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Timon of Athens On Screen

Adaptations of Shakespeare's most obscure tragedy

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Thought to have been written in 1607-8, and first published in the First Folio of 1623, Timon of Athens is the story of a wealthy nobleman who, after discovering that the friends who used to flock to his lavish gatherings immediately shun him when he discovers the true state of his finances, declares war on the whole of humanity and retreats to a hermit-like existence in a remote cave. It was one of the last, most obscure and arguably least accomplished of Shakespeare's tragedies. Scholars disagree as to whether the play's numerous structural flaws and dramatic inconsistencies are the result of a collaboration (the younger dramatist Thomas Middleton is frequently cited) or because Shakespeare simply left it unfinished, but the text as it stands unquestionably lacks many of the qualities that make its predecessors so great. However, even minor Shakespeare features memorable passages, especially Timon's rages against the iniquities of the world, which reach a pitch of invective that recalls the author of the then very recent King Lear. It is also the only Shakespeare play explicitly about the corrupting effects of wealth, a full-length expansion of Polonius' much-quoted advice in Hamlet: "neither a borrower nor a lender be".

Since Timon of Athens is one of Shakespeare's least-performed plays in any medium, it comes as no surprise that the only television adaptation was made as part of the BBC Television Shakespeare project (tx. 16/4/1981). Directed by Jonathan Miller from an intelligently-streamlined text edited by David Snodin, it was a low-key but effective production that made good use of Jonathan Pryce in the title role, especially when it came to conveying Timon's lack of knowledge of humanity aside from "the extremity at both ends". The supporting cast included Norman Rodway (Apemantus), John Shrapnel (Alcibiades), John Bird (Poet), John Fortune (Painter) and Diana Dors (Timandra). The accompanying 25-minute Shakespeare in Perspective documentary was presented by journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, whose notoriously misanthropic outlook on life made him ideally qualified.

The original director of the BBC production was Michael Bogdanov, who resigned after being refused the option of staging it in a present-day setting. Two years later, Bogdanov resurrected his vision for a two-part, hour-long National Theatre workshop examination (Channel 4, tx. 19 & 26/1/1983) for the series Shakespeare Lives, where he and actors Clive Arrindell, Joss Buckley, John Darrell, John Labanowski, Daniel Massey and Bill Wallis performed individual scenes and analysed their content and context in front of a live audience, which was also encouraged to contribute to the discussion.


BBC Television Shakespeare, BBC2, tx. 16/4/1981, d. Jonathan Miller

Shakespeare in Perspective, BBC2, tx. 10/4/1981 , p. Malcolm Muggeridge
Shakespeare Lives, Channel 4, tx. 19 & 26/1/1983, p. Michael Bogdanov

Michael Brooke

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Timon of Athens (1981)

BBC Television Shakespeare adaptation

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