Monday, October 1, 2012

Shakespeare Study: The Life Of Timon Of Athens

This is the third year of my Shakespeare study. I read one play each month, and then watch as many film versions as I can get my hands on, and read as many books about the play as I'm able. September 2012 was The Life Of Timon Of Athens.  There was only one film version that I could get, and not a whole lot of books on this play.

Related Books:

- Timon Of Athens  by A.D. Nuttall  -  This is a volume in Twayne's New Critical Introductions To Shakespeare.  In one chapter Nuttall discusses the idea that there were perhaps two writers of Timon Of Athens, the second likely being Thomas Middleton (an argument that began in 1920). Nuttall begins that chapter by writing, "The second scene of the play begins, as we have it, with a puzzle. Ventidius explains that his father has just died and left him rich, so that he can now repay twice over the money laid out on his behalf by Timon. We have already been shown (I.i. 96-111) how Ventidius was imprisoned for debt and how Timon procured his freedom. The difficulty arises from Ventidius' willingness at this point to repay his debt to Timon. For, later in the play, when Timon is in real need, this same Ventidius refuses to help. Some see this as forming a real inconsistency in the plot" (page 30).  But then he goes on: "Two observations, however, can be made in mitigation of the supposed offence. First, Ventidius may know at this point that he can count on Timon's refusal... Ventidius, we notice, puts up no fight when Timon refuses repayment. Instead he beams and cries, 'A noble spirit!' (I. ii. 14). All of this could easily be communicated by a reasonably accomplished actor, who, if he wished to labour the point, might move ponderously to offer the money and register mild relief when Timon refused his offer... Secondly, Ventidius' later refusal may well be influenced by the smell of disaster which by this time hangs round the figure of Timon" (pages 30-31). Published in 1989.

- The Strange Critical Fortunes Of Shakespeare's Timon Of Athens  by Francelia Butler  -  This critical look at Timon Of Athens is divided into main sections on the play's structure, meaning, and its life as a stage play. In the chapter on the divided authorship question, Francelia Butler writes, "It was more than two hundred years after the publication of the play before an editor suggested that Timon 'is not wholly the work of Shakspere.' This possibility of divided authorship was made by Charles Knight in his edition of Shakespeare in 1839" (page 15). On the theory that the play wasn't finished, Butler writes, "The 'unfinished' theory was proposed in 1815 by Hermann Ulrici, a critic of the Romantic school. He found the structural connections in Timon 'occasionally defective,' and the style 'heavy' - 'the turns are striking and sudden, while the abruptness and obsurity of the language are extreme'" (page 45). In the book's final main section, Butler writes, "My observation of the criticism of Timon has led me to believe that the audience is a part of the cast - a menacing part. Shakespeare is asking, how does the idealist fit into society? Not only Timon's friends but most other people, too, answer that question: they eject him. Yet I have known some superior men who are fond of the play. I suspect it is one test of character" (page 158). Published in 1966.

