Summer Shakespeare III

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2023: Wednesdays, 1:00-3:00 p.m. Eastern Time
June 14 - Aug. 16

June 14:
Troilus and Cressida

June 21:
Titus Andronicus

June 28:
Pericles, Prince of Tyre
Fantasy and Allegory

July 5

July 12:
King John
Outlying Histories

July 19:
Timon of Athens

July 26:
Two Gentlemen of Verona
Villainy and Purity

Aug 2:
Prejudice and Metaphor

August 9:
King Henry VIII
Contemporary Politics

August 16:
Pastoral and Romance

Timon of Athens

This is a tragedy that largely seems to go nowhere. It’s based on a well-known ancient story that appears in Lucian’s Dialogues and other places, but ultimately the character of Timon is developed in one direction and then more or less dropped. Many have thought it incomplete. It details Timon’s extensive and pitiable suffering, but ultimately he becomes something worse than what he has been made, and he winds up being contemptible and bitter.

It is also fairly crude in spots: be prepared. Some parental supervision will perhaps be necessary or useful.

For all that, however, there are some good things in the play, some fine speeches that can be detached and examined, and some interesting thought about undiscriminating largesse and the like. How much of Timon’s fall is his own fault? Why or how can he not be rehabilitated when he recovers his wealth? The problem of the play, in some respects, is poised between the practical reality that has defeated Timon (his spendthrift ways and subsequent penury) and the psychological realities that dwarf and ultimately outlast his bad condition.

Things to consider while reading Timon of Athens

As always, the first question has to be, “What is this play really about?” It’s not necessarily intuitively obvious. Peter Brook posed the distinction between two interpretive possibilities: is it about Timon, or is it about Athens? That is, is it focusing on the personal and private costs of a failed civic relationship between the man and his state (in this case, city-state), or is it examining the civic costs of such a similar failure? What’s the difference between those two perspectives? Is the disjunction actually necessarily exclusive? Can it be about both at once?

Beyond that, and in keeping with the thematic question of the day, what kind of plot does this play have? What are your expectations of a plot — any plot — and how does this meet (or fail to meet) those expectations? Is it satisfactory? Does it have an overall shape or arc that makes sense? Do you wind up at the end with any kind of enhanced awareness of much of anything?

Does the relentlessly negative and cynical tone simply make this play too corrosive to be endured? In keeping with that, what’s the role of Ademantus? He is either a sage or a clown: perhaps he is really both. (Shakespeare’s fools are perpetually founts of oracular wisdom.) Do you like him? Do you find his advice or perspectives appropriate to your own lives? Do they seem revealing in the context of the play?

There is no record of the play ever having been performed during Shakespeare’s life, and there is considerable reason to think that (despite its canonical division into five acts) that it was not really a complete product. It emerged later in the process of publishing Shakespeare’s plays. It’s worth questioning whether it really is complete or not, and whether it legitimately can claim to be in a state to be performed. Is this a complete work at all? What kind of evidence would you bring to bear on that discussion?

Timon of Athens and what has come before

Shakespeare’s Sources

Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)

Symmetries in the play

Problems in the play