Shakespeare Post: Timon of Athens

This really did get delayed, didn’t it?  Part of the problem is that I find it difficult to think of many things to say about Timon at all.  It feels rather stylised to me, as though it is an allegory (possibly of the GFC as it pertains to Greece) or a morality play, or something of that nature.  And, all in all, I didn’t like this play very much, and I feel bad about saying that.  Especially when I’ve just finished re-reading Elizabeth Bear’s Stratford Man duology, and falling in love with Will and Kit all over again (if you ever wanted to know what would happen if Shakespeare and Marlowe had actually been part of a magical conspiracy of poets and politicians keeping Elizabeth I’s throne secure, with Elizabethan and Faerie politics, and a dash of heresy to spice things up, these are the books for you).  But I digress…


The characters in Timon are not engaging, and to me it seemed as though there were really only four who really counted: you had Timon, the incredibly stupid hero; Apemantus, the curmudgeonly philosopher, Alcibiades, the loyal friend; and Flavius, the steward, who was probably the most sympathetic and sensible character of the lot (he really *tries* to get Timon to notice the fact that he is running out of money and indeed going into debt, and needs to stop giving everything away and refusing to let anyone pay back any loans, but Timon won’t listen).  The other 42-odd speaking roles were either Loyal Servants or False Friends, with a handful of refreshingly honest prostitutes and easily guilt-tripped bandits thrown in, and that was about it.

Cheese ‘cigars’ in filo pastry.

It’s quite depressing.  We all spent the first Act howling in frustration at the wilful stupidity of Timon.


Don’t get me wrong – I am all in favour of generosity and helping people, but I do feel it is a poor plan to give away so much that you wound up grossly in debt to the people you have been randomly showering gifts on. And not to pay any attention to anyone who suggests that maybe now would be a good time to stop before you get further into debt.

Look, the truth is that as I said above, I really didn’t enjoy this play.  Ever other play we’ve done – and we only have two left now – has had something in it to love – poetry, characters, emotion, a plot so outrageous that it goes all the way through terrible to brilliant (I’m looking at you, Cardenio.  And Two Noble Kinsmen.  And Pericles…).

But Timon had the horrifying predictability and betrayal of King Lear (and when I say predictability, I actually mean that in a fairly positive sense – much of the horror of that play comes from the fact that the audience can see, right from the start, just how it’s all going to go terribly wrong, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it), without doing a very good job of making us care about Timon.

Tomato salad, with oregano, olive oil and salt.

I blame Middleton.  Apparently, he co-wrote the play, which is interesting, because I’m definitely not an expert and can’t pick a line and say “Yes, that’s Middleton,” but there were definitely points in the play where we could all go – “Oh, that’s Shakespeare.”

Chickpea balls, in progress…

Also, of course, it’s really depressing having a whole lot of friends around for a banquet and reading a play about a guy who keeps inviting all his friends around for banquets, only they turn out to be false friends and they make him broke and then turn on him when he has no money left.  My friends are not like that!  Indeed, my friends are the sort of people who send me off to fun things like concerts and cookbook-writing classes which I would not be able to go to without their generosity, not to mention turning up early to help with food preparation or staying late to wash up, so they are *measurably* not like that – but perhaps there’s more power in the writing than I’m giving it credit for, because it’s still horribly uncomfortable to read.

Turkish delight… adding a little sweetness to this review?

On the up-side, Apemantus was pretty good value, and I kind of liked the two whores in Alcibiades’s train.

Spinach triangles

And it was fun bringing out the rock cakes and rocky road  – and all the other lavish desserts – in time for Timon’s vengeful dinner party of rocks and hot water.

Halva and Rock Cakes

Cooking-wise, I mostly went with Greek food, of course, and leaned heavily on Tessa Kiros’s book Food from Many Greek Kitchens, which I heartily recommend.

Baklava… straight from the pan

What with being vegetarian for Lent, I decided to stick with a lot of vegetable mezze which would be easy to eat – dips, marinated veggies, salads, and little filo pastry pies with cheese or with spinach.