- Pale Fire  by Vladimir Nabokov  -  This excellent book has many Shakespeare references, including several to Timon Of Athens. The book's title itself comes from Timon Of Athens.  In Act IV Scene iii, Timon says to the bandits, "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."  "Pale Fire" is the name given to the poem that is sort of at the center of this story, and so that phrase is used throughout the book (even in the foreword: "burning a whole stack of them in the pale fire of the incinerator," page 15). Nabokov writes, "One cannot help recalling a passage of Timon of Athens (Act IV Scene iii) where the misanthrope talks to the three marauders. Having no library in the desolate log cabin where I live like Timon in his cave, I am compelled for the purpose of quick citation to retranslate this passage into English prose from a Zemblan poetical version of Timon which, I hope, sufficiently approximates the text, or is at least faithful to its spirit: 'The sun is a thief: she lures the sea/and robs it. The moon is a thief:/he steals his silvery light from the sun./The sea is a thief: it dissolves the moon'" (page 79 - 80). The play is mentioned by name: "...edition of Timon of Athens translated into Zemblan by his uncle Conmal" (page 125).  And then, "It was empty now, save for the tiny volume of Timon Afinsken still lying in one corner" (page 128).  The narrator actually pokes fun at the poet Shade for choosing the title "Pale Fire": "See it and condemn the fashionable device of entitling a collection of essays or a volume of poetry - or a long poem, alas - with a phrase lifted from a more or less celebrated poetical work of the past" (page 240). This is mentioned again a little later: "Paraphrased, this evidently means: Let me look in Shakespeare for something I might use for a title. And the find is 'pale fire.' But in which of the Bard's works did our poet cull it? My readers must make their own research. All I have with me is a tiny vest pocket edition of Timon of Athens - in Zemblan! It certainly contains nothing that could be regarded as an equivalent of 'pale fire' (if it had, my luck would have been a statistical monster)" (page 285).  Even in the book's index are Shakespeare references, including this one to Timon: "his having no library in his Timonian cave" (page 308).
There are many references to Shakespeare himself. He writes, "The last king of Zembla - partly under the influence of his uncle Conmal, the great translator of Shakespeare" (pages 75 - 76). (Conmal's translation is also mentioned on page 80.)  Nabokov writes, "...the famous avenue of all the trees mentioned by Shakespeare..." (page 92), and then, " the end of the so-called Shakespeare Avenue" (page 93).  Nabokov writes, "The subject of teaching Shakespeare at college level having been introduced: 'First of all, dismiss ideas, and social background, and train the freshman to shiver, to get drunk on the poetry of Hamlet or Lear, to read with his spine and not with his skull.' Kinbote: 'You appreciate particularly the purple passages?' Shade: 'Yes, my dear Charles, I roll upon them as a grateful mongrel on a spot of turf fouled by a Great Dane'" (page 155).  There is a passage quoted from another of Shade's poems: "And maybe Shakespeare floods a whole/Town with innumerable lights" (page 192).  There is even this: "He succumbed to them from time to time, then every other day, then several times daily - especially during the robust regime of Harfar Baron of Shalksbore, a phenomenally endowed young brute (whose family name, 'knave's farm,' is the most probable derivation of 'Shakespeare')" (page 208).  Later he writes, "English being Conmal's prerogative, his Shakspere remained invulnerable throughout the greater part of his long life" (page 286).
There are references to other plays as well. Nabokov writes, "During these periods of teaching, Charles Xavier made it a rule to sleep at a pied-a-terre he had rented, as any scholarly citizien would, in Coriolanus Lane" (page 76).  That street is mentioned again, but also with a reference to Timon of Athens: "...the three transverse streets, Academy Boulevard, Coriolanus Lane and Timon Alley" (page 126). He makes two references to Hamlet in this passage: "There are purists who maintain that a gentleman should use a brace of pistols, one for each temple, or a bare botkin (note the correct spelling), and that ladies should either swallow a lethal dose or drown with clumsy Ophelia" (page 220). The first reference is to that most famous speech from Act III Scene i: "When he himself might his quietus make/With a bare bodkin."  The second, of course, is to the drowning of Ophelia. He also refers to The Tempest: "He exchanged his frogged uniform for a scholar's dressing gown and tackled The Tempest. A slow worker, he needed half a century to translate the works of him whom he called 'dze Bart,' in their entirety" (page 285).
The edition of the book that I read includes an introduction by Richard Rorty, and the introduction has Shakespeare references, including this one to The Tempest: "It is as if Prospero, after explaining that he will shortly be drowning his book, stepped to the front of the stage to announce that oranges and ale would be offered for sale in the outer courtyard immediately after the performance, that season ticket holders were invited to meet the cast backstage, but that unfortunately the author of the play, who would have liked to be here to greet his many friends, is out of town" (page xi). He makes another reference to that play here: "Even though he has no interest whatever in joining us for oranges and ale after he has washed the Prospero make-up off, he also has no interest whatever in putting us down" (page xiii).  The introduction also quotes part of a review of the book from The New Yorker, including this: "'The moon's an arrant thief,' declares Shakespeare's Timon, in the passage that provides the novel with its name, 'and her pale fire she snatches from the sun'" (page xiv).
By the way, Vladimir Nabokov was born on April 23rd, the same day as William Shakespeare. (One web site lists his birthday as April 22nd, however.)

Film Versions

- Timon Of Athens  (1981) with Jonathan Pryce, Norman Rodway, John Shrapnel, John Bird, John Welsh, Max Arthur; directed by Jonathan Miller.  This is an excellent production, with a phenomenal cast. There isn't a weak performance here. And Jonathan Pryce is of course particularly good. Also, there aren't too many annoying cuts. John Fortune and John Bird as the Poet and Painter are great in the opening scene.  Apemantus (Norman Rodway) speaks with an obvious sense of humor regarding what he says, at least in part, and at least at first during the banquet.  This production takes some time to show everyone feasting, then Timon's empty plate - a nice little moment.  I really like how this production went all out on the feast. Cupid sings his lines to Timon, with musical accompaniment, and young girls dancing. Then while the women dance, Apemantus steps into frame in the foreground to speak directly to the camera, to us, for his lines, "They dance! they are mad women/Like madness is the glory of this life/....Men shut their doors against a setting sun."  He then pops into frame again for "Faith, for the worst is filthy, and would not hold taking, I doubt me." It's actually really funny, and a nice way of doing it. At the end of the scene, when everyone has exited, the young girls rush to pick up fallen coins and to eat the food left on the table.
The first speech from Act II Scene i is cut completely - that great speech where the Senator says, "If I want gold, steal but a beggar's dog/And give it to Timon, why, the dog coins gold." This is one of the few cuts that I disapprove of.
The beginning of Act III is fantastic - that series of requests for money, particularly the first scene. The only moment in there that I don't care for is when Lucius knocks accidentally knocks over a stack of coins on the line "I have no power to be kind" - it's a bit too much.The end of Act III Scene iii is cut, so that the scene ends with Sempronius' line, "Who bates mine honour shall not know my coin."  Also, the beginning of Scene iv is cut.  The person Alcibiades tries to save in Act III Scene v is present in the scene, seated quietly in the background. In Scene vi, Timon's line "Nor more willingly leaves winter" is not done as an aside (as noted in the text), but directly to the Second Lord. Jonathan Pryce is wonderful in Scene vi (he's wonderful throughout the production, actually). The dialogue with the Lords is cut from the end of Scene vi.
Act IV begins in black and white, with Timon, shirtless, kneeling on a beach. The color comes in as he begins to speak. But he speaks the lines from Scene iii, Scenes i and ii being cut (this is a major cut that bothers me). When he finds gold, it's coins among the stones.
In Act V Scene i, the bit where Timon shares his roots with the Poet and Painter is wonderful, as is the moment when he separates the two and speaks to one of the other. When Flavius and the two Senators approach Timon's cave, Timon speaks his lines from within the cave, not coming out as indicated in the text. Timon is lying on his back, and we see him as First Senator speaks of Alcibiades.  The camera slowly pushes in on Timon, until the frame is just his face (shown upside down, as he lies), a truly interesting choice. And that's how we last see Timon in this production, apart from a shot of his hand digging through the stones. The last lines of Scene ii are moved to the end of Scene i. Then the production skips to Scene iv, beginning with Alcibiades' line, "Till now you have gone on and fill'd the time/With all licentious measure."  Alcibiades' line "Descend and keep your words" is cut because the scene is presented in a tent rather than before the walls of Athens.  The final line of the play, "Let our drums strike," is cut.  (time: 120 minutes) 

