“The true misanthrope, in fact, is such a character as Iago, a malevolent devil, without belief in any human goodness, without human sympathies, one who has said in his heart, “evil, be thou my good.” But the very nature of such inhuman hatred would impose not only silence as to evil thoughts, but hypocritical expression of humane sentiment. The honest wide-mouthed misanthropy of Timon is… inconsistent with sane mind, and explicable alone as a depravation and perversion of nature arising from disease. It is a form of insanity.” —John Charles Bucknill, The Psychology of Shakespeare (1859)
Iago and Timon. One betrays the man who considers him his closest friend. The other turns his back on his nation, his place in society, and all mankind.
What are the points of connection between these Shakespeare characters? At a recent Folger Friday event, two actors offered insights from their experiences performing in Folger Theatre productions of Othello and Timon of Athens. Ian Merrill Peakes has played Iago in Othello and Timon in Timon of Athens, and Louis Butelli has played Roderigo in Othello and Ventidius in Timon of Athens.
Iago and Timon: How they got the way they are
There’s a little mystery behind Iago’s malice towards Othello, Peakes says. Iago’s heard rumors that Othello has been in bed with his wife, but admits that he doesn’t know if they’re true.
In contrast, “We get to see more of why Timon becomes a misanthrope, because of the betrayal of his friends,” Peakes says. The people he thought were his true friends only cared about his money.
“Timon felt he had personal bonds, and then by being betrayed in that regard, becomes a betrayer of his entire city-state,” Butelli says. When Timon later finds gold, he gives it to soldiers who are marching against Athens.
“I also don’t think he seeks to betray,” Peakes says. “I think finding the gold, and then these soldiers showing up, the opportunity presents itself, and he doesn’t shy away from it. Whereas Iago is cunning and plotting this betrayal from the beginning of the play, I think that Timon has just sort of circumstantial betrayal.”
One of Shakespeare’s “great tropes and tricks” is to have his villains address the audience directly, to say all the very bad things that they’re about to do, Butelli says. Iago does this, but Timon doesn’t.
“Iago, I think, is wrong, but he’s 100% self-aware, and that’s the complicity that he gets from the audience,” Peakes says. “He gets them on his side.”
In contrast, “Timon really insulates himself, even from the audience a little bit,” Peakes says. That insulation comes out in Folger Theatre’s production in the form of Timon’s germophobic and OCD behavior. This also gets into one of the play’s questions: Why does Timon give so lavishly to his friends? “Because that’s his only way of creating friendships, because he can’t have close associations physically,” Peakes says. “He has issues with proximity.”
Timon of Athens: A true villain?
“Iago thinks he has every reason to commit these acts,” Peakes says. “That’s why I think he’s a sociopath.”
What about Timon? “He’s more of a tragic figure because he has a belief system that he thinks is inherent with everybody, and then when that is taken away, he removes himself from society,” Peakes says. “Iago keeps himself in the middle of the world, but at the very end of Othello, he takes himself out as well.”
Iago is a “master manipulator,” Peakes says, but Timon’s fault is that he’s too trusting. “The fact that he assumes that everyone is going to view the world through the same spectrum that he does—well that’s just naïve.”
Timon of Athens, directed by Robert Richmond, is onstage through Jun 11.