Study Guide

Timon of Athens

by William Shakespeare

Timon of Athens Essay - Timon of Athens (1606-08)

Timon of Athens (1606-08)

Victor Kiernan, University of Edinburgh

If the unrestricted competition, the struggle of each against all, that was taking hold of Shakespeare's England may be seen through a glass darkly in earlier plays of his, in Timori of Athens it comes openly, raucously, into the foreground. Here the new social system is firmly established: it is in control of the State, able to dictate its own laws and mould social conduct. A story to crystallize this new mode of life could not be easy to find, and the one Shakespeare hit on gave him a poor drama, though a good enough platform for social criticism. Not all the text we have can be from his pen, though agreement is hard to reach about what is authentic and what is not. If critical opinion of late has favoured a view of the Folio text as derived from 'a not-quite-finished manuscript of Shakespeare' probably dating from 1607 (Soellner 186, 201), it has surely been too easy-going. Many have thought it, with its frequent unmetrical lines and crudities, and its prose in particular, a rough draft only (e.g. Muir, Sequence 187-8). If so, it tells us something of Shakespeare's working methods, and indicates that composition did not always come easily to him. One suggestion has been that a good deal had to be cut out because the Essex rising of 1601 made the staging of any kind of revolt indiscreet (Jorgesen 279-80). But Alcibiades' coup d'état is shown in full and given the author's blessing. Essex has probably been blamed for too many things.

A different guess might be a wholesale shift of time and place, for political reasons, such as Massinger made when he transferred his Believe As You List from modern Portugal to ancient Rome. Another conceivable interpretation would be that Shakespeare was seized by an impulse to return to narrative poetry, this time in the lately fashionable vein of satire, as a means of working off his feelings about contemporary abuses. Oscar J. Campbell finds in Timon some of the same 'satirical devices' made use of in several plays by Jonson (183). But if this was the case Shakespeare found his material swelling too much, and could not help drifting back to drama, with a poet's sketch in the opening scene of an intended work on the fall of someone resembling Timon—perhaps Shakespeare's own plan, turned into a kind of dumb-show introduction.

Soellner finds the play 'deliberately anchored in a pessimistic intellectual tradition' (12); Hazlitt, who may be said to belong to this tradition himself, and had a good share of Timon's misanthropy, declared the play to be 'written with as intense a feeling' as any work of Shakespeare (47). In this light it is tempting to see Timon as the successor of Lear, as Bradley did (Tragedy, 246-7; cf. Farnham 7). Both men have succumbed to the sweet poison of flattery; both come to grief through too liberal giving, one bestowing his kingdom, the other his fortune, on undeservers. Timon may have been given some furious tirades for which there was no room in King Lear, but with none of the wild grandeur of the Lear story to justify them. Lear is driven out into the wilderness; Timon turns his back on the city and walks out into a desert conveniently close by, to discharge his storms of invective. Shakespeare's disgust with mankind, which strains King Lear to the limits of dramatic form, here overflows them altogether; it is a play virtually without a plot. Timon has far too little warrant for his indiscriminate excommunication of mankind, and—lacking inspired madness—even less opportunity than Lear to have acquired the detailed familiarity with human depravity which he suddenly displays. It is clearly the author himself who is finding vent for feelings of his own, inflamed by awareness of similar indignation among many others. There is no lack of evidence elsewhere that Shakespeare sometimes suffered from such inflamed moods, at the opposite pole from his keen relish at other times of life among his fellow-men. It was a fundamental of his nature to be compounded from opposites and contraries.

Lear's ordeals finally emancipate him from self-absorption; Timon's do not. His only way out will be the escape from life that Gloucester learned to renounce. He undergoes no 'genuinely tragic remoulding' (Maxwell, cited by Lerner, 271; cf. Hunter, Studies 254). Probably Timon was too well known a character for even Shakespeare to be able to alter much. Dekker was writing in 1609 of 'Timonists' who 'truly loath this polluted and mangy-fisted world' (Hornbook 18; cf. 75). Timon was seen, that is, as typifying the alienation of man from man that people were growing uneasily conscious of, not as a bringer of new ideas for curing the malady. In the play he may condemn men's heartlessness towards one another, but it is always their treatment of him that infuriates him. King Lear is concentrated on the miseries of the poor, Timon of Athens on the callousness of the rich; not much, however, or not manifestly, towards the poor. Here the levelling tendency apparent in the two previous plays becomes a morbid one, downward instead of upward. Men are equal in being equally worthless; when Timon wants all 'degrees, observances', ranks, swept away (IV.i. 18-20) it is not for the sake of enfranchisement, but to set mankind free to destroy itself. Lear's frantic denunciations of the human race are palliated by his age, whereas Timon seems to be in the prime of life.

