Interviews - Prof. Ladan Niayesh - Part II
Prof. Ladan Niayesh
Focusing specifically on the play "Timon of Athens"; let's settle the debate once and for all: is it a tragedy or a problem play?
The answer to your question depends on your definition of “tragedy”. In the first Folio of 1623 (that is the first edition of Shakespeare’s complete works), "Timon of Athens" is grouped with the tragedies. The other two categories in the volume are comedies and histories, and obviously Timon could not belong to either of those other options. It is a tragedy insofar as its action is based on human suffering and a catharsis (purging of emotions), with the fate of the central figure inspiring pity and fear (the two expected Aristotelian tragic emotions) in the audience. But the action fails to fully qualify as a standard tragic action in five stages neatly following the rise and fall of a hero, complete with a final catastrophe involving an onstage death in the early modern English tradition. Here, the hero’s fall occurs much earlier than at the end, and he dies offstage, in a kind of ellipsis. The defiant, fighting dimension of heroism, meanwhile, is transferred to another character, Alcibiades, who embodies the nemesis of Athens here and who closes the play in Timon’s absence, making the denouement problematic. So all in all, we have a play and its eponymous character resisting and rejecting tragic heroism and a proper denouement, making this a problem play, or a ‘problem tragedy’ if you prefer.
It is now established that Shakespeare collaborated with Thomas Middleton to write "Timon of Athens"; how does this play differ from Shakespeare's solo body of work either in structure, tone, lyrical pace, etc.
This is neither the only time, nor the first that Shakespeare was working in collaboration. Collaboration was a common practice of early modern English drama, at a time when play texts were the property of companies, not of their writers. Sometimes a company would ask two or more dramatists to share the writing of a play in order to produce it faster. At other times a playwright would be asked to revise someone else’s earlier work for the revival of an older play in a different setting (at court for example), or with less or more actors at hand, notably competent boy actors who were less easily available. In the case of the Shakespeare-Middleton collaboration over a number of famous plays, both situations occurred, with for example Middleton probably revising Shakespeare’s "Macbeth" in case they did not originally co-write the play. For "Timon of Athens", John Jowett, the play’s editor for Oxford University Press, believes up to one third of the play could be by Middleton, including the banquet scene in Act I and much of the central act. Co-authorship in Jowett’s view is not just to be looked down on as a source of inconsistency in style and plot, although we have some of those here. But it is also an interesting asset in this very philosophical and dialogic play, which Jowett sees as a kind of artistic conversation between the two dramatists over key existential questions such as friendship, love, resilience, charity, in short whatever makes humanity human.
How much of the story is Shakespeare's own ideas and how much was historically based? How much is fictional and original and how much is inspired by the real life Timon of Phlius or, say, "Timon of Athens, the Man-Hater" by Thomas Shadwell?
As with his other Roman plays (in particular "Antony and Cleopatra" and "Coriolanus", whose dates of composition are close to that of "Timon of Athens"), Shakespeare was much inspired by Plutarch’s Lives, in this case more directly by the life of Alcibiades. But Lucian’s Dialogues were also a source of inspiration, especially for the cynical stance and the satirical style of much of the exchanges between Timon and Apemantus. In the absence of a lost play of Timon dated 1584, possibly a satirical comedy which may have elicited this play as a response or a rewriting by Shakespeare and Middleton, it is difficult to say how much of the material in our play can be original. Regarding the collaboration, let us also not forget that Middleton was working around the same period on his own "A Yorkshire Tragedy", which we need to think of as a parallel to some of the material of Timon. As for the Shadwell play, the filiation is the other way round, since that one is the post-Restoration adaptation of our play, dated 1678 and later set to music by Purcell.
"Timon of Athens" is the fifth longest role in Shakespeare. How does it compare to the other four: "Hamlet", "Iago", "Henry V" and "Othello"?
Let’s not forget "Richard III" on that list, where he comes second only to "Hamlet". Taken together, those longest roles in Shakespeare are balanced between on the one hand heroes in deliberative mood (like Hamlet or Othello), and on the other hand anti-heroes and man-haters cynically commenting on the action and satirizing (like Richard or Iago). It is interesting to see both categories meet in the case of Timon, whose very stance in the play is wavering between the two extremes of main protagonist and anti-hero. "Timon of Athens" is also a play in which technically not that much happens in terms of action, making the protagonist’s transformation primarily the result of a journey of philosophical dialogue and deliberation. As a sort of philosopher in the making, Timon has his path of initiation mainly through rhetoric and language.
I know with the role of Prospero in "The Tempest" scholars feel a lot of Shakespeare's own personality and feelings can be found in the character. Is there much of Shakespeare in Timon? Did he feel somewhat taken advantage of in his later life?
It is tempting with much of Shakespeare’s later plays to see the figure of the ageing dramatist behind that of ageing and suffering or disillusioned heroes, from Lear to Prospero. The Romantics certainly did much to entertain that view, but the hypothesis does not hold as neatly when we think of a collaboration with Middleton. The story has it that Shakespeare the actor also played a role in Timon, but meaningfully enough, he is said to have gone for the part of the Poet, not that of the disillusioned and suffering central character. So no, even if the idea works well as a marketing ploy, I don’t think Shakespeare was particularly “taken advantage of” as you say at the point in his life, or that he was thinking of his end and of literary testaments as early as a decade before his actual death.
