I’ve been in Athens for a few days, on holiday, not having visited city or indeed the country before now. One curious event I wasn’t expecting was finding out that the National Theatre of Greece was putting on William Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. Timon in Athens? I could not say no.
Timon of Athens is one of Shakespeare’s strangest works. It tells of a wealthy Athenian, Timon, renowned for his good and generous nature, who is exploited by flatterers and spongers, only to be rejected by his so-called friends when he in turn is in need. The embittered Timon retreats from society, where he dies, overcome by misanthropy. The play has a peculiar, unsatisfactory air about it. Some scenes feel unfinished, others extraneous. There are no leading female characters, there is no sub-plot to speak of. Some have argued that Shakespeare never completed it (there is no record of the play having ever been performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime, though that is true for other of his works as well). The general critical consensus is that it is a collaboration, with Thomas Middleton (then a young man still learning the playwrighting craft), to whom some of the blame for the play’s structural oddities might be directed. Maybe so. Maybe it was just one of those topics that Shakespeare just could not get right. Maybe, as some have argued, he was having a breakdown when he wrote it. It’s that sort of a play.
Unsurprisingly, the play is seldom staged, and rarely successful when it is. The production in Athens was no exception. A young, enthusiastic cast made a valiant try, with some vigorous use of a thrust stage (alas so much so that many of those in the circle were unable to see some of the action when it came towards the front of the projecting stage), and some inventive stage business, notably the feast that Timon serves coming down from above as individual trays on wires. It was in Greek, of course, with the English words given as surtitles. Alas, these were rendered in plain modern English, with such off-putting oddities as ‘janitor’ instead of ‘servant’, and ‘mutts’ instead of ‘dogs’. Often I gave up following the English, it being difficult for one’s poor eyes to flit up and down between text and performance, and simply focussed on the actors. It’s remarkable how much action and passion alone communicate sense, if they are rightly applied.
But if the English was a poor version of Shakespeare, how much more misleading was it in Greek? I cannot say, but all around me there were puzzled Athenians, who could see that Timon was duped by bad people and increasingly angered by this, but worried why this was all that there seemed to be to the play. All of this is obvious, they thought. Please give us some analysis or contrast. Give us drama. But Shakespeare, shorn of his true language, failed. Such virtues as Timon of Athens has are in its bitter poetry, as in this famous passage (which supplied the title of a Vladimir Nabokov novel):
I’ll example you with thievery:
The sun’s a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea; the moon’s an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun;
The sea’s a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears; the earth’s a thief,
That feeds and breeds by a composture stolen
From general excrement: each thing’s a thief.
Why is Timon of Athens a bad play? Perhaps it was an idea that just didn’t work, or perhaps Shakespeare really was having a breakdown, but I started to think that perhaps it had something to do with the play being set in Greece. Consider his plays that are set in Greece, wholly or partially: The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Troilus and Cressida, Pericles, The Two Noble Kinsmen, Timon of Athens. It’s practically a list of Shakespearean duds, the shining exception being A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare understood Rome, as a place and as a mind-set, which led to a series of great dramas: Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus (with a semi-honourable mention of that bold prentice work Titus Andronicus).
Did Shakespeare have a problem with Ancient Greece? Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare that he had “small Latin and less Greek”, but knowledge of Greek history and culture at that time was not what it was to become. The plays of Euripides and Sophocles were read, Homer was known of, and the outlines of Greek mythology were understood, but the dominant classical history was that of Ancient Rome. The ‘Matter of Rome‘, which in medieval times was considered one of the three great themes for literary works (alongside the Matter of Britain and the Matter of France), meant both Greece and Rome, and Shakespeare seems to have viewed Greece as a Roman variant. His main source for the story of Timon of Athens was the Roman historian Plutarch, and most of the characters have Roman names. Beyond the naming of Athens, little about Timon feels Greek at all. Yet it is not Rome either, but instead some indeterminate, problem place that likewise forms the location for those other, would-be Greek plays of Shakespeare’s.
The exception is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play is set in Athens and a wood nearby, while one-time Greek hero Theseus is a leading character. But it is not place or character that makes A Midsummer Night’s Dream so effectively redolent of Ancient Greece, but rather the relationship between the human and the supernatural. Visiting Athens, seeing all the historical sites and learning of how its classical society had functioned, one is struck by how closely they lived their lives among the gods. The plethora of Greek gods, the direct way in which they were understood to interfere in every aspect to human lives, the consultation of oracles for divine advice, the regular recourse to sacrifices as a guide to actions, the temples everywhere – the Ancient Greeks lived equally in a real and a supernatural world. That’s the world that A Midsummer Night’s Dream so successfully creates, with its profound interaction between human and fairy. Oberon, Titania and Puck may have no Ancient Greek antecedents, but the spirit is with those spirits. By accident probably more than by design, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Shakespeare’s one true Greek play.
Anyway, I have now seen Timon of Athens in Athens, and a mission has become clear. I must see The Merchant of Venice and The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice in Venice. I must see The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Romeo and Juliet in Verona. Though it is a play with many locations (some Greek), it would be most desirable to see Pericles Prince of Tyre in Tyre (now in Lebanon). Hamlet in Helsingør (Elisnore), Julius Caesar in Rome, Antony and Cleopatra in Alexandria, The Tempest in Bermuda (or St Helena), and The Winter’s Tale in Sicily, though how satisfying it would be to perform on the coast of Bohemia, now the Czech Republic, if only it could be found. And all those English history plays returned to their bloody locations: Henry V at Agincourt (Azincourt), King John at Runnymede, Richard III in a car park in Leicester…
It would be a fun exercise for some enterprising touring company to put on each of the plays in their literal locations, followed around Europe (mostly) by some dedicated Shakespearians with deep pockets. But Shakespeare’s truest location is the sea coast of Bohemia – that specific spot which is in fact nowhere. They are places of the mind. Rome, Venice, London, Alexandria and Verona are all locations whose special, psychic status infects the characters and the dramas that they contain. The problem with Timon of Athens is that it does not belong to Athens, either literally or imaginatively. Shakespeare never grasped the meaning of the place. Various people since Shakespeare’s time have tried to amend Timon of Athens by adding a subplot (Thomas Shadwell, Richard Cumberland) with stronger female characters. But what may actually be missing are the gods.