Miscellaneous Books:

- How Shakespeare Changed Everything  by Stephen Marche  -  This is a fairly fun book which discusses the many effects that Shakespeare and his plays have had on the world. He lists many words Shakespeare coined, but often neglects to specify which play contains which words.  He also talks about how Shakespeare is often quoted without regard to the context, and so assuming a meaning that Shakespeare didn't intend at all (something that annoys the hell out of me too).  For example, "The much-T-shirted line from Henry VI, 'the first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers,' comes from a wisecracking scumbag named Dick the Butcher. In context, the line is a testament to why we need lawyers" (page 33).  That the introduction of the starling to the United States was due indirectly to Shakespeare was something I didn't know before.  About the "And food for -"/"For worms, brave Percy" lines from Henry IV Part One, Marche writes, "Prince Hal, the man who has killed him,is the only one who can finish Hotspur's phrase: 'For worms, brave Percy,' he says, although he may be exhibiting the arrogance typical of the living. Why should Hotspur not be food for angels? The ellipsis shows just how thoroughly we lose control over the meaning of our lives the moment that we die" (page 104).  I hadn't thought of that.  Published in 2011.

Miscellaneous Films

- Great Writers: William Shakespeare  (2008) written and narrated by Myfanwy Millward; directed by Liam Dale. This film basically tells, in voice over narration, the biography of William Shakespeare. It begins with bits about his parents, and includes shots of Mary Arden's home and the church where they were married.  There is also some background about Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth, and the religious troubles of the time.  There is just a bit about Shakespeare's possible Catholic sympathies.  Shots of Anne Hatheway's home and stuff like that is great. But there are also pointless shots of the ocean, and of some actor pretending to be the bard, seated next to a tree, walking in a field, writing, and so on.  This film also mentions the legend of the poaching incident, the black plague, the death of Marlowe, the Earl of Southampton and the Dark Lady.  The narrator misuses the word "literally" when she says, "the writer was literally worlds away from his country beginnings in Stratford Upon Avon."  Really? So he spent some time on Saturn, then?  The narrator says that King John took on a more somber tone because Hamnet died while Shakespeare was in the middle of writing it. (But that, as far as I know, is conjecture.)  There is also a segment about the construction of The Globe (with shots of the reconstructed Globe), and a bit about the Essex-Richard II story.  There are shots of paintings throughout the film, but none are ever identified. And there are statements that can't be verified, like "The comedies delighted everyone who saw them."  There is not much about any of the plays specifically. This is really just an introduction to his life and the times in which he lived. (time: 55 minutes)

Plays I've seen this month:

- The Comedy Of Errors  (Independent Shakespeare Company  -  Griffith Park, September 1, 2012)  The company set the play in the late 1940s, and several of the players played period music between scenes.  Just before Act IV Scene iii, David Melville told the audience that Antipholus was approaching and we should all say hi to him.  Most of the audience complied, and that led to Antipholus saying "There's not a man I meet but doth salute me,/As if I were their well acquainted friend."  There was a lot of great physical comedy and several excellent performances.

- A Midsummer Night's Dream  (Independent Shakespeare Company - Griffith Park, September 2, 2012)  This was a wonderful production, with most of the cast in modern dress, and the faeries in Elizabethan garb. We have the normal casting of one actor playing both Theseus and Oberon, and one actor playing both Hippolyta and Titania.  Hippolyta applauds Hermia's speech in which she refuses to marry Demetrius. Demetrius' line, "And here I am, and wood within this wood" was cut.  The modern dress leads to a few modern references as well, including the use of lightsabers (which is funny briefly, but then quickly becomes annoying).  But the production is playful and truly funny, and the cast is really good.

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