We can suppose Shakespeare to have abandoned work on the play, leaving it perhaps to be cobbled up by a 'prentice hand, when he realized that it was not flowering into a true drama. A hero without distinct personality, raging at a set of ingrates who are only names to us, could not be lifted from the ground by even a whirlwind of poetry. There is something in Timon of Hamlet, unpacking his heart with words, but unlike Hamlet he has no specific mission to urge him on, and no impulse to do anything more than talk. His world is too degenerate to be worth saving; his jeremiads are on a par with those of the pulpit against a human nature incurably defective. They miss the crucial fact that what is wrong is not, at bottom, human nature, but the institutions it has locked itself into. Shakespeare does end by pointing this out, in however rough and ready a manner, not through Timon, but through Alcibiades.

Tragedy cannot for Shakespeare be confined within any circle of personal life, eventful though this may be: it must cast huge shadows of collective concern. A hero's fate and that of his fellow-men must in some fashion be bound up together. In Timon this vital factor is for a long time missing. True, the protagonist has been at some time in the past a true hero, a pillar and protector of the city, both with his purse and with his sword, against foreign attack. But we learn this belatedly; through the first two Acts he shows merely as a rich man indulging his foolish whims. It would almost seem as if Shakespeare suddenly perceived this, and brought in Timon's services of bygone years as an afterthought. They are what entitles him, he believes, to call on the Senate for an immense subsidy when he goes bankrupt (II.ii.193 ff.), and to charge the government as well as his friends with ingratitude.

Romantic love had become for Shakespeare a very questionable ideal; he turns now to another fashionable Elizabethan cult, romantic friendship, and finds it even more fallacious. It meant much to him, but only, in his maturity, when cemented by shared principles and sense of duty. In Julius Caesar it is the threatened break-down of a noble friendship that affects us most painfully of all. In Athens things are too one-sided. Appealed to by an associate, in jail for debt, Timon declares that he is not one to desert 'My friend when he most needs me', but little guesses how his friends will behave when he needs them. In Shakespeare's calendar ingratitude was always a sin, 'more strong than traitors' arms' against Caesar (JC III.ii.186). Timon's misfortune is foretold in Hamlet—'who not needs, shall never lack a friend' (III.ii. 188); he is as deeply outraged by his abandonment as Coriolanus, deserted on political grounds.

Timon is alone in the world, without kith or kin, so that his friends mean everything to him. He is a nobleman, often addressed as 'Lord Timon'; a great landowner, living in a pipe-dream nourished by his riches and his ardently generous nature. 'We are born to do benefits', he proclaims, finding a 'precious comfort' in the thought of friends, 'like brothers, commanding one another's fortunes!' (I.ii.94 ff.). His healthy social instinct, formerly dedicated to the commonweal, is now frittered away in useless waste. His philosophy of mutual aid is a kind of collectivism, but of an élitist kind, limited to a clique of men rich enough to exchange valuable gifts. It is, though Timon does not rationalize it so, a method of mutual insurance, such as the poor have always been compelled to practise among themselves. There is no thought of aid to those really in want. It is with savage irony that the disillusioned Timon, in his grace before meat, begs the gods to 'Lend to each man enough, that one need not lend to another' : lending and borrowing must always breed rancour. He includes 'the common tag of the people' among those 'suitable for destruction' ( ff.). It was an obtuse critic, of a century ago, who hailed the play as a demonstration that socialism, community of goods, cannot work (Smeaton 434).

There is something in Timon's self-deception, all the same, of Shakespeare's haunting nostalgia for a lost Golden Age, free of private property with its dividing and corroding taint—that property which on a modest scale he himself felt obliged to devote so much of his life to putting together. In this play he is setting against the acrid self-interest of the new age an opposite conception (however much it leaves out) of how life ought to be lived. Timon has never expected to be reduced to poverty: he thinks his wealth inexhaustible, and in any case counts on always having faithful friends to buoy him up. Still, he has a laudable indifference to possessions, except as a means of making others happy; and he accepts voluntary penury rather than return to riches bereft of the sanction of any ties of brotherhood.

