The Date of "Old Timon" and of Timon of Athens

Two plays on the misanthrope Timon exist. The one is Shakespeare's play, the other the play simply called Timon but sometmes referred to as The Comedy of Timon or "Old Timon". Chief source of either play is Lucian's Misanthropos; a secundary source is Plutarch, who in his Greek and Roman Lives mentions Timon in the lives of Marcus Antonius and Alcibiades. Some correspondences exist between Timon and Shakespeare's play that are found neither in Lucian nor in any other source, raising the question whether the anonymous author (or authors) of Timon borrowed from Shakespeare or vice versa.

By and large four competing theories have been advanced:

1) The two plays are independent, Timon being an academic play Shakespeare could not have known;
2) The two plays have a common source;
3) Timon is a parody of Timon of Athens;
4) Timon is a source of Timon of Athens. Theories 1 and 2 are irrelevant to dating but theories 3 and 4 do have dating implications. According to the orthodox chronology Timon of Athens was composed in or about 1608. On the assumption that the orthodox chronology is correct, theory 3 requires a later date for Timon, theory 4 an earlier one.

The correspondences between the two plays not present in the sources are undeniable. Only in these two plays is Timon depicted during his wealth (in Lucian's Misanthropos and the other contemplated sources his wealth is but referred to as something of the past). Even the number of acts showing him so is the same: three of five in each play. Both plays present the character of the loyal steward, the steward in Shakespeare's play, Laches in Timon. Both feature a mock banquet, Shakespeare's play in, Timon in IV.v., at the end of which Timon pelts stones at his guests.

In the anonymous Timon the stichomythia between Timon and the faithful servant Laches in V.ii :

            Timon.  Men, woemen, children perish by the sword!
            Laches. Lett ffunerall follow funerall, and noe parte
                           Of this world ruyne want!
            Timon.  Lett greife teeme greife,
                           And lett it be a punishment to lyve!
            Laches. Lett harvest cease!
            Timon.  Lett rivers all wax drye,
                           The hunger pyned parent eate the sonne!
            Laches.  The sonne the parent!
            Timon.   All plauges fall on this generacion,
                            And never cease! Heare me, O heare me, Jove!

resembles Timon's diatribe in IV.i of Shakespeare's play:
            Timon.   And fence not Athens! Matrons, turn incontinent!
                            Obedience fail in children! Slaves and fools,
                            Pluck the grave wrinkled senate from the bench,
                            And minister in their steads!
                            Degrees, observances, customs and laws,
                            Decline to your confounding contraries;
                            And yet confusion live! Plagues incident to men,
                             Your potent and infectious fevers heap
                             On Athens ripe for stroke!

The anonymous author of Timon is the borrower

Compared with Shakespeare's lines, the lines from the anonymous play look pedestrian. George Steevens (1736-1800) was the first to draw the attention to the anonymous manuscript play which he called a 'wretched' piece from which Shakespeare could impossibly have borrowed. Others followed suit, dating Timon later than Timon of Athens. Muriel C. Bradbrook identified it as a reveling play of an Inn of Court ("The Comedy of Timon: A Reveling Play of the Inner Temple", Renaissance Drama, 9, 1966, pp. 83-103.). That Timon incarnates the traditional Lord of Misrule becomes unmistakably clear in II.v.: "Thee, Timon, wee electe as soveraigne,/Prince and commaunder ot these Bacchanales" and shortly afterwards transfers his powers to the clown Lollio. Bradbrook's identification of the Inner Temple reposes on the role of the winged horse Pegasus, the emblem of the coat of arms of the Inner Temple. She views the anonymous Timon as a parody of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens. Accepting the orthodox date of 1608 for Shakespeare's play she dates the former play 1611.

Shakespeare is the borrower

Her dating was challenged by James C. Bulman ("The Date and Production of 'Timon' Reconsidered, Shakespeare Survey, 27, 1974, pp. 111-127). Based on a topical allusion in II.v, the stage direction "[The sign of the 7 stars]", Bulman is confident to date the play 1602. "Perhaps the most telling clue of all to Timon's being an Inns of Court play is 'The sign of the 7 stars', which Lollio mistakes for the heavenly Plough... Pseudocheus's deflating comment, 'Thy hands may touche them with a ladders helpe', assures us that the sign was meant to be the signboard of a tavern... My interest in this allusion was spurred when the porter of Lincoln's Inn directed me to a tavern called 'The Seven Stars' on Carey Street, bordering the south wall of Lincoln's Inn... A sign hanging outside the door, showing seven stars on a background of blue, claims that the tavern was opened in 1602. This sign is quite likely a fair copy of all previous signs: there is no reason to doubt the veracity of the date that appears on it. If this is the sign to which Lollio refers...then the author... may have been making a topical allusion to a new tavern, and perhaps a tavern popular with the Templars."(115-6) So the terminus a quo must be 1602. In theory it could be a later year. Why then does 1602 seem the most likely date?

