and through him
Drink the free air.”
Scene 2
The second scene is a feast with a dance. Afterwards Timon gives loads of gifts to his guests. But the servant knows that the coffers are empty. The philosopher is also at the feast eating roots and drinking water. He is the only one no to flatter Timon.

Timon gives money to get a friend out of debtor’s prison and refuses repayment because:

Act Two
Scene 1

This is where it all starts to go wrong. A senator sends his servant to Timon to ask Timon to repay the money he owes the senator.
Scene 2
Flavius, Timon’s steward, persuades Timon that he is bankrupt. Timon at first blames Flavius: why didn’t you tell me. F says he did his best to tell Timon.

Timon sends messages to friends asking for loans but most of them Flavius has already tried  “I am wealthy in my friends.” says Timon. He will soon discover how wrong he is.

Act Three
Act Three principally consists of Timon’s servants going to ask his friends for help and the friends coming up with a variety of excuses for why they can’t (which means they won’t).
In the RSC 2019 production the first three scenes of this act were put together and the reactions of the three Atnhenians were interspersed; this worked excellently.
Scene 1
Timon's servant goes to Lucullus whom Timon paid to get out of debtors prison (but since then Lucullus has come into an inheritance and is rich). But L says T is extravagant and this is no time to lend money and asks the servant Flavius to tell T he (F) hasn't seen him (L).
Scene 2
Another servant asks Lucius to lend T money but Lucius says he is presently hard up and can't . Strangers as a chorus discuss ingratitude.
Scene 3
A third Athenian also refuses on the grounds that he is insulted not to have been asked first.
Scene 4
The servants of Timon’s creditors present to him their bills (although they know their masters have not paid for gifts from Timon). Timon can’t pay but invites his creditors to one last feast.
Scene 5
Alcibiades is meeting the senate to plead for mercy for a fellow soldier convicted of manslaughter. This leads to an altercation following which the senators banish Alcibiades.

This was substantially changed in the RSC 2019 version. Presumably the director realised that modern audiences haven't heard of Alcibiades, the brilliant beautiful but treacherous Athenian playboy and general who wanted to have sex with Socrates and raised armies with the Spartans against Athens (while sleeping with the King of Sparta's wife). So Alcibiades instead became a leader of protestors who eventually violently overthrow the Athenian state.

The Introduction to the Penguin edition points out that “Timon of Athens is unusual among Shakespeare’s works because it contains numerous loose ends and inconsistencies of detail. Some characters lack names, and others appear then disappear without trace. The play’s sub-plot, which follows the fortunes of a banished soldier, Alcibiades, has struck many readers as underdeveloped and structurally strange."

Scene 6
Timon’s feast.
All the guests are expecting yummy food and presents. But when the dishes are uncovered they are seen to be full of warm water and stones.

Timon goes into long curses:
“You knot of mouth-friends!
Live loathed and long,
Most smiling, smooth, detested parasites”

He pelts his guests with the stones and throws the water over them.

This is the obvious place for the interval and the RSC took the opportunity.

Act Four
Scene 1

Timon in the forest is still cursing:
grant, as Timon grows, his hate may grow
To the whole race of mankind, high and low. Amen.
Scene 2
Flavius, Timon’s steward gives money to Timon’s still loyal though now unemployed servants: “Thus part we rich in sorrow, parting poor.
Flavius resolves to serve Timon still: “Whilst I have gold I’ll be his steward still.
Scene 3
Timon is still cursing: “Destruction fang mankind.”
He digs in the forest earth to find roots to eat ... and he discovers gold: “What is here? Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold?
But he realises that gold is cursed.

“I am Misanthropos, and hate mankind.”

He meets Alcibiades who has raised an army to attack Athens and, spurning the gold (“I cannot eat it”) he gives some of the gold to Alcibiades:
There’s gold to pay thy soldiers.
Make large confusion; and, thy fury spent,
Confounded be thyself.

He also offers gold to two prostitutes who are following the army, hoping that they will spread syphilis:
Down with the nose,
Down with it flat, take the bridge quite away

Apemantus. the cynic philosopher, finds Timon and, in an interesting distinction, advises him that his cursing is not philosophy but madness born of anger:
Thou’dst courtier be again
Wert thou not beggar.

Some thieves, having heard of Timon’s gold, come to rob him; he makes a speech saying everyone and everything are thieves.

Flavius comes and protests that he only wants to serve his master:
Methinks thou art more honest now than wise.
For by oppressing and betraying me
Thou mightst have sooner got another service;
For many so arrive at second masters
Upon their first lord’s neck

Act Five
Scene 1
Poet and painter enter at the start of the last act as they introduced the first. They have heard of the gold and think Timon faked his own ruin to test his friends. They find Timon still cursing.

Other scenes
The senators are desperate for help from Timon as the army of Alcibiades approaches. They send to him but he refuses them.
Alcibiades offers the defeated city fair terms.

Timon is dead.

Great lines:
“there’s none
Can truly say he gives, if he receives.” (A1 S2)

“Feast-won, fast-lost” (A2 S2)

“Every man has his fault, and honesty is his.” (A3 S1)

“who is man that is not angry?” (A3 S5)

“His days are foul and his drink dangerous.” (A3 S5)

“Lust and liberty
Creep in the minds and marrows of our youth” (A 4 S1)

"Who would not wish to be from wealth exempt
Since riches point to misery and contempt?" (A4 S2)

“This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless th’accursed,
Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves,
And give them title, knee, and approbation,
With senators on the bench.” (A4 S3)

“What a god’s gold,
That he is worshipped in a baser temple
Than where swine feed!” (A5 S1)

November 2019

Other Shakespeare plays reviewed in this blog include (productions mentioned in parentheses; RSC = Royal Shakespeare Company; NT = National Theatre):

Other plays reviewed in this blog include:

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