‘Too absolute’: Macbeth, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens

  • Janette Dillon


These late tragedies even more than the rest of Shakespeare’s work acknowledge the divided response to the solitary characteristic of Shakespeare’s age. They present the solitary man as villain-hero, simultaneously noble in his isolation yet morally condemned for voluntarily seeking it out. The audience must condemn these men for their studied rejection of the social bonds which should define their humanity and yet pity them for their very isolation, perhaps even admire them for the defiance with which they face up to the solitary way they have chosen, a way which necessarily leads to sterility, inhumanity, insignificance and death. Willard Farnham, in Shakespeares Tragic Frontier, has pointed out that, by contrast with Shakespeare’s earlier tragedies, there are no villains in these plays.1 Instead, the central protagonist is inextricably hero and villain at once, even in the same characteristics: ‘There is nobility to be found in Timon, Macbeth, Antony, and Coriolanus, but in the main it seems inseparable from their flaws, and an admirer of that nobility may wonder whether he is not admiring the flaws themselves even while he sees that they are flaws.’2 Primary among the sources of nobility and moral condemnation together is the solitude of these characters, a solitude which is first of all voluntary, but gradually intensifies to a point beyond the individual’s control until it destroys him.


Social Bond Moral Condemnation City Wall Private World Divided Response 
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  1. 3.
    The word ‘state’ was changing in meaning in Shakespeare’s time, its political sense only just emerging. See the brief discussions of this semantic development in J. H. Hexter, The Vision of Politics on the Eve of the Reformation (1973), p. 152ff.Google Scholar
  2. W. G. Zeeveld, The Temper of Shakespeare’s Thought, (1974), pp. 82–3.Google Scholar
  3. 9.
    M. W. MacCallum, in Shakespeare’s Roman Plays and Their Background (1910), interprets the incident favourably for Coriolanus (p. 581).Google Scholar
  4. 13.
    It has been studied in detail by F. N. Lees, ‘Coriolanus, Aristotle, and Bacon’, RES, n.s., 1 (1950), 114–25.Google Scholar
  5. 15.
    T. W[alkington], The Opticke Glasse of Humors (1607), p. 68.Google Scholar
  6. 18.
    J. W. Draper lists some of these in ‘The Theme of Timon of Athens’, MLR, 29 (1934), 20–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 19.
    See G. Bullough (ed.), Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols. (1966–75), vol. VI.Google Scholar

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© Janette Dillon 1981

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  • Janette Dillon

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