Misanthropes: Wyndham Lewis and Timon of Athens

By the end of Timon of Athens, the titular character is living in a cave, cursing his former friends and all of Athens. “I am Misanthropos and hate mankind,” he tells Alcibiades, a former friend and a visitor to his cave. Timon is what you might call “prickly.”

Some of the most engrossing illustrations of Shakespeare’s rarely performed tragedy come from Wyndham Lewis, an early 20th-century artist who was something of a misanthrope himself. Lewis was the founder of Vorticism, named for “Lewis’s belief that artists should observe the energy of modern society as if from a still point at the centre of a whirling vortex.” Vorticism blends Cubism, Expressionism, and Futurism, and incorporates abstract forms that recall industry, machinery, and urban architecture.1

Lewis, who was a writer and critic as well as a painter, would write about Timon in his 1927 book, The Lion and the Fox: The Role of The Hero in the Plays of Shakespeare. In it, he positions Timon as an idealist: “noble and immaculate.”2 In his introduction to a 2010 edition of Timon of Athens which includes Lewis’s illustrations, scholar Paul Edwards writes:

Wyndham Lewis and Timon of Athens
Marked-up trial proof for Wyndham Lewis’s “Alcibiades” from the “Timon of Athens” Portfolio, 1912.

It is likely that Lewis sympathised with Timon’s words (when he discovers his financial disaster), “Unwisely, not ignobly, have I given.” For Lewis, “wisdom” or prudence of the sort Timon refers to is a necessary hypocrisy in a basically imperfect and potentially treacherous world. Timon appears to belong instead to an ideal world of true nobility where this “wisdom” or prudence is not necessary—one that artists and philosophers may imagine, but one that will never exist in reality.3

In Timon, Lewis saw a critique of modernity’s brutality:

Lewis particularly admired the dynamic qualities of Futurism, but was skeptical of what he saw as the Futurists’ uncritical enthusiasm for modernity. He saw in the savage invective and brutal imagery of Timon of Athens a vehicle for his own critical attitude to Modernist fantasies of the total transformation of life.4

Lewis created his illustrations of Timon of Athens in 1912, well before he wrote The Lion and the Fox, hoping to publish an edition of Shakespeare’s play with the prints included. Instead, the prints were published as a portfolio, to Lewis’s disappointment—he still hoped that the illustrations would be published in an edition with Shakespeare’s text, and feared that the portfolio would damage its eventual sales.5

Timon is more than just an idealistic, anti-modern figure for Lewis: Edwards suggests that Lewis felt a “profound identification” with the character.6 Modern observers frequently describe Lewis as “prickly,” and during the Interwar Period, he was sometimes known as “the Enemy.” He penned scathing critiques not only of artists that he didn’t like (Virginia Woolf) but also of artists that he did, including some of his friends (James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound).7 In 1931 he published Hitler, a favorable portrayal of the dictator. His enthusiasm for fascism, which he attempted to recant after the war, offended many, though it was an enthusiasm shared by a number of his fellow artists. In 1932, Lewis was successfully sued for libel twice, and publishers began to steer clear of him.8 He was famously rude to friends, well-wishers, editors, and just about everyone else:

Lewis had spent some time in France with… the painter Richard Wyndham. Sitting outside a café in Toulon, [Lewis] told Wyndham that he [Richard Wyndham] was a ‘Narcissus’ and probably a ‘bugger’. People, Wyndham remembered [Lewis] saying, are only friends insofar as they are of use to you.9

Lewis, it seems, felt as persecuted and paranoid as Timon does. Indeed, one of the few trustworthy souls in Lewis’s life was that of his family dog. When the dog died, he wrote to a friend: Quote from "Timon of Athens"

“The death of our hirsute gremlin has left an ugly gap. . . my wife has had to pay [for the world’s envy and cruelty] as well as myself. So this small creature, which stood for all that was benevolent in the universe, sweetened the bitter medicine for her. Like the spirit of a simpler and saner time, this fragment of primitive life confided his destiny to her, and went through all the black days beside us. She feels she has been wanting in some care … Such are the reflections that beset her. Whereas I am just another human being – by no means a well of primitive joie de vivre…”10

Timon felt much the same way. He uses the word “dog” as an epithet throughout the play, but also seems to have a soft-spot for pooches. “For thy part, I do wish thou wert a dog,” he tells Alcibiades, “that I might love thee something.”

See Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens onstage at Folger Theatre until June 11. Or, learn more about how Lewis made his prints (and see more of his art) on The Collation.

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  1. Encyclopædia Britannica, “Wyndham Lewis,” March 21, 2017, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Wyndham-Lewis.
  2. Edwards, Paul, “Wyndham Lewis y el Timon de Atenas” in William Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, Timon de Atenas, tr. Angel-Luis Pujante. Madrid: Fundación Juan March, 2010, pp. 11 – 21.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Beale, Nigel, “Wyndham Lewis: overlooked scourge of mediocrity,” The Guardian, April 17, 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2008/apr/17/wyndhamlewisoverlookedscour
  8. Encyclopædia Britannica, “Wyndham Lewis,” 2017.
  9. Trotter, David. “Apoplectic Gristle.” Review of Some Sort of Genius: A Life of Wyndham Lewis, by Paul O’Keeffe and Wyndham Lewis: Painter and Writer, by Paul Edwards. London Review of Books 23 no. 2 (2001): 16-18, https://www.lrb.co.uk/v23/n02/david-trotter/apoplectic-gristle. Appears in The Guardian as “A most modern misanthrope: Wyndham Lewis and the pursuit of anti-pathos,” https://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/jan/23/londonreviewofbooks.
  10. Baker, Phil. “Was he human?” review of Some Sort of Genius: A Life of Wyndham Lewis by Paul O’Keefe and Wyndham Lewis; Painter and Writer by Paul Edwards, The Guardian, November 17, 2000, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/nov/18/biography2.

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