“Timon of Athens” – Reason No. 31 of 100 to Believe that Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford was “Shakespeare”

Timon of Athens was initially published in the First Folio of plays by William Shakespeare in 1623 as The Life of Tymon of Athens.  There’s no agreement about when it was written, but scholars studying the mood and style have focused on 1605 to 1609, while others have pushed the date back to 1601-1602.  In the view of those who think Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford was the author, however, those time frames are about a quarter-century too late.

Engraving by John Boydell, 1771: Timon in the wilderness, sitting with a spade at left and turning away with expression of disgust as he tosses coins towards two prostitutes, one catching them in her skirts, a soldier at right watching the scene with concern, others gathered in the background

Oxford was twenty-six in the spring of 1576 upon his return to England after fifteen months on the Continent, traveling most of all through Italy with Venice as home base; and it may well be that a non-extant play recorded as The Historie of the Solitarie Knight, performed on February 17, 1577 (less than a year after Oxford’s return) for Queen Elizabeth and her Court at Whitehall Palace, was an early version of Timon of Athens.

Timon is a young nobleman so renowned for his liberality and good nature that poets, painters and tradesmen flock to his home seeking his patronage.  He’s generous and trusting.  He  joyously entertains his guests, lavishing them with rich gifts and handing out cash even to the servants.  His seemingly endless wealth means little or nothing to him: “I gave it freely ever, and there’s none can truly say he gives if he receives … Pray sit, more welcome are ye to my fortune than my fortunes to me!”  (1.2.10-11, 19-20)

Oxford, too, had inherited great wealth in the form of vast estates; he, too, was a generous friend (as when he gave money to the scholar Gabriel Harvey, at Cambridge in the 1560’s) and an actively involved patron of actors, writers, musicians and others in different fields.   Like Timon, he was a trend-setter.  And he was accustomed to what the Poet in the play calls “the infinite flatteries that follow youth and money.”

The western approach to the Acropolis, showing the Propylaia, Temple of Athena Nike, and the Parthenon.

Soon, however, Timon discovers he’s run out of money and fallen deeply into debt, with creditors accosting him for payments owed to their masters – exactly what Oxford had learned about his financial situation while still in Italy.  Shocked and distressed by the news of his sudden lack of funds, he wrote from Siena in January 1576 to his father-in-law William Cecil Lord Burghley:

“My Lord, I am sorry to hear how hard my fortune is in England … I have determined that whereas I understand the greatness of my debt and greediness of my creditors grows so dishonorable to me and troublesome unto your Lordship, that that land of mine which in Cornwall I have appointed to be sold [for travel expenses] be gone through withal.  And to stop my creditors’ exclamations (or rather defamations, I may call them), I shall desire your Lordship by the virtue of this letter which doth not err as I take it from any former purpose, which was that always upon my letter to authorize your Lordship to sell any portion of my land) that you will sell one hundred pound a year  more of my land where your Lordship shall think fittest, to disburden me of my debts to Her Majesty, my sister, or elsewhere I am exclaimed upon … ” [Emphases added]

A Timon puts it: “How goes the world, that I am thus encountered with clamorous demands of debt, broken bonds and the detention of long such due debts against my honor?”   (2.2.36-39)

He questions Flavius, his steward, the way Oxford must have demanded of Burghley to explain how this “dishonorable” situation could have happened without warning:  “You make me marvel wherefore ere this time had you not fully laid my state before me, that I might so have rated my expense as I had leave of means…”

Flavius defends himself as Burghley would have done:  “O my good lord, at many times I brought in my accounts, laid them before you; [but] you would throw them off!  I did endure not seldom, nor no slight cheques, when I have prompted you in the ebb of your estate and your great flow of debts.  My loved lord, though you hear now, too late … the greatest of your having lacks a half to pay your present debts.”

Timon: “Let all my land be sold!”

Flavius: “‘Tis all engaged, some forfeit and gone, and what remains will hardly stop the mouth of present dues.”  (2.2.124-145)

Oxford’s surprise that land of mine in Cornwall” that he had “appointed to be sold was “already gone through withal” can be heard here:

Timon: “To Lacedaemon did my land extend!”

Flavius: “O my good Lord, the world is but a world: Were it all yours to give it in a breath.  How quickly it were gone!”  (2.2.151-4)

William Cecil, Baron Burghley: circa 1570

Oxford gave Burghley more instructions, adding, “In doing these things your Lordship shall greatly pleasure me, in not doing them you shall as much hinder me, for although to depart with land your Lordship hath advised the contrary, and that your Lordship for the good affection you bear unto me could wish it otherwise, yet you see I have none other remedy.  I have no help but of mine own, and mine is made to serve me and myself, not mine.”

The same thought and virtually the same words are used in the play when one of the usurers instructs his servant:  “Get on your cloak, and haste you to Lord Timon.  Importune him for my moneys … Tell him my uses cry to me; I must serve my turn out of mine own … Immediate are my needs, and my relief must not be tossed and turned to me in words, but find supply immediate.”

After all his former friends refuse to loan him any money, Timon leaves Athens and goes to the depths of the woods, where he finds a cave and begins to live as a solitary hermit – perhaps why the play performed in  1577 was called The Solitary Knight.

Timon expects to find “the unkindest beast more kinder than mankind” – words that will find an echo when Oxford writes to Robert Cecil in May 1601 (after the Secretary had helped to gain Southampton’s reprieve from execution): “I do assure you that you shall have no faster friend and well-wisher unto you than myself, either in kindness, which I find beyond mine expectation in you, or in kindred,” signing off “in all kindness and kindred, Edward Oxenford.”

Timon is “a lover of truth,” writes Harold Goddard in The Meaning of Shakespeare, and the play “seems to say that such a man, though buried in the wilderness, is a better begetter of peace than all the instrumentalities of law in the hands of men who love neither truth nor justice.”

