Word Links between Timon of Athens and King Lear

Notes & Queries 25/2 (223), April 1978, pp. 147-8

The position of Timon of Athens in Shakespeare's chronology is subject to differences of opinion. In his introduction [1] to the play in the Cambridge edition, J. C. Maxwell notes that the obvious affinities are with King Lear. Bradley suggested a place between King Lear and Macbeth. Maxwell continues "Sir Walter Raleigh, in my opinion more plausibly, thought Timon a first sketch of King Lear, set aside un­finished." Sir Edmund Chambers took a radically different view, placing it between Coriolanus and the last plays. "Among more recent scholars, there is perhaps a slight preponderance of opinion, with which I am in sympathy, in favour of the earlier dating." It would seem then that an examination of the rare words linking Timon with other plays of the canon might provide evidence relevant to the chrono­logical problem. The card index referred to in a previous note' was used for a statistical analysis, the results of which are shown in the table. It includes all the inde­pendent words (in the dictionary sense) occurring from two to ten times, and not more, in all the plays taken together, which link two or more plays.

    The connection with Lear dominates the picture.

    The word links between Timon and Lear are as follows, classified by the total number of appearances in the card index, with the number of appearances in Timon and Lear in that order: 2. conflicting, v, 1, 1; opulent, a, 1, 1; planetary, a, 1, 1; remotion, n, 1, 1; 3. ban, n, 1, 1; bay, a, 1, 1; flash, v, 1, 1; glib, a, 1, 1; milky, a, 1, 1; thankless, a, 1, 1; unbolt, v, 1, 1; 4. alight, v, 1, 1; curio­sity, n, 1, 3; dependant, n, 1, 1; deprave, v, 2, 1; greediness, n. 1, 1; ignobly, adv, 1, 1; nakedness, n, 1, 1; tithe, v, 1, 2; 5. brothel, n, 1, 2; consumption, n. 2, 1; crust, n, 1, 1; dumbness, n, 1, 1; fell, v (cause to fall), 2, 1; prescribe, v, 1, 2; rari(e)ty, n, 1, 1; resume, v, 1. 1; uncover, v, 1, 1; visible, a, 1, 1; whirlwind, n, 1, 1; whoremaster, n, 2, 1; 6. beweep, v, 1, 1; bleak, a, 1, 1; diligent, a, 1, 1; endow, v, 1, 1; eyeless, a, 1, 3; filly, adv, 1, 2; manifold, a, 1, 2; ruinous, a, 1, 1; unusual, a, 1, 1; warmth, n, 1, 1, 7. attendance, n. 1, 1; disclaim, v. 2; em­bossed, v, 1, 1; exact, a, 1, 1; impossibility, 11, 1, 1; painter, n, 2, 1; raiment, n, 1, 1; sect, n, 1, 1; soil, v, 1, 1; throne, v, 1, 1; 8. altera­tion, n, 1, 1; domestic, a, 1, 1; gaol/jail, n, 1, 1; hereditary, a, 3, 1; lick, v, 1, 1; mire n, 1, 1; thankfully, adv, 2, 1; verge, n, 1, 2; 9. pant, v, 1, 2; provision, n, 1, 3; robber, n, 1, 1; stealth, n, 1, 2; vicious, a, 1, 2; wretchedness, n, 1, 1; 10. braggart, n, 1, 1; caitiff, n, 2, 1; conflict, n, 1, 2; consideration, n, 1, 1; different, a, 2, 1; dotage, n, 1, 3; draught, n, 3, 1; humanity, n, 3, 1; humanity, n, 3, 1; influence, n, 1, 2; mince, v, 1. 1; patron, n, 1, 2; rashness, n, 2, 1; riotous, a, 1, 4; unfortunate, a, 1, 1. 79 words, appear­ing in Timon 94 and in Lear 103 times.


Though there are statistically significant degrees of linking with Hamlet, Troilus, All's Well and Coriolanus, they are far from reaching the magnitude of the Lear associa­tion. The next step was to examine the relationships of Lear with the other plays. These figures are also shown in the table. The numbers in columns 2 to 7 are for the record; from them all the other numbers can be calculated. Their meaning is extracted and shown in columns 8 to 13. These columns show two patterns, one for Timon, the other for Lear, which to the eye are very similar. Is it possible from them to hazard a guess which might be the earlier play? Whether in fact Timon could be the earlier, the "first sketch" for Lear which Sir Walter Raleigh supposed? One notes in the table that Timon has a significant degree of link­age with three earlier plays, Hamlet, Troilus and All's Well, and with one later play, Coriolanus. Lear on the other hand has significant linkages with two earlier plays, Twelfth Night and Hamlet, and with two later plays, Macbeth and Cymbeline. This suggests that Timon is more probably the earlier rather than the later play. In any case, if Timon came after Lear, it would be sur­prising to find that it did not have a signifi­cant excess of links with Macbeth, when Lear did.

    It is possible to put the entire data of the table to a single direct test. We begin by discarding word links with the first two acts of Pericles (a dubiously authentic play) and with Henry VIII (a work of collaboration). The remaining plays, excluding Timon and Lear, can be grouped into seven ages: 1. 2H6, 3H6, 1H6, R3, Err: 3366 citations; 2. Tit, Shr, TGV, LLL, Rom: 2982; 3. R2, MND, Jo, MV, 1114: 3102; 4. 2H4, Wiv, Ado, H5, JC: 2931; 5. AYL, TN, Ham, Tro: 3106; 6. AWW, MM. Oth, Mac, Ant: 3038; 7. Cor, Per 3‑5, Cym, WT, Tmp: 2985. The average of the numbers 1 to 7 is of course 4. The average of the numbers above is very close to 4, i.e. 3.9523 ±0.0137. The average of the Timon links is later, 4.1409±0.0504; and the average of the Lear links is a little later still, 4.1933 ±0.0395. Both the Timon mean and, still more so, the Lear mean differ from the mean for all other plays to a statistically significant degree; they are, in fact, relatively late plays. But the difference between Timon and Lear, 0.0524±0.0633, is not a statistically signifi­cant one.

    We conclude that the word links support the view of those who consider that Timon was written at about the same time as Lear, or rather earlier; and it is a massive item of evidence against the Chambers view of Timon as a later play than Coriolanus.

[1] Maxwell, J. C. (Ed.): The New Shakespeare: Timon of Athens, Cambridge, 1968, paper‑back edition, pp. xii‑xiii.

[2] Slater, E.: "Word links with All's Well that Ends Well", N. & Q., ccxxii (1977), 109‑112.