Yet the ideal glow he basks in at first is no more than a feeble glow-worm light. As Soellner notices (54), he is an isolated figure even in his palmy days. He has no genuine friend, no confidant to turn to; a strong contrast with Brutus's many loyal friends, and one that reveals Timon's lack of judgment. Costly gifts are no substitute for a communion of beliefs, political allegiances, high purposes. Rome too was an oligarchy, but its best minds dwelt on a vastly higher level than is to be found in Athens. Hugging the dear friends whom he has never tested, Timon is one of Shakespeare's Don Quixotes, a fantasist of the past. There survives in his daydreams at least a negative truth, that 'civilized' life, perennially athirst for gain, corrupts human beings and makes any advance to truly civilized life impossible. Constructive social thinking would for long be out of sight; Shakespeare can only dodge insoluble riddles by going out into the wilderness with Timon in an unavailing protest against the reign of Mammon.

Timon has been called a memorial to the old spirit of open-handed feudal bounty (Siegel 17); but Machiavelli had long since warned readers of The Prince against throwing away their money and taking the highroad to despised poverty. Spendthrift habits, of the Rake's Progress sort, were beggaring a wide swathe of the English landed classes. Another factor here must have been simple inability to count. Numeracy was spreading much more slowly than literacy, and ignorance of the use of Arabic numerals and decimals, of even the most straightforward arithmetic, was still common in England (Thomas, 'Numeracy'). Doubtless the Merchant of Venice could count well enough, but he had been wont to lend money without interest; Timon outdoes him by refusing to accept money lent to Ventidius when the latter's son, now well off, wants to return it (I.ii.1 ff.). There is an ostentation verging on vulgar display in his lavish gifts. He can only keep it up now with borrowed money; all his vast estate is gone, as he is at last forced to learn from his steward. Antonio found no one to lend him money when he was in dire straits; and Timon's creditors and critics think of his extravagance as Shylock did of Antonio's. It cannot be supposed that Shakespeare, himself a hardworking man careful of his funds, admired Timon's folly. Some lines in Troilus and Cressida show what kind of giving he approved: Troilus is generous, 'Yet gives he not till judgment guide his bounty' (IV.v. 102).

Timon's denunciations of mankind are still more excessive than Lear's, yet no one is to blame for leading him astray but himself. He has been flattered, or buttered up, no doubt, but so are all rich men; and he is one of the plutocrats who have been enjoying life in the Athens whose wickedness he now excoriates. No sooner is he angry with his false friends than he is ready to curse everyone wholesale, including women, who have done him no injury that we know of, and commoners. 'Timon will to the woods' (IV.ii.35 ff.), but not in the resigned spirit of As You Like It, or the hopeful spirit of the Romances. His maledictions may be magnificent, but there is something in them of the Byronic, or the spoiled child. He does not call on his fellow-men to improve, but to vanish from the earth. He runs some risk at times of sounding like a thunderous echo of the crusty cynic Apemantus. He cannot speak for mankind against its oppressors; all its better qualities he is blind to. He urges Alcibiades to massacre every soul in the city. There is nothing of Lear's devouring remorse, first for his foolishness and then for his wrong-doing or neglect. We can only feel goodwill for Timon by reflecting that he is really condemning not the individuals he thinks have wronged him, but the accumulated cankers and corruptions of society. It is Shakespeare, in however unbalanced a mood of saeva indignatio, who is speaking to us.

He can indeed find fault, through Apemantus, with his hero's 'unmanly melancholy' (IV.iii.203-4), a phrase recalling the prominence of 'manly' and 'manliness' in Macbeth. Yet Timon can in his way impress us as a tragical figure, because an embodiment of the better, if wasted, qualities of a passing age, horrified by the new age into which he is shaken from his dream; and those qualities have earned him the staunch fidelity of a humble few. It is not merely personal mortification, but the shattering of a faith, that transforms him overnight into a half-crazed misanthropist. Some such loss of cherished illusions is part of the experience of every tragic hero, and therefore also of ours as spectators. Timon could be rich again if he chose, but there can be no way back to Athens for him, any more than for Lear to a throne he has learned to despise. For him only death remains, and he looks forward to it in splendid poetry (IV.iii.372-3; V.ii.213 ff.). He will have a grave washed daily by the tide: he must leave behind not only earth's vile inhabitants, but the infected soil that breeds them.

Shakespeare might be in principle an admirer of republicanism, but his Athens is a very unattractive republic. He must have had in mind his own London, very much a little republic as far as its domestic affairs went, and governed by an oligarchy of the rich. In this play alone Shakespeare shows us a bourgeoisie in power, and his senators have an evident resemblance to the aldermen familiar to us from the works of other playwrights. These London dignitaries were never on cordial terms with the theatres, and Shakespeare's choice of plot allowed him to retaliate against them by proxy.

