Timon of Athens

When researching the role and presence of women in Shakespeare’s plays, Timon of Athens initially (and erroneously) appears to be unremarkable:

Number of characters by gender

With an average of 3.7 female characters per play across the tragedies, Timon of Athens is only marginally below the mean. However, when it comes to the number of lines spoken by these three women in the play, Timon stands out quite clearly:

Percentage of lines spoken by gender

With an average of 14.9% of lines being spoken by female characters, Timon falls dramatically behind the other tragedies with a miniscule 0.4%. Therefore, this provided a clear starting point for further research into the roles and representation of women in Shakespeare’s tragedies.

Two prostitutes, Phyrinia and Timandra, are responsible for nine of the eleven female lines in the play. They appear in the forest with Timon who asks them to spread venereal diseases throughout the men of Athens as revenge for his poverty and homelessness.

“Be a whore still. They love thee not that use thee. Give them diseases, leaving with thee their lust.” (IV.iii.84-85)

Timon’s use of language also speaks to his opinion of women. He calls Phrynia “this fell whore” (IV.iii.63), and interestingly, uses the only instance of the word “sluts” in the whole of Shakespeare’s tragedies. In fact, Timon of Athens as a whole has the most colourful selection of sexual slurs of all the tragedies, which is especially telling when we consider how little the female characters actually appear.

Use of sexual slurs in tragedies

As a comparison, we can see the occurrence of these same sexual slurs across the comedies. The difference is plain: despite the female characters having more lines in the comedies, they are rarely referred to using sexual slurs. While the use of words like “whore” and “strumpet” can reach double figures in the tragedies, the use of such words never surpasses two in any individual comedy.

Use of sexual slurs in comedies

Further comparing the roles of women in tragedies and comedies, Berggren notes that “the comic world requires childbearers to perpetuate the race, to ensure community and continuity; the tragic world, which abhors such reassurance, consequently shrinks from a female protagonist.”1 As we saw in the first post of this series, we know that the comedies boast an average of 24.5% female lines, and the tragedies have only 14.9%, which supports Berggren’s assertion that female characters are purposely excluded in the tragedies, or at least their presence in minimised. If, then, the purpose of women in comedies is to reproduce, as Berggren suggests, it could easily be argued that Shakespeare includes women in his plays solely for their biological capabilities.

Furthermore, the very low representation of women in Timon of Athens has the effect of magnifying any female interactions in the play. Even a few lines, or a fleeting appearance on stage, represent a huge percentage of the female presence, and thus Phyrnia and Timandra’s short scene arguably becomes symbolic of all womanhood in the play. Just as with the comedies, it would seem that the primary purpose of these women is their bodies. This suggests that women in Shakespeare are often only considered useful for the few acts that men are physically and biologically incapable of.