There is no record of Timon of Athens being performed—in fact, there’s no mention of the play whatsoever, from any source, before the publication of the first Folio in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. The fact that the play survives at all is something of a fortuitous mistake. It was only included in a few editions of the Folio after another foundling work, Troilus and Cressida, was withheld for copyright reasons at the last minute. The fact that the Folio’s compilers, members of the King’s Men, did not intend to publish Timon has led many scholars to surmise something disjunct about it, either generically or compositionally.

And indeed, recent academic consensus, aided by analytic analysis of grammar, syntax, and common vocabulary, has concluded that the play is a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton. Much like Pericles, co-written with George Wilkins and dating to roughly the same time period, Timon can often feel like a Shakespearean meta-text, in conversation with its more canonical cousins. Timon’s main plot, of a generous benefactor turned away thrice by ingrate sycophants, unfolds like a secular King Lear (Coleridge called it a “Lear of ordinary life”), while the subplot of an aristocrat leading a civil insurrection similarly recapitulates (precapitulates?) Coriolanus. And like that play and Antony and Cleopatra, it comes more or less straight from Plutarch. 

Perhaps the play laid open on Shakespeare’s desk, unfinished, while he struggled through writer’s block, allowing him to blow off excess writerly steam. Conversely, as a collaboration with a younger playwright, Timon might show an old dog learning new tricks, Shakespeare keeping up with changing trends as he emerged from the darkness of Lear, Macbeth, and Coriolanus to the relative lightness of his final “Romances.”

But Timon remains one of Shakespeare’s least frequently performed plays more because of its uncanny, provocative social vision. It is an unflinching, tragicomic portrait of a rapidly modernizing world, one in which gender, sex, and above all money play a prominent role in maintaining hierarchies of power. At the top of the heap sit the wealthy and high-born, corrupt to their very core, leading lives of loan, meaningless luxury, and corruption, and they are surrounded by parasites whose utter lack of scruple, scrabbling after every stray penny, shames us with recognition. The play speaks just as pointedly now, in our age of apocalyptic inequality, as in the early 1600s. It shows us Shakespeare (and Middleton) at his Hobbesian, proto-Marxian apex. As a critique of early modern capitalism, Timon obviously sits outside the tamer, more easily commoditized facets of Shakespeare’s achievement.

The action of the play follows that instantly recognizable Shakespearean pattern, moving from urbane, courtly society to the wilderness “upon the beachèd margin of the salt flood.” Unlike the forest outside Athens or Arden, however, Timon does not move to a magical green world. Instead, the woods outside Athens yield up only the raw materials of nature. The two most common words in the play are “root” and “gold” (perhaps Shakespeare and Middleton playing on the biblical homily, “Greed is the root of all evil”).

These two metaphors combine in an iconic piece of staging when a desperately hungry Timon, digging in the earth for sustenance, finds gold instead.[1] And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges. Each of the characters from the first half of the play return with hands extended: a sycophantic duo of a court poet and painter (perhaps an acidic self-portrait of the artist-patron relationship); a trio of self-serving senators; the cynic philosopher Apemantus, who resembles a kind of photo-negative of Timon, bitter when she is kind at the beginning of the play, and subdued to find her occupying a similar ranting vein in the woods. “The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends,” Apemantus says, summing up Timon’s extremes of philanthropy and misanthropy.

Note the pronoun. In Simon Godwin’s timely new production, Timon is played by Kathryn Hunter, a conscious re-gendering of the play shadowed by the casting of female actors in the roles of other characters, from the good (the loyal servant Flaminia) to the bad (the grubbing Lucia). Timon of Athens is perhaps the most relentlessly masculine of all of Shakespeare’s plays, the only female characters in the original script being literal gold-digging prostitutes whom Timon meets in the woods and female masquers who perform a masque of Cupid at a banquet early in the action.

Equally fair-minded are Simon’s attempts to unify and add dimension to a play that all too easily lends itself to the extremes of polarization. The underclass here are made legible beyond their class stereotypes: the “Banditti” and Whores in the woods become apparent here as unemployed victims of social inequality, rather than mere criminals. In Godwin’s biggest rearrangement of the text, Alcibiades, the aristocrat-rebel becomes Timon’s loyal friend and leader of a populist insurgency that resonates with similar movements abroad in the world today. Where Shakespeare and Middleton at times tend toward excess, Godwin strives at every point for nuance.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the play’s ending, a crux for Timon’s character which I will not spoil here except to specify that it denotes a shift, from a world of sensual and worldly desires to one of forgiveness, and from a social-satirical play to  spiritual-philosophical one. The ultimate gift, the only truly, selfless gift, free from any desire for recompense, can never be given in this life, and perhaps only in the life to come.

[1] Shakespeare had previously invoked “saint-seducing gold,” the poisonous nature of money in the Apothecary’s shop, and the irony of gold statues erected of dead young lovers in that unlikeliest of anticapitalist plays, Romeo and Juliet. The only other digging scene in Shakespeare is, of course, Hamlet finding the skull of Yorick.