The anonymous Timon and Ben Jonson's "Comical satires"

Between 1598 and 1601 Ben Jonson wrote five satires: The Case Is Altered (1597/98), Every Man in His Humour (1598), Every Man Out of His Humour (1599), Cynthia's Revels (1600) and Poetaster (1601). According to Bulman echoes of the last three of them are found in the anonymous Timon. Again: who was the borrower? Unlikely that Ben Jonson was the borrower, Bulman argues. "But if Jonson borrowed from Timon, the borrowing was spread very thinly over three plays - far more diffusely than if 'Anonymous' echoed Jonson's three in his one." (p. 119) Apart from that, he seems to endorse Herford & Simpson's rejection of the idea Ben Jonson could have borrowed from 'Anonymous'. "The idea of his using it as a dramatic quarry is grotesque - only less grotesque than the suggestion that Shakespeare used it." (H & S, IX, 485). However, Bulman rejects the same argument advanced by Bradbrook against Shakespeare's having borrowed from the anonymous Timon. He cites several examples of correspondences between Timon and Jonson's satires:

1)     The use of the rare word "macilente", meaning "lean"; in EMOH Macilente is the name of the lean acrimonious critique.

2)     EMOH ends with Macilente's epilogue "Why, here's a change! Now is my mind at peace./I am as emptie of all envienow..." (V.xi); Timon's epilogue (V.v.) begins: "I now am left alone; this rascall route/Hath left my side. What's this? I feele throughout/A sodeine change; my fury doth abate."

3)     Some personal names occur in both plays. Hermogenes is the name of the singer in Poetaster and Timon; in Jonson's Cynthia's Revels the rich fop Asotus boasting of his foreign travels is inroduced as a 'citizens heire', whose father is Phylargyrus; in Timon Phylargyrus ("silver-lover") is the wealthy father of the clown Lollio and the greedy maid Callimela.

4)     Gelasimus, the rich fop in Timon, is introduced as 'a cittie heyre'.

5)     The character boasting of his foreign travels, the counterpart to Jonson's Asotus in Cynthia's Revels, in Timon is Pseudocheus.

6)     In Jonson's EMOH the country bumpkin Sogliardo aspiring at achieving gentleman status thinks one way to serve that purpose is to cry out "he, ha, ha, ha" (II.i); in Timon the fop Gelasimus thinks the best way to court Callimela is to repeatedly cry out "ha, ha, he! Fa, la, la... sol" (II.i).

Bulman cites some more parallels. He might have hinted at yet another, this time a parallel with Jonson's The Case is Altered. In this play the miser Jaques De Prie, obsessed by the idea someone might see his gold, hides it under horse dung (III.iv); in Timon the miser Philargyrus hides his gold "in the earthe/Where neither sunne nor moone or humane eies/Hath ever peepte." (III.ii).

Bulman concludes: "What Herford and Simpson say of Poetaster may logically be said of the other 'comicall satyres' as well: 'The ephemeral character of the satire... made later performances impossible' [H & S, IX, 181-9]. Thus it may be assumed that Timon, riddled as it was with Jonsonian allusion, was performed at the Ins of Court no later than 1602." (pp. 126-7)

A crucial allusion that has been overlooked in Poetaster, precisely

And thus, by the same logic, it may also be assumed that Timon of Athens was staged no later than 1601. Indeed, Jonson's play, written in 1601, contains itself an allusion to Timon of Athens. To state that this allusion has been "overlooked" is not quite exact. Herford & Simpson drew the attention to it; Tom Cain, the editor of the play for The Revels Plays series (1995), also mentions it. But they suppress a substantial, a crucial element. Below this element is emphasized by italics:

Albius. Ladies and lordings, there's a slight banquet stays within for you, please you draw near and accost it.
Julia.   We thank you, good Albius: but when shall we see those excellent jewels you are commended to have?
Albius. At your ladyship's service. [Aside] I got that speech by seeing a play last day, and it did me some grace now... (II.ii.82-7))

Thus Jonson has Albius say that he is taking the phrase from a play he has recently seen. This makes little sense if the audience is not thought able to identify the play. The play Albius explicitly says was recently staged is no other than Shakespeare's Timon of Athens (I.ii.151-5):

            Timon.      Ladies, there is an idle banquett attends you;
                                 Please you to dispose yourselves.
            All Ladies.  Most thankfully, my lord.
            Timon.                                  Flavius!
            Steward.    My lord?
            Timon.       The little casket bring me hither.
            Steward.    Yes, my lord [Aside] More jewels yet.

