« PreviousContinue »
THE LIFE OF TIMON OF ATHENS.
THE LIFE OF TIMON OF ATHENS, as it is called in the original edition, is among the most difficult of Shakespeare's plays for an editor to deal with ; which difficulty grows partly from the characteristics of the play itself, and partly from the lack of any contemporary notices concerning it. The only information we have respecting it is, that it was published in the folio of 1623, where it stands the fifth in the division of Tragedies, and that it was entered the same year at the Stationers' by Blount and Jaggard as one of the plays not formerly entered 10 other men;" which latter circumstance naturally insers that the play had not been published before. The original edition is without any marking of the acts and scenes, save that at the beginning we have “ Actus Primus, Scæna Prima ;” and at the end is given a list of the persons represented, headed “ The Act. ors' Names."
The original text is in divers respects very remarkable: some parts are set forth in a most irregular manner, being full of short and seemingly-broken lines, with many passages printed as verse which cannot possibly be made to read as such ; yet the sense is generally so complete as to infer that the irregularity came from the writer, not from the printer. In these parts, moreover, along with Shakespeare's peculiar rhythm and harmony, we miss also, and in an equal degree, his characteristic diction and imagery: the ruggedness and irregularity are not those of one who, having mastered the resources of harmony, knew how to heighten and enrich it with discords, but of one who was ignorant of its laws and incapable of its powers. Other parts, again, exhibit the suslained grandeur of the Poet's noblest and inost varied music. And in these parts the true Shakespearian cast of thought and imagery comes upon us in all its richness, gushing, apparently, from the deepest fountains of his genius, and steeped in its most characteristic potencies.
As to the date of the composition, we have no external evidence whatsoever; and the internal evidence, so far as there is any, all makes for a place somewhere in the period between 1600 and 1606; the same period which gave us Measure for Measure, Hamlet, Othello, and Lear. Wherever Shakespeare's hand is most clearly traceable in Timon of Athens, the peculiarities of style, of thought, and sentiment, as in the other plays just men. tioned, refer us to a time when, for some unknown cause, the Poet's mind seems to have dwelt, with a sort of melancholy, selfbrooding earnestness, among the darker issues of human life and passion, as if his spirit were haunted and oppressed by the mystery of evil as residing in the heart of man. We had occasion to enlarge somewhat on this point in our Introduction to Measure for Measure; so that there is the less need of pursuing it here. We there remarked, however, that there was no proof of Timon having been written during the period in question ; a remark which a much closer study of that play has since convinced us was unadvisedly made. The texture of the diction, which is about midway between the mellow.gliding smoothness of the Poet's second period, and the stern, rugged energy of his last, ever and anon striking in flashes of light and glory by the very quickness and abruptness of its movements, - this, no less than the tone and bias of feeling manifested in Timon of Athens, certainly shows a strong resemblance to that of the other plays known to have been written during the time specified.
As regards the fact of Shakespeare's having been for some time in a melancholy, not to say morbid, state of mind, such as may have disposed him to hang over the fiercer passions of our nature, and to speak as the “stern censurer of mankind,” perhaps the strongest argument is furnished by the play in hand. For the subject is certainly ill-adapted to dramatic uses, has very few capabilities of sound and legitimate stage-effect. This lack of any thing in the matter that should have determined the Poet's choice to it, may well lead us to suspect that the determining cause lay in himself. So that the most likely conclusion in this case seems to be, that some ill-starred experience, such as human life offers to most men who are observant and thoughtful enough to be capable of it, had planted in him so strong a sympathy with the state of feeling predominant in Timon, as to turn the scale against his better judgment as a dramatic poet and artist. Such, or something such, appears to us the most probable account why he should have pitched upon a theme so manifestly unsuited to his purpose, and so barren of those qualities that would recommend it for dramatic treatment. In our Introduction to Mcasure for Measure we quoted a passage of some length from Hallam, wherein that judicious critic assigns much the same reason for what is stated by him in the words following : “ The fable, if fable it can be called, is so extraordinarily deficient in action,-a fault of which Shakespeare is not guilty in any other instance, – that we may wonder a little how he should have seen in the single delineation of Timou a counterbalance for the manifold objections to this subject.” Mr. Verplanck, also, a critic of equal soundness and rectitude of judgment, holds to the same view ; and Mr. Collier informs us that Coleridge in 1815 gave it as his opinion that the subject had been taken up by the Poet “under some temporary feeling of vexation and disappointment.”
