FOOLS FALL - Notes from the Adapters  

WHY TIMON NOW?

EXTRAVAGANCE AND INSURRECTION:

SHAKESPEARE & THE EARLY REIGN OF JAMES THE FIRST

In 1603 England crowned her new King, James I, successor to Elizabeth I. The son of Mary, Queen of Scots was highly educated, and became a man of letters with a particular love of poetry. From the beginning of his reign James demonstrated a penchant for senseless extravagance.  His purposefully prolonged and costly ‘ceremonial progress’ through the City had attracted the multitudes to London, and by the end of 1603, the capital was besieged by an outbreak of the plague. In August of that year, plague deaths totaled over 2,000 per week.  By the end of September, the London death count had increased from 10,000 to over 20,000 in two months.

As the health of England’s citizens declined, James doled-out valuable gifts from state coffers, hosted lavish fetes, and granted royal appointments to his ‘favorites’ as a matter of course.  Peering through a political lens of the first decade of the seventeenth century, it’s not difficult to imagine that the mirthful, irresponsible, flattery-seeking Timon (Part One of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens) was intended as a veiled portrait of England’s careless, clueless King.   

Much documentation survives highlighting James’ frequent commissions of extravagant court pageants and masques, and theatre artisans flourished under his reign.  Writer Ben Jonson, and designer Inigo Jones were fixtures at court, often partnering to create lavish amusements for the King and his guests.  They were among the highest paid entertainment collaborators of the day. The characters Poet and Painter (both flatterers of Timon, and beneficiaries of Timon’s patronage) may be purposely suggestive of Jonson and Jones.  Their financial gains, while so extravagantly employed at court, must have been the envy of even the most established playwrights and artisans of the time.

It is interesting to note that two years after James’ coronation, Measure for Measure (1605) was written, and between 1604 and 1608, Shakespeare penned five other plays examining themes of power, excess, and folly: King Lear, Macbeth, Antony & Cleopatra, Coriolanus and finally Timon of Athens.

The conduct and governance of King James early in his reign, gave rise to widespread anti-crown sentiment.  In 1605, a group of Catholics, protesting religious intolerance, hatched their ‘Gunpowder Plot’.  Guido (Guy) Fawkes and other Catholic co-conspirators were imprisoned, brutally tortured, and later tried and executed for their (failed) attempt to commit regicide by dynamiting the House of Lords.

By 1608, threats, interrogations, and religious persecution by crown officials had become markedly pervasive. In Timon, the military captain, Alcibiades’ appeal to the Senators is, perhaps, a pointed commentary by Shakespeare on the famously unfair and brutal trial of Sir Walter Raleigh, which began in November of 1603. By the time Shakespeare penned Timon(dated 1607-08 by most scholars), the trial had run its course, and Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower where he remained for twelve more years.  Finally, he was executed in 1618.

Editor H.J. Oliver, (Arden edition; Timon of Athens) points to the “loose ends of the plot” as cause to reason that Timon was left unfinished by its author.  Perhaps, he suggests, Shakespeare’s work on the play “didn’t go well”.  He may have become bored with his play, Oliver posits, and simply put it on the shelf.  But we feel Shakespeare’s roughly hewn ‘tirade’ deserves a more thorough investigation.

A CASE OF SELF-CENSORSHIP?

Timon is rife with political and social commentary.  It parallels England’s (and our own) fragile footing on issues of government fraud and culpability, terrorist plots, cultural sanity, and social justice. It hurls tirades at everything a civilized society holds dear: commerce, wealth, justice, religion, education, social status, physical beauty, military prowess, even Art.

Timon scholars (the few that exist) seem to agree that the play was never produced in Shakespeare’s lifetime. It’s first ‘appearance’ on record was a printing in the First Folio (1623), seven years after Shakespeare’s death. 

One wonders, then, if this fictionalized tale of the real Timon, set in ancient Athens, and far removed from Shakespeare’s own time, was ultimately, in the author’s own estimation, enough of a ‘beard’ for what may have been his true political sentiment. Did Shakespeare censor his own voice? One might imagine that had he completed Timon and submitted his manuscript to the powerful Sir Edmund Tilney, Master of the Revels (the court ‘censor’) for production consideration - that the author’s loyalty, religious affiliation, and patriotism would have been questioned.

It is interesting to note that in 1603, King James adopted an acting company, the already established Lord Chamberlain’s Men (renamed The King’s Men), of which Shakespeare was a member.  In 1608, the prosperous company was in the enviable position of performing at their first permanent indoor venue, the prestigious Blackfriars’ in London.  Had Shakespeare completed his provocative Timon of Athens, and risked bringing it to light, his theatrical company’s livelihood, indeed its existence, may have evaporated. Might Shakespeare have felt that his ardent criticism of flatterers and flattery in Timon of Athens was, or might have been viewed as, hypocritical.  Probably, we’ll never come close to knowing.

WHY FOOLS FALL NOW?

Timon of Athens is one of Shakespeare’s most unapologetically strident and political works.  The text he left behind is a mine of diamonds in the rough.  It is an illumination of ourselves amid the excesses of our own culture, and of the roles that we, as artisans, choose within it.  In this adaptation, Timon’s arduous climb toward healing, contemplation, and recovery of self is ‘re-membered’. The times of glut, waste, crippling debt, injustice, disillusionment, self-loathing, mistrust, censorship, terror, gross abuse of public funds, and rage against the State, have come again.  In response, we offer Fools Fall .

Kathleen Turco-Lyon & Randall Stuart - July, 2008