Timon of Athens: a question of genre

So. Timon of Athens. As I noted yesterday, a tough play. And in terms of genre, just what is it?

First Folio with Troilus and Cressida title page following Romeo and Juliet
First Folio with Troilus and Cressida title page following Romeo and Juliet

I mean, sure, originally, in the first and second folios, it was listed with the tragedies in the table of contents (fourth, right after Romeo and Juliet, and before Julius Caesar). Interestingly, despite the table of contents, there are some copies of the First Folio that have the leaf that has the last page of Romeo and Juliet on the left-facing side, with the first page of Troilus and Cressida; in other copies, the right-facing page of that leaf has the first page of The Life of Tymon of Athens.

First Folio with title page of Timon of Athens following Romeo and Juliet
First Folio with title page of Timon of Athens following Romeo and Juliet

And therein lies something of note: Sure, it’s listed as a tragedy, but as such it is the ONLY one not to be titled “The Tragedy of…”, the only one titled “The Life of…”–which was used mostly for histories.

But I digress.

Timon of Athens was originally grouped with tragedies. But that left some critics with a bit of literary (and maybe literal) heartburn. Near the end of the nineteenth century, F.S. Boas coined the term “problem play” to alleviate the generic discomfort. Only he named only All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Troilus and Cressida to the group…and added Hamlet. Huh? Anyway, other critics came along–and after putting Hamlet back where he belongs–and also added The Merchant of Venice and Timon to the group (still others add The Winter’s Tale to this category, but I’m a firm believer of that play’s inclusion among the romances or tragicomedies).

Now, when I first started this project, and I was trying to categorize the plays (why? I don’t even know now), and I used that oft-cited (and much-argued) term “problem play” for those five plays that most critics (who use the term) put in that bucket.

Since then, I’ve had conversations with a few readers of the blog who have taken me to task for the pigeonholing. And I’ve seen the light. When I’m done with these 36, before I go on to the other (cough, co-written, cough) plays, I’m going to re-categorize this website. But really, I’ve already been in the process of this. Merchant, Measure, and All’s Well, all fall under comedies for me (with endings dealing with marriages and/or births)… dark comedies, to be sure (maybe dark AF comedies). And as I’ve already noted, I see Troilus and Cressida as a tragedy.

And Timon of Athens?

Yeah, I’m going with tragedy here as well. Classic tragedy? No way. Problematic tragedy? Sure. We’ll deal more with Timon as tragic hero later, but for now let’s say tragedy.

Hell, I’d already been moving toward this: my Periodic Table of Shakespeare has Timon listed as a tragedy. So there.

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