Timon of Athens

Timon of Athens is not one of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays. It was probably written around the time of other tragic masterpieces: Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth (1604-1606), but it lacks the complexity of any of these works. The generous Timon lavishes feasts and gifts upon false friends and bankrupts his house. When he finds his former companions unwilling to help him back to solvency, he becomes a raving misanthrope. As far as the plot goes, that’s about it.

The American Shakespeare Center is staging Timon of Athens in their Renaissance season, if only to claim that they have staged all thirty-six plays in the First Folio. True to Elizabethan and Jacobean theater, the actors stage the play themselves in only a few days without the aid of professional direction.

Timon of Athens is not universally disliked. One notable admirer is Karl Marx, whose Economic Manuscripts of 1844 praise the play’s depiction of money. Timon rages against gold: “O thou sweet king-killer, and dear divorce / Twixt natural son and sire!”. And again:

“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” (III.i).

In a paean to Hawthorne, Melville ranks the darkness of Timon of Athens alongside Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. As go Marx and Melville, so goes the Sweep.

So when my wife and I saw it last night, I was particularly struck by Josh Innerst’s decision to costume his character — the Cynic philosopher Apemantus — with a great brow and mustache in the likeness of Nietzsche. At first, this grated on me. Sure, in The Gay Science §125, Nietzsche makes the famous allusion to Diogenes with the madman searching for God with a lamp in bright day. But Timon of Athens is not suffering from the Christian compulsion to provide charity to the poor. But as the play went on, I came around — Timon rashly lavishes gifts upon his friends, and we at least wonder if he is a paragon of Christian charity. After all, this Timon is no Greek, but a creation of seventeenth-century England. William Desmond — not the William Desmond — makes the connection in Cynics:

“[I]t has been suggested that Nietzsche’s demand for a “revaluation of values” was directly inspired by the Cynic motto, paracharattein to nomisma; like the Cynic replacing nomos with nature, the Nietzschean philosopher smashes conventional “idols” in order to set up his new gods and tablets of law. To promote this ideally destructive-creative philosophy, Nietzsche sought to educate a new aristocracy of radical free-thinkers, “free, very free spirits” who, like the Cynics, would have the courage to question all conventional notions of good and evil… Thus, Cynic skepticism is a necessary true step to any new order” (231).

There is well-deserved praise for Innerst’s Apemantus in C-ville Weekly. Apemantus does not sink into Timon’s misanthropic pessimism at the end of the play, just as Nietzsche broke with Schopenhauer’s misanthropic philosophy. The play, which only runs until next Friday, is excellent. Those in driving distance of Staunton, VA, should make it a point to see it.


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