Tom Caine annotates: "Tim. was not published until 1623, and probably not acted until 1761, but it is such courtly language that Albius is imitating." (p. 116) No thought or at least no word about Albius's explicit reference follows.

Let us ask: how would this reference have been dealt with if Ben Jonson had written Poetaster in 1609? Let us look at how Julius Caesar was dated, a play like Timon of Athens first printed in the 1623 Folio. The date given for Julius Caesar in the orthodox chronology is 1599. The dating is based on an external reference by the Swiss traveller Platter who reported to have seen such a play on 21 September 1599. He does not name the theater but states that it was located "south of the river". This might have been The Globe. That it was the Globe is not entirely certain; it could also have been The Rose; however, the Globe is a fairly plausible assumption. There is, one year later, a reference to it in the play The Wisdom of Dr. Dodipoll, printed in 1600: "Then reason's fled to animals, I see" (III.ii.80). The reference is to Antonio's famous speech in III.ii.106-7, "O judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts,/And men have lost their reason.". So the basis for dating Julius Caesar is hardly broader than the basis Ben Jonson offers us for dating Timon of Athens in his comedy: a quote from the play and an external reference to the play's recent staging.

It is plausible then to date Timon of Athens 1601 or 1600, 7-8 years earlier than the orthodox chronology suggests.

A difficulty: double authorship of Timon of Athens

With that the composition date of the play is shifted back into the Earl of Oxford's lifespan. Yet a difficulty remains. Nowadays the majority of scholars probably agree that the play is not entirely Shakespeare's and part of it was written by his co-author Thomas Middleton. It may here suffice to refer to Brian Vickers's study Shakespeare, Co-Author (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 244-90 and 473-80) and to add that is hard to see how Vickers's findings could successfully be challenged. Some of the reasons for his attribution of parts of the play to Thomas Middleton: the rather disorderly alternating of prose, verse and rhyming couplets, poverty of thought, inconsistent plot, some favourite terms of Middleton not or very rarely found in Shakespeare, etc. Vickers was not the first to note the presence of two different hands. In his book he duly provides us with the history of the issue. For the sake of brevity and simplicity we shall limit the following account to the first scholar to have insisted on the play's not being wholly Shakespeare's, Charles Knight (1791-1873) and, moreover, only to what Vickers reports about Knight's remarks on the first two scenes. The second scene is what matters here, for it is the scene to which Albius refers in Jonson's Poetaster.

"Knight was sure that Timon, in this opening scene, was 'Shakspere's own conception'... When Knight reached the second scene of Act I, however, he felt that Shakespeare's hand had suddenly vanished, 'for we find ourselves at once amidst a different structure of verse from the foregoing... In the first scene we do not find a single rhyming couplet; in the second scene their recurrence is more frequent than in any of Shakspere's plays, even the earliest'... Even more perceptively, he observed both the awkward nature of the couplets and a striking difference in the imaginative element of poetry... One of the recurring experiences of studying co-authored plays is to discover that the same character seems to be quite different from one scene to the next. Charles Knight showed that in he parts of both Apemantus and Lucius (the Steward), quite different styles could be detected. In I.2, a scene in which he could find no trace of Shakespeare, Apemantus makes this superficial moralizing commentary, complete with rhyming couplets and half-lines:

                What a sweep of vanity comes this way!
                They dance? They are mad women.
                Like madness is the glory of this life,
                As this pomp shows to a little oil and root.
                We make ourselves fools to disport ourselves,
                And spend our flatteries to drink those men
                Upon whose age we void it up again
                With poisonous spite and envy.
                Who lives that's not depraved or depraves?
                Who dies that bears not one spurn to their graves
                Of their friends' gift?
                I should fear those that dance before me now
                Would one day stamp upon me. 'T has been done:
                Men shut their doors against a setting sun."