My favourte of the dips would have to be Skordalia, which I haven’t made before and was a last minute substitute when my fava bean dip turned out to be utterly uninspiring.  It’s a concoction of mashed potato, olive oil and raw garlic, which is a fine start, and the recipe commented cheerfully that if one found a mere 8 cloves of raw garlic too conservative, one could always add more.  Now, I am a garlic fiend (and if you don’t believe me, allow me to bring my roast garlic fudge as  evidence), and routinely double the amount of garlic in recipes, but I have to admit that 8 cloves of raw garlic doesn’t sound very conservative to me.  So I used 12.

Skordalia. If you are a vampire, I suggest not even looking too long at this picture. I can just about smell it through the screen.

It was fabulous.

I also used Kiros’s recipe for tzatziki – something I’ve never used a recipe for before – and really liked it.  Her eggplant and tomato dip was also excellent – lovely and chunky, and so nice to have eggplant dip without tahini in it (I find a little tahini goes a long way, and often overwhelms the eggplant).

Eggplant and tomato dip

There was a recipe for spiced feta cheese, which turned out to be a dip as well, which was lovely, but I made far too much of it.  Eventually it found its way onto pizzas and into pasta bakes, but we just couldn’t get through it all before it started looking dodgy…

Way too much spiced feta cheese. Though I did like roasting all the chillis as through they were capsicums and blending them into the mix – definitely a nice flavour.

I was intrigued by recipes for chickpea fritters which don’t actually bother cooking the chickpeas ahead of time (you just soak them overnight and then pulverise them with the other ingredients) – I was honestly not convinced they would work, but they were great, and very popular.

Chickpea balls

The other really strange (to my eyes) savoury recipe I tried was one for tomato fritters.  Tomatoes are not something that seem terribly fritterish to me, but these wound up being a bit like what you’d get if you made a minty tomato pikelet and then had it cooked at your local fish and chip shop.

Tomato and mint fritters. Strange, but good. I actually preferred them cold the next day.

I don’t deep fry things, you understand, but the shallow-frying came pretty close.

I was in something of a filo pastry mode after all the baklava, so I made rather a lot of spinach pies and cheese pies (adding a pleasing element to my lunch boxes for several days afterward), and the local greengrocer had all these gorgeous long peppers on special, so I bought a ridiculously large number and roasted them whole to skin and marinate.  I do love the colour of roasted peppers, and of course they are one of those things you can never make too many of, because they are endlessly useful.

Marinated roasted peppers

Between the fritters and the pastries, I decided we definitely needed some salads, and so we had a very plain tomato and oregano salad, as well as a very traditional salad of cucumber, lemon and mint.  Very refreshing, and I’ll be making it again next summer, I think.

And of course we had pita bread for the dips, and olive bread from Elise, and marinated olives, too, because it wouldn’t be a Greek play without olives.  Or at least, it wouldn’t be one of mine…

And then we moved onto the sweets…

I know I’ve already bragged quite thoroughly about my Rocky Road, but honestly, it is every bit as good as I keep saying it is.  Also, it basically kept me functional through last week when I was exhausted – I suspect the sugar content is ridiculously high, but it certainly delivers a dose of awakeness.

Rocky Road. Still the yummiest thing I have made all year.

I’ve also bragged about my baklava, but it deserves a bit more bragging, not least because of the way the entire play suddenly became about baklava as soon as I brought it to the table (perfectly normal lines suddenly developed mentions of baklava in them, and Alcibiades complained that he was being upstaged).  And two of my readers immediately shuffled down two sets to make sure they were right in front of it.  This is possibly the best compliment I’ve ever had on my cooking.

There was semolina halva, a lovely, grainy, semolina and yoghurt based cake studded with almonds and drenched in a rosewater and lemon syrup.  This is probably my favourite middle-eastern-style dessert, because it’s a smidgeon less sweet and syrupy than the baklavas and turkish delights of this world.

