The available text of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens is a bit of a mess. It was all the compilers of the 1623 Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays had when it was published, but it is almost certainly an early draft by its two playwrights (Thomas Middleton wrote about half of it), replete with inconsistencies that would have been dealt with when the play was staged. This may justify more freedom than modern directors regularly take with Shakespeare; the British National Theatre seized the opportunity last year with a stage production (right), also on film, located in London after the global financial crisis.
Timon is rich and even more generous. He endows a room in London’s National Gallery (its El Greco of Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple hangs on a wall). He gives gifts to those who fawn around him, considering he is “rich in friends”.
In the Folio version, Timon mortgages his lands to the hilt to fund the gifts. Perhaps the modern Timon borrowed to leverage his assets and his net wealth collapsed in the financial crash. In dire straits he turns to his “friends”, who refuse to help him. (An unexplored possibility is that their balance sheets have also been wrecked by the global financial crisis; even so, they could have helped him but they don’t.) He may have thought his real wealth was that he had friends, but events prove that he had these friends because of his wealth.
Demoralised, he flees to an abandoned construction site piled with urban waste, all his possessions in a shopping trolley. People visit him, including the Athenian mob reinterpreted as the Occupy London movement. He has a cracking good debate with a philosopher, Apemantus, which contrasts Timon, now a hater of humankind, with a realistic cynic, who believes people are untrustworthy. (The philosophy of cynicism – and dogs – pervades the production; the word “cynic” has links with the Greek for “dog”.) Touching is the interchange with his steward Flavia (Shakespeare had a man, Flavius), who proves to be an honest person (contradicting the view of the most famous cynic, Diogenes, that there are none, only rascals and scoundrels).
The deus ex machina plot device is that Timon finds some hidden gold. (Perhaps he found a forgotten hedge fund that had made a mint from other people’s sufferings.) Unsurprisingly, his fair-weather friends turn up, asking for funds to stave off the Occupy mob. When Timon denies their request, their solicitous interest evaporates and they depart.
Timon, who is very hungry, reflects that you cannot eat gold, concluding that money corrupts the world, a notion nicely illustrated by an exchange with whores whom he encourages to pollute the world with venereal diseases. In a lengthy tirade, he says money can make “Black white, foul fair, wrong right,/Base noble, old young, coward valiant”.
Meanwhile, the Occupy mob, funded by some of Timon’s gold, march on London, and their leader, Alcibiades, takes over the chairing of the City of London. But the production leaves the impression that nothing has really changed, that the Occupy movement has been betrayed.
This part of the story is different from Shakespeare’s, in which Alcibiades is a general who has been exiled for loyalty to one of his soldiers. Increasingly depressed, Timon dies, leaving a bitter epitaph.
Ultimately, Timon of Athens is a meditation on materialism, the human condition (as always in Shakespeare) and what is important in life. Marx saw his favourite Shakespearian play illustrating the transformative power of wealth on society (as was occurring when the play was written – and today).
There are parallels with King Lear, written about the same time, but Timon does not have a family as Lear had. All he has is wealth; when he loses that he has nothing. Timon thought he could buy friendship; he could not buy the real thing.