The reader will certainly have noticed that Vickers calls the steward Lucius whereas in the above quote of the relevant passage in I.ii of Timon of Athens he is named Flavius. Neither name is correct. The quoted passage contains the sole occurrence of the name Flavius in the play, otherwise he is just named "Steward". Possibly the second author, Thomas Middleton, has simply confused the steward with Timon's servant Flaminius. There is another similar error: in some places Apemantus is called Apermantus. Besides the plot is inconsistent. For instance, III.v, in which Alcibiades pleads to the senate for the life of a friend of his and is banished is completely out of joint with the rest of the plot. Middleton was doing his job very sloppily. There was co-authorship, for sure, but the inconsistencies are such as to make it highly unlikely Shakespeare and Middleton were writing at the same time. F.G. Fleay's thesis "that'the un-Shakespearean parts were certainly the latest written'" (Vickers, 257), best accounts for all the discrepancies. But how much later?

Still an older Timon play - A Scenario

To our knowledge John Jowett is the only editor of Timon of Athens (Oxford University Press, 2004) to have taken into account a no longer extant play on Timon. He refers to William Warner's epistle to the reader prefacing his Pan His Syrinx, a collection of tales published in 1584. Warner refers to three plays recently staged. "And yet, let his coy prophetess presage hard events in her cell, let the Athenian misanthropos or man-hater bite on the stage, or the Sinopian cynic bark with the stationer; yet, in Pan his Syrinx, will I pipe at the least to myself." (see: Timon of Athens, Shakespeares Sophoclean Tragedy.)

The Sinopian cynic ("dog") is Diogenes of Sinope, main character in John Lyly's play Campaspe, printed in 1584 (hence "bark with the stationer"). With the "coy prophetess" is meant Cassandra refuting the advances of the God Apollo. In 1584 a play The History of Agamemnon &  Ulisses in which Cassandra must have appeared was performed at court.  (Documents relating to the Office of the Revels in the Time of Queen Elizabeth, edited by Albert Feuillerat, Louvain, 1908, p. 365). Feuillerat believed "that Agamemnon and Ulysses, (though I agree it might have been » a probable subject for Lyly«, as indeed it might have been for any other dramatist of that time), is one of Oxford's lost comedies." (p. 471). By the beginning of the 17th century all Lyly's known had appeared in print. The play on Timon, the Athenian misanthrope, was not among them. So it might have been another of Oxford's "lost comedies", the more so because it was performed by "the Earle of Oxenford his boyes".

Who were these Earl of Oxford's boys? In 1583-4 Henry Evans was one of the managers of the boy company "The Children of the Chapel" playing at the Blackfriars theatre. Henry Evans, threatened with ejection from the owner, "tried to elude him by a further transfer of the sub-lease to the Earl of Oxford, who passed it on to John Lyly, the poet... Doubtless Hunnis, Lyly, and Evans were all working together under the Earl's patronage, for a company under Oxford's name was taken to Court by Lyly in the winter of 1583-4 and by Evans in the winter of 1584-5, and it seems pretty clear that in 1583-4, at any rate, it was in fact made up of boys from the Chapel and Pauls's" (Edmund K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, 4 vol., Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1923, vol. II, 497). With the lease of the Blackfriars expiring about Easter 1584, the Children of Her Majesty's Chapel ceased to nominally exist. But they merged with the Children of Paul's still under the direction of John Lyly, sometimes playing privately in rooms around St Paul's Cathedral, sometimes publicly in James Burbage's "The Theatre". In 1593 John Lyly was scoffed at in Pierce's Supererogation by the Cambridge scholar Gabriel Harvey as "He hath not played the Vicemaster of Poules, and the Foolemaster of the Theater for naughtes... sometime the fiddle-stick of Oxford, now the very bable [a jester's mock-sceptre] of London..."(Gabriel Harvey, Works. ed.  Alexander B. Grosart, London, 1884-5, vol. II, 212).

Hence, it is highly likely that the three plays referred to by William Warren: Lyly's Campaspe, the play on Timon, and Agamemnon and Ulysses were acted by the boy company which was also known as Oxford's Boys.

In 1589 the Children of Paul's were also dissolved. But in 1599 they resumed playing. In September 1600 Henry Evans refounded the Children of the Chapel as a separate group, again playing at the Blackfriars theatre and therefore also called "Blackfriars Boys." It should be noted that they acted Ben Jonson's comedies Poetaster in 1601 and Cynthia's Revels in 1600 (and his The Case is Altered as well).

Lyly was no longer involved. Nor Oxford. Our hypothesis is that Henry Evans had remained in possession of the manuscript of the 1584 play on Timon and requested the young and unexperienced Thomas Middleton (1580-1627), who wrote for them A Trick to Catch the Old One, to write up the old play on Timon.

© Robert Detobel 2012