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August 8th, 2018 - Yew Erdri Ming

About August 8th, 2018

True Love or the Currency of Debt 11:05 am


You don't need to be Machiavelli to see that the realms of politics and business are filled with opportunists, people who use the language of friendship and loyalty merely for their own gain. But now and then I suppose there must be a poor sucker who believes everything courtiers say and such a one is Shakespeare's Timon of Athens. Written by Shakespeare probably in collaboration with Thomas Middleton, I don't hate it but it's not one of my favourite plays, and maybe that's why I don't mind Jonathan Miller's direction in the 1981 BBC production. It's certainly helped a lot by a performance from Jonathan Pryce in the title role. An actor who's uniquely talented at coming off as simultaneously elegant and foolish, he sells this production's interpretation of Timon as a man who goes from an extreme, fervent love for humanity to an extreme, absolute misanthropy.



This is the only production from the BBC Television Shakespeare I've seen so far to have padding--a very long sequence where we watch Timon's dinner guests happily eating without audible dialogue helps to stretch this very short play to almost two hours. It's a very simple story, it feels rather like one aspect of King Lear stripped of all the others--Timon is a wealthy nobleman who gives away all his wealth and then, when no-one lends him money when he's exhausted his resources, he becomes a ragged hermit who spends his days bewailing the fundamental greed and cruelty of all humanity. Timon then becomes a less plausible figure than Lear and his circumstances lack the dimensions of family and character development for the potential betrayers.

But Timon's simplicity allows it to more comfortably support a diversity of interpretations. In the play's introduction to the Norton Shakespeare, Katharine Eisaman Maus points out that Timon's boundless generosity is a means of glorifying himself; "Timon's generosity is entangled with a desire for mastery. By always giving, never receiving, Timon attempts to force his beneficiaries into an endlessly grateful and therefore subordinate role." This seems to agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson's interpretation of the character--Wikipedia quotes from one of his essays; "This giving is flat usurpation, and therefore when the beneficiary is ungrateful, as all beneficiaries hate all Timons … I rather sympathize with the beneficiary, than with the anger of my lord Timon." Well, that's Emerson, for you.



Such an interpretation has to deal with Timon's expressed desire at the feast, "I have often wished myself poorer, that I might come nearer to you: we are born to do benefits. And what better or properer can we call our own than the riches of our friends?" Of course, Timon has basically purchased the right to sermonise so--few, aside from the Cynic Apemantus (Norman Rodway), would dare argue with him at this point. Interpretations could be equally justified in choosing to portray Timon as aware or unaware of this fact even as he speaks.



Miller's production definitely seems to subscribe to the latter point of view, which I think is better, and Jonathan Pryce speaks of his love for his fellows with an almost frighting fervour. With his wide eyes, odd bashfulness, and suppressed nervous energy, he seems as though he's at a banquet where he's to be married to everyone else in the room.



This madness makes the first part of the play fit well with the scenes where Timon has lost everything and greets every human being with loud anger and suspicion. This guy has only two settings and it's Pryce's ability that prevents him from being merely a tedious joke--I felt bad for him even as his wailing hit absurd heights.



One of my favourite actresses, Diana Dors, turns up briefly as one of the prostitutes Timon meets. He delivers to her and her colleague his impressively malicious speech extolling venereal disease:

. . . down with the nose,
Down with it flat; take the bridge quite away
Of him that, his particular to foresee,
Smells from the general weal: make curl'd-pate
ruffians bald;
And let the unscarr'd braggarts of the war
Derive some pain from you: plague all . . .


It's too bad she never appeared in a larger role in one of the BBC Television Shakespeare productions. She would've been a good Mistress Quickly or even Lady Macbeth.

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