Performance History until 1816
New Historicist Analysis
by Courtney Herber
UNL – Department of History
Performance History until 1816
Timon of Athens is an unusual Shakespeare play. It is like Macbeth or Coriolanus in that is loosely based on historical record (and like the Scottish and Roman plays, it is mostly based on legend rather than history), but Timon of Athens is altogether a different sort of beast. As far as we know, it was never performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime (like Coriolanus and All’s Well that Ends Well), and it was most likely produced in collaboration with another early modern English playwright, Thomas Middleton (unlike Coriolanus, which seems to be a solo authorship). Middleton is known for his entirely-over-the- top Revenger’s Tragedy, The Roaring Girl (based loosely on the life of Mary Frith), as well as other plays and masques. Timon combines some of Middleton’s biting satirical wit, tempered (rarely) with Shakespeare’s rhetorical prowess.
First appearing in print in the First Folio in 1623, Timon was most likely written somewhat earlier. Most scholars give a range of 1605-1608 for probable creation, as it has much in common linguistically with King Lear (probably written in 1605-1606 and first performed in 1606) and in tone with Coriolanus (written between 1605-1608).
Its production history is just as tricky to pin down as when it was written, as it took quite a while for it to be performed with the text of play as it appears in the First Folio. For the most part, it is a modern convention to perform the play as Shakespeare and Middleton wrote it – unhappy ending and all. The first known performance of the play was in 1674, several years after the Restoration of the monarchy. This version of the play was not the same as the First Folio version, as it had been heavily adapted by a prominent Restoration playwright, Thomas Shadwell. Shadwell’s version, which includes new female characters (notably Timon’s mistress and his fiancée), was performed fairly regularly up until the 1740s.
The first recorded time that the Folio text was used in production was in Smock Alley in Dublin in 1761. However, adaptions were still the name of the day when James Dance adapted Shadwell’s adaptation for performance in London in 1768. Yet another adaptation was performed in London in 1771, this time by Richard Cumberland. Many of the changes between these adaptations deal with the female characters and their relationships to Timon.
The printed version of the play in this TEI digital edition was one that was produced for performance in the Covent Garden Theatre in London in 1773. It restores much of the original text from the First Folio version, but there are some changes made along the way, along with editor’s notes regarding some of those changes.
Curiously, the printed version is not the only adaptation of the Folio text in this small printed volume. There is also a handwritten version of the play, and changes made to the printed text. This version, the handwritten, was adapted for performance in 1816 in the Drury Lane Theatre. In this, the title role was played by preeminent thespian of the London stage, Edmund Kean. His intense acting style was well-suited to this version of the play.
The role of favorites in Timon of Athens
Shakespeare’s plays are political. Perhaps not always written about politics, but are always political. Timon of Athens is no exception. Hamlet may have been written to appease or impress Queen Anna of Denmark. Macbeth deals with Scotland’s legendary past and was performed just after England got a new Scottish king (and even uses King James I’s own writings as inspiration!). Richard II can be taken to be an allegory of Queen Elizabeth’s struggles with her errant treasonous earl, Robert Devereaux, the earl of Essex. Timon of Athens fits right into these political plays about the dangers of playing political favorites and the practices of unmitigated (and unreciprocated) largesse/patronage.
There are several theories that have been bandied about by scholars over the last century or so as to what was the historical inspiration for the story of Timon’s change from star of Athens to cave-dwelling misanthrope. Aside from the possible actual historical Timon, the play could be taken to be an allegorical critique of either Elizabeth’s or James’ penchants for raising up royal favorites. Elizabeth was well known in her lifetime of favoring Robert Dudley, the earl of Leicester as a companion and as subject. She did the same for his step-son, Robert Devereaux, the earl of Essex (until she had to have him executed). James was also associated with his favorites, even from childhood. Esme Stewart, Robert Carr, and George Villiers all at one time or another held sway over the Scottish king’s heart and pocketbook.
James was also well known for being very bad at handling money (and running out all the time!). Partly this is because as king he lived in the lap of luxury and spent extravagantly to maintain that lifestyle, but he also gave lots of it away to friends (especially his favorites) and to bestow favor on various sundry artists and writers. This can also be a mirror for Timon, and even though it would have been written early in James’ reign, his problems with money extended back to when he was king in Scotland.
The dangers of powerful royal favorites and extravagant spending were not confined to the Elizabethan or Jacobean courts. In the time when this version of Timon of Athens was performed in 1816, royal spending was again at a high and favorites had run of the royal court. In 1811, Parliament had just given the Prince of Wales, the future George IV, the regency for his father, George III. George the Elder had led a decently modest life as king, never spending too much or taking any mistresses, but had begun to experience more and longer bouts with mental illness and was growing less capable of running the affairs of state.
While George III lived modestly, the Prince Regent was the opposite. George the Younger was known for his many mistresses who functioned as royal favorites and for his personal pleasure palace in Brighton (also known by its rightful name of the Brighton Pavilion, and if you ever have the chance to visit, do so! It is sumptuous, gaudy and fun). He had spent money so extravagantly in his youth that Parliament only paid off his huge debts when he married Caroline of Brunswick (which was not a marriage that ended well).
It is popularly said that George IV diminished the luster of the monarchy because of his spending, his treatment of his wife, and how he interacted with the general public. He was also perhaps not the most popular ruler when he stood in as regent for his father, and maybe Drury Lane’s performance of Timon of Athens could be read as a cautionary tale for the future king. Indeed, in some ways it was prophetic.
As he grew older, George IV appeared in public less and less. Near the end of his life, George IV retreated into his palace at Windsor never to emerge, much like Timon and his cave. George’s massive collections of art and his estates were either destroyed or pillaged by his family, like Timon’s gold.
Bevington, David, and David L. Smith. “James I and ‘Timon of Athens.’” Comparative Drama 33, no. 1 (Spring 1999): 56–87.
Kahn, Coppelia. “‘Magic of Bounty’: Timon of Athens, Jacobean Patronage, and Maternal Power.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38, no. 1 (Spring 1987): 34–57.
Lewery, Margaret Ruth. “Performances of Shakespearean Plays at Covent Garden and Drury Lane Theaters.” The Shakespeare Association Bulletin 16, no. 2 (1941): 102–3.
Shakespeare, William. Timon of Athens. Edited by Anthony B. Dawson and Gretchen E. Minton. 3rd ed. The Arden Shakespeare. London: Bloomsbury, 2008.
Wecter, Dixon. “Shakespeare’s Purpose in Timon of Athens.” PMLA 43, no. 3 (September 1928): 701–21.
Williams, Stanley T. “Some Versions of ‘Timon of Athens’ on the Stage.” Modern Philology 18, no. 5 (September 1920): 269–85.