We have already intimated a belief that Shakespeare is not responsible for the whole of this play. Some parts are in his best manner, while others are not above his worst, or rather are not in his manner at all. In this nearly all the critics and commentators are agreed, though they differ much in their ways of accounting for it. One theory is, that Shakespeare wrote the whole of the play as we have it, but left some parts in a very crude and unfinished state, giving indeed little more than a loose sketch or outline of what he intended to make them. To this there are insuperable objections. For the parts in question are nowise in a sketchy state ; the outline is generally filled up, but not with the Poet's genuine stuff ; the fault lies not in a defect of execution, such as it is, but rather in an uncharacteristic style of workmanship : in short, they are in no sort like an unfinished work of the same hand which finished the other parts, but show a totally different cast of thought, of diction, and imagery, from what we find in any other of the Poet's plays, or in those parts of this play where the authorship is not and cannot be questioned. Take, for instance, the fifth scene in Act iii., which is highly episodical in its character, insomuch that if entirely thrown out it would scarce be missed in the action of the play. Now, it is precisely in such an episode that we should naturally expect to find the work left either in a most finished or in a most sketchy state, because it is the very part of all others that could best be worked out by it. self. Accordingly we have nothing of mere outline here; the filling-up is apparently complete, but it has to our taste no relish of Shakespeare : perhaps there is no part of the drama less unfinished, nor any more un-Shakespearian, than this scene.
Another theory is, that the manuscript of this play underwent in some parts much corruption and mutilation at the hands of the players, and that the edition of 1623 was printed from a copy ihus mutilated and deformed. Such, Mr. Collier tells us, was the view given out by Coleridge in his lectures in 1815; his opinion being, that the play was Shakespeare's throughout, and that, as originally written, it was one of his most complete performances; but that the players bad done the Poet great injustice, and that the ruggedness and inequality of the versification were owing to the fact that only a corrupt and imperfect copy came into the hands of the original editors. The objections to the former theory hold, for aught we can see, equally good against this. Besides, the play, as we have seen, is preēminently unsuited to the stage ; and the failure of modern diligence to discover any contemporary notices of its performance strongly argues that it was so regarded at the time : all which would naturally render it the less likely to suffer, in the manner supposed, from being “clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar :" not to mention, that in case of such mutilation and corruption the fault would be apt to lie mainly, if not wholly, in the expression of the thought; whereas it here lies rather in the very spirit and substance of the thought itself.
A third view – suggested, we believe, by Farmer, and argued out with much ability and learned diligence in Knight's edition is, that Shakespeare did not originate the play, but took the workmanship of some inferior writer, recast certain of the scenes, enriched others with some touches of his own, and supplied the part of Timon, as we have it, entirely from himself: all which is thought to account for the circumstance of the man-hater's character being “left standing apart in its naked power and majesty, without much regard to what surrounded it.” To this theory Mr. Verplanck objects, that great as is the discrepancy of style and execution, yet, in the plot, the characters, and the incidents, there is an entire unity of thought and purpose, as if the whole proceeded from a single mind. The objection seems to us far from conclusive, as we are not aware of any sufficient reason for presuming that Shakespeare could not rewrite parts of a drama, without losing or marring the proper unity of plot and character. isation. A much more likely objection, as it appears to us, is this, that Shakespeare's approved severity of taste and strength of judgment at that period of his life, together with his fulness and availability of resource, would hardly have endured to retain certain parts in so crude and feeble a state as we here find them. For the parts supposed to be borrowed are so grossly inadequate in style and spirit to those acknowledged to be his, that it seems not easy to conceive how the instincts of his genius should have suffered him to let them pass. So that we can scarce help thinking, that if he had thus undertaken to remodel the work of another, his mind would not have rested from the task, till he had informed the whole with a larger measure of that surpassing energy and grace of thought and diction which mark the part of Timon himself, showing that the powers and resources of the Poet were then in their most palmy state.
The fourth, and, in our view, the most probable, theory is that proposed by Mr. Verplanck ; who thinks that Shakespeare planned the whole drama substantially as we have it, made an outline of all the parts, including the entire course and order of the action, wrote out the part of Timon in its present form, added, besides, some whole scenes as they now stand, and furnished some passages for others; but, perceiving more and more, as he went on, the unfitness of the subject for his purpose, finally gave up the