"The Life of Tymon of Athens" in the First Folio of Shakespeare Plays - 1623

When Oxford was still a royal ward at Cecil House in 1569-70, enrolled at Gray’s Inn to study law, one of his book orders included “Plutarch’s works in French” – and as O.J. Campbell notes in The Reader’s Encyclopedia of Shakespeare, the great author “clearly knew the digression on Timon in Plutarch.”

“He may also have read Lucian’s amusing dialogue Timon Misanthropus, “Campbell adds, “if not in Greek, then in either a Latin or a French translation.”  Aside from being fluent in both Latin and French, the Earl of Oxford had been raised in the household of Thomas Smith, a Greek scholar, who had tutored him.  Both Smith and Burghley had copies of Lucian, as did the library at Cecil House; and Burghley’s wife was also a Greek expert.   It’s a given that Edward de Vere had access to all the Shakespearean sources at a young age.

Re-reading the play, I was struck by Timon’s “ceremony” speech in the second scene:  “Nay, my lords, ceremony was but devised at first to set a gloss on faint deeds, hollow welcomes, recanting goodness, sorry ere ‘tis shown; but where there is true friendship, there needs none.”  (1.2.15-18) Timon’s attitude calls to mind Oxford’s letter to Robert Cecil on May 11, 1601, in which he describes himself as “a hater of ceremonies.”

Many researchers have contributed evidence and insight regarding Edward de Vere in relation to Timon of Athens.  Here’s some of their commentary:

Eva Turner Clark (who first linked The Historie of the Solitaire Knight to Timon of Athens):

“The play depicts Timon as being just as solitary in the midst of his grandeur as he later became in his cave in the woods … Not even Timon could have lived a life of greater luxury and grandeur than the young Earl of Oxford throughout his youth.  Is it to be wondered at that Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford, grew up without the slightest idea of the value of money? …

“Young Oxford’s mind had been filled by his elders with a love of art and scholarship, of excellence in tournament and the field of war, and there was no room in it for the humdrum, workaday world, with its counting of pounds, shillings and pence.  Nevertheless, as he pursued the objects for which he had been trained, he was made to feel the sting of financial demands continuously from the time he came of age.  It was when he reached a crisis in his affairs, economically and socially, that he wrote the cynical drama of The Solitary Knight, or Timon of Athens

“Doubtless it was because of this experience that Oxford adopted the idea of exposing his fellow courtiers by satire and burlesque, by the suggestion of warning and threat, which is to be found is many of his plays.  In other words, revenge animated him, and, while revenge is not one of the finer impulses, it is a very human instinct to demand satisfaction for an injury done.”

But Clark adds that later, as Oxford grew mentally and spiritually, his personal revenge motive widened and matured into an effort to “show up disloyalty of subjects and dishonesty of politicians, for the benefit of his Queen and for the good of his beloved country.”

[Hidden Alusions in Shakespeare’s Plays, 1931; new edition with extra notes by Ruth Miller, 1974]

Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn:

“One of the hereditary offices of the Earls of Oxford as Lords Great Chamberlain was that of the Ewry, or Water-Bearer to the Monarch.  It was purely honorary, a formal gesture of presenting water on state occasions when the Monarch sat at meat.  There is a direct reference to this [in Timon]: ‘One of Lord Timon’s men!  A gift, I warrant.  Why, this hits right; I dreamt of a silver basin and ewer tonight.’  It is recorded that in 1579 ‘the Queen’s New Year’s gift to th’earle of Oxfourde [was] a bason and ewer of our store..’  Timon’s bitter jest of serving his false friends and flatterers with covered dishes containing only warm water is thus particularly ironical, expressing, as it does, the scorn of the impoverished Lord Great Chamberlain.”

[This Star of England, 1952]

Charlton Ogburn, Jr:

“I rather think, though, that Timon of Athens as we know it owes more to the manifold adversities that overtook its author in the early 1580’s, when the sale of thirty tracts of land in five years left him stripped near as bare as Timon.”

[The Mysterious William Shakespeare, 1984]

William Farina:

“Reading de Vere’s personal connections to the story of Timon, it is not an overstatement to say that Shakespeare’s play tells the story of de Vere’s life.  As the late Anglo-Oxfordian critic Edward Holmes succinctly put it, ‘The play is closest to autobiography [of all the plays] … Timon is too raw, too real for comfort.  It was begun too close to the catastrophe which prompted it.  That must be why it was left artistically undigested, incomplete.’  Under this scenario, Shakespeare the writer (de Vere) was writing Timon because he had to emotionally and certainly not for commercial gain.  According to the Oxfordian view, this was a driven author who perhaps could not finish what he started.”

De Vere as Shakespeare: An Oxfordian Reading of the Canon, 2006

Finally I’d like to suggest that interested readers take a look at a fascinating essay Timon of Athens: Shakespeare’s Sophoclean Tragedy (in The Oxfordian, 2009) by Earl Showerman, current president of The Shakespeare Fellowship. [And please see his comment on this blog.]

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Thanks for this ‘reason’, Hank. Of particular note is William Warner’s literary allusion to an “Athenian misanthropos biting on the stage” in 1584, in the same passage with allusions to Cassandra (from the ‘History of Agamemnon and Ulysses’) and to Diogenes (from John Lyly’s ‘Campaspe’), characters from dramas performed at court by the Earl of Oxford’s boys the same year. This is a too-early allusion to a Timon drama that most scholars have missed, including the editors for the wonderful edition of ‘Dating Shakespeare’s Plays’ recently published by the De Vere Society. Here is a link to my ‘Oxfordian’ article: http://shakespeare-oxford.com/wp-content/oxfordian/Showerman_Timon.pdf


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