Greek theatre has influenced Shakespeare in his plays, and while this doesn't follow the Aristotelian principle of tragedy (unity of action, unity of time, unity of place) do you feel Timon nonetheless has a "hamartia" (or tragic flaw)?
Let me start by reminding the readers that the three unities are not an Aristotelian principle. In his Poetics, the only unity Aristotle explicitly refers to is that of action. Unities of time and place were extrapolations made by later theorists, such as the French classicists from the 17th century (the likes of Corneille and Racine). They certainly do not apply to most plays by Shakespeare and his English contemporaries. But the hamartia or tragic flaw, yes, it is part of Aristotle’s definition, and it has to be there for tragedy to work. Tragic flaw is what makes the very qualities of the hero become excessive to the point of causing tragic mistakes and making his downfall the direct consequence of his own character. In the case of Timon, excess is definitely there in the form of both his initially overconfident generosity. Like any tragic hero, Timon transgresses the norms of humanity and this inevitably brings his downfall.
What do you think of the original play and the strong contemporary messages it expresses?
"Timon of Athens" is a tragedy of money, too much of it, eating human souls away and acting like the common whore changing hands and corrupting people. I think this is a theme that can resonate in all societies, and certainly very much in our capitalist and consumerist ones. If we take the perspective of the secondary hero of the play, Alcibiades, it is also a tragedy of political betrayal and lost homelands. In our war-driven world of political coups and forced economic migrations, that too can be something we relate to and feel with. Fundamentally, the two central figures of the play, Timon and Alcibiades, face the same question: what can an individual do in the face of a corrupt and doomed system? The one, Alcibiades, is forced to fight his own homeland, which is hardly an honorable position. Meanwhile the other, Timon, flees and curses the homeland, committing a social and ultimately a personal suicide. Both are bitter choices, leaving the heroes disillusioned with humanity and its potentials. We feel with their distress as they ask the right questions, without their having ideal answers any more than we do.
This is a very politically driven play, what was the political landscape like at the time Shakespeare wrote "Timon of Athens"?
A reference in the third act to “those that under hot ardent zeal would set whole realms on fire” is generally taken to be a topical allusion to the Catholic conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot in November 1605, failing in their attempt to blow up the Parliament and assassinate the absolutist new king, James I. So political anxiety is clearly there in the play, inseparable from that uncertain context. It is doubled by economic anxiety too, in front of the lavish and dispendious court pageants, which possibly get reflected in Timon’s first banquet and masque. There was generally a feeling at the time that with court and King spending way above the realm’s means, recession was under way, and that fear transpires in the play through Timon’s trajectory.
This will only be the second time Timon has been made into a feature film, why do you think that is?
Because the concepts are certainly very modern, tackling very real issues we still face today.
One reason for that, I believe, is the nature of the play itself, which as I said earlier, is less an action play than a deliberative one. The sense that the play is experimental and lacks closure also tends to make its structure appear intellectual and elitist. Add to that the complexity of keeping the original language, and you have all the ingredients for making the film successful at festivals but shunned by wider audiences. I believe the current adaptation is likely to follow another course, since the scenario has chosen to adjust characters in a way that explores some of the secondary themes of the play, including the sexual definition of heroism and the nature of interpersonal relations of attraction and repulsion. This adaptation, I feel, is less about the failure of the community and more about the individual as singular and solitary, looking back with nostalgia to times when things worked differently, and possibly more easily. It strikes other chords in the modern individual’s tragedy, which are worth exploring.
Staying with the theme of "modern", many recent productions of "Timon of Athens" modernize the play's setting, do you feel that's necessary to convey the contemporary quality of the piece?
There are so many examples of modern elites failing political, economic, and social challenges that it is hard to resist the temptation of transposing and modernizing the play’s setting to convey a committed message. Personally, I think presentist options are great for making Timon’s downfall a contemporary parable, but they generally work better for stage adaptations than for films. If a film is too packed with topical allusions, it can sell well on the spot (like a stage adaptation, made for a certain place at a certain time), but in the long run, it ages less gracefully than an option that aims at the universality of the play’s themes and stances.
Ladan Niayesh is Professor of English Studies at the University of Paris Diderot - Paris 7. She is an alumna of the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Fontenay -St Cloud. Her PhD was on the representations of cannibalism on the early modern English stage, and her Habilitation was about the representations of strangeness and strangerness in early modern English literature. Her current research interests are in editing travel drama and travel writings in that period, with a particular interest in travels to Persia and Muscovy.
Education and Academic Positions:
1990, Ecole Normale Supérieure
1993, Agrégation d’anglais
2000, PhD, University of Montpellier 3. Dissertation title: Aux frontières de l’humain: Figures du cannibalisme dans le théâtre anglais de la Renaissance
2010, Habilitation à diriger des recherches, University of Montpellier 3. Title: Etrangeté et étrangèreté dans le théâtre anglais de la Renaissance
1995-2000: Allocataire Monitrice Normalienne and ATER at the University of Montpellier
2000-2012, Maître de conferences (Senior Lecturer), Université Paris Diderot – Paris 7
2012-present, Professor, Université Paris Diderot – Paris 7
Board Member, Conseil Scientifique, Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris Saclay (Cachan)
Member of the Hakluyt Society Council
Associate editor, Cahiers Elisabéthains
Member of editorial board, Renaissance Studies
British Literature and history of ideas, 16th-17th centuries
Early Modern theatre (Shakespeare and his contemporaries) and its modern adaptations
Travel literature, particularly in connection with Persia and the Ottoman empire in the early modern period