Semolina halva

I made rock cakes, which I haven’t had since I was little, and will probably become part of my repertoire again, because they are just a nice, wholesome, afternoon-tea sort of cake, and also Greek honey cakes (melomakarona), which are spherical spiced cakelets that you drench in a honey syrup and keep turning until all the honey has been soaked up and the cakes are on the verge of turning into crumbs in your hand.  Apparently, they are a Christmas speciality, but they had a nicely rock-like look, too.

Old-fashioned English rock cakes. All the better to throw at your guests…

Melomakarona – honeyed, sticky, and spicy

To finish up the dessert side of things, I had another try at making Greek-style Turkish delight, a strange, cornflour-based (but vegan!) jelly that really is one of the oddest things I’ve ever cooked.  I got the texture better than last time, but it still isn’t quite right, and probably needed even longer at the jellyfish stage.

Greek Delight, flavoured with rosewater and orangeflower water and made from something that looks alarmingly like a Dr Who monster in the saucepan.

And we had tiny little dried figs, too, just so that we could pretend that there was something healthy on the table…

Teeny tiny dried figs.

Hey, I didn’t say it was a convincing pretense…

An extremely healthy afternoon tea, by anyone’s standards…

In all, a good afternoon, with good food and one or two dishes I was really proud of.  But I won’t be sad to move on from Timon to As You Like it, which has plot (lots of it!) and bonus musical numbers at the drop of a hat.  I wonder, too, if this play would improve in performance?  I’d probably be curious enough to go and see it if someone put it on locally.  But I fear I would not pay for premium tickets.

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7 comments for “Shakespeare Post: Timon of Athens

  1. March 30, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    Oh my heavens, until this moment I’d completely forgotten that I did a whole project/speech on Alcibiades in college! Sad to hear the play failed at goodness, but give me that turkish delight, now. And gosh, I’ve only known halva as the sesame treat before!

    • March 30, 2012 at 1:40 pm

      I’d be interested to know what you thought of Alcibiades, actually! Obviously, a dramatic reading, while entertaining, is not the same thing as in-depth study, and I can’t help suspecting I missed the point of this play…

      The turkish delight is pretty, yes…

      • March 31, 2012 at 3:08 pm

        I can barely remember anything, I’m embarrassed to admit! I keep thinking about an ankle, which makes NO SENSE.

  2. filkferengi
    April 1, 2012 at 12:46 am

    It sounds as if Timon needed a good bankruptcy attorney; too bad mine isn’t licensed to practice in his country. 😉

    Much like your culinary delights, Olivier’s “As You Like It” might leave a better taste:

  3. April 1, 2012 at 10:32 am

    Yes, but for that to work, he would have needed to *listen* to his bankruptcy attorney. Which he wouldn’t have, because he prefers making dramatic gestures and going all misanthropic…

    Will investigate Olivier later!

  4. Pamela Dean
    April 3, 2012 at 5:14 am

    What a glorious spread!

    A famous critic whose name I am blanking on once referred to Timon of Athens as “Lear’s stillborn twin,” so it’s interesting that you too made a comparison to Lear.

    I don’t like the play at all. Our playreading group went through all of Shakespeare once and then most of Shakespeare several times, but we balked at repeating the Shrew, Timon, Titus Andronicus, and Pericles. We were perhaps unjust to Pericles.


  5. April 3, 2012 at 8:05 am

    Thank you! And that is interesting about Timon and Lear. I wasn’t the only one in the group making the comparison, either.

    And I entirely agree with your choice not to read the Shrew, Timon and Titus again. We couldn’t *stand* the Shrew – there was hissing, and howls of outrage, and our Kate point blank refused to read her final speech. Timon, I really hated, but the group managed to turn it into a horrific, gory slapstick.

    As for Pericles, I don’t know that you were unjust. It isn’t a very good play, but it had just enough insanity in it to keep our lot interested…

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