Timon of Athens

I once heard this play described as Shakespeare’s least popular play, and apparently it went unperformed for over two hundred years. The mind absolutely boggles!

I haven’t done any critical reading on this yet, so maybe I’m missing something, but the text appears to be unusually incomplete – there is a cloud of minor characters that seems like it includes double-ups (some servants are named in some places and not in others, and likewise some named nobles later appear as “senator”). It feels notably unpolished. It’s also notably short – or at least, quick to read. I estimate it’s between half and three-quarters of the length of Titus Andronicus.

The basic story is that a rich noble flaunts his gold, living well above his means, gifting money left right and centre, and running up huge debts. When his debtors call for their money, his fair-weather friends desert him. He goes mad, and moves to live on a beach, where he rails against mankind etc etc.

That’s actually all there is to the play, as far as I can so far see. There’s nothing tricky, and really only one plot that proceeds without any real doubling back or false foreshadowing. The secondary plot, such as it is, focuses on Alcibiades’ defection from Athens and his return at the head of an army. My knowledge of Greek history is getting a bit hazy in detail, but it seems to have basically no real basis in fact.

I can’t think of another Shakespearean play(*) that’s so one-dimensional, except possibly Henry V, which somewhat makes up for its lack of complication with some marvellous rhetoric. As plays go, it’s not bad, but it is limited.

I think the primary way of reading this play must be as a satire on the value of wealth versus friendship, but it doesn’t really develop this concept as much as, say, Trading Places; and when you’re comparing a middling American comedy favourably with Shakespeare, you know something’s gone wrong somewhere.

(*)Based on the last time I made such a statement, I’ve simply forgotten another handful of very good examples.

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