Timon and his milieu epitomize a time when propertied classes are in a shifting condition, individuals rising or falling, novel sources of wealth being found; when opportunity and insecurity reign jointly, and profit or bare survival can both depend on credit. Little distinction is made between friends whom Timon has enriched and businessmen he has borrowed from to keep up his wasteful style of living. He has inhaled enough of the commercial air of the times to feel that his 'honour' is injured by his failure to pay his debts (II.ii.41)—a notion that Falstaff would have laughed heartily at. It is a sign of how much his outlook has altered that when he discovers gold it does not occur to him to use it for clearing off his debts.

The senators who refused to rescue him from bankruptcy are 'old fellows', he complains, their blood cold and 'caked' (II.ii.211 ff.). Athens is a home of the new or nascent capitalism, but the only mode of enrichment singled out is the most opprobrious, one that any writer could attack and be sure of having the public on his side,—usury. But money-lending in the modern sense of credit, or provision of capital for useful enterprise, was becoming an indispensable part of the economy, which the playwrights were apt to overlook. A senator who has lent money to Timon, and wants it back, may not be a monster, but a rational man of affairs, who sees that Timon's 'raging waste' must soon ruin him. 'My reliances on his fracted dates', he tells his assistant, 'have smit my credit', and though he holds Timon in esteem he has no wish to follow him downhill (II.i.4, 20 ff.). Timon is soon beset by duns, employees of other 'usurers'. There can be no lending of money nowadays 'upon bare friendship, without security' (III.i.39-40); even the gods would find it hard to borrow from men ( There is no room for pity in business affairs, 'For policy sits above conscience' (III.ii.87-8). A banker today would say, or think, just the same.

Hitherto Timon has found nothing objectionable in the ways by which money circulates among the prosperous; and of course as a landlord he has found it quite natural that others should dig the soil while he collects rents from them to be spent on feasting and junketing. This is something he never feels any need to think about. Still, Shakespeare can invite us to sympathize with him in spite of his egregious folly. He brings in a group of 'strangers' to express this feeling and protest against all cut-throat money-making (III.ii.64 ff.). 'Religion groans at it.' At bottom the issue presented is between two classes, two eras, and their philosophies.

Timon had many forerunners in inveighing against the encroaching power of money. Erasmus, who spent a good deal of time in England, had elevated Plutus, god of wealth, to primacy on Olympus, as the deity at whose nod 'All public and private affairs are decided' (103). In earlier plays of Shakespeare pecuniary values creep in through many channels, among them the Bastard's tirade on 'Commodity', or profit, in King John. Now their blight is intensified into Timon's ferocious denunciation of Gold, the real villain of the play. Kenneth Muir counts two hundred allusions to it, and points out that Shakespeare's play followed close on Jonson's plays about avarice, as the motive force of an acquisitive society (Singularity 66, 68). Its contagion can no longer be closed up, shut off, in any single personality like Shylock; it is an impersonal, omnipresent social force. Timon's worthy servant longs for his master's false friends to be compelled to swallow molten gold, a penalty traditionally inflicted on the greedy in hell (III.i.49).

All time-honoured social principles are being subverted by the unfettered pursuit of riches; this play is a manifesto against what is happening. Timon himself has been a casualty, long before his fall; it is his exorbitant fortune that has turned his wits. He has been trying to bribe people, with lavish gifts, into being his bosom friends, and been rewarded with nothing better than flattery—always, like ingratitude, one of Shakespeare's targets. It seems from what his honest steward says that his house has often been the scene of noisy, 'riotous' revelry (II.ii.154 ff.), which must have detracted from the respect earned by his public services. Such feudal profligacy recalls the revelry of Lear's knights, which so disgusted Goneril. 'O, the fierce wretchedness that glory brings us!' the steward is left to lament: this is where 'pomp' and 'state' lead to (IV.ii.31 ff.). Great wealth, like overmuch power, is dangerous both to the possessor and to those whom it enables him to enslave. Timon comes to see this very clearly, of everyone except himself. More than once he thinks of gold, like Erasmus, as the 'god' of this new age (IV.iii.380; V.i.48-9). Even when he is about to make ready his grave and epitaph, he turns back to apostrophize gold—that 'ever young, fresh, loved, and delicate wooer', and destroyer—the 'sweet king-killer', the 'divorce' between father and son, that magnet that can join together things impossibly incongruous (IV.iii.375 ff.).

Timon may seem emotionally involved, to an unnatural degree, with his male friends, though not with any one of them in particular, and to be indifferent to women until, as soon as he is soured, he feels a maniacal loathing for them. There are no reputable women in the play; it might have seemed indecent to bring any onto the stage that is to be drenched by Timon's torrents of abuse. There could be no partner for such a man; he must be alone, like Lear, to pour out his vituperations. These are not so much of government or institutions, as of individual vice, especially sexual. But public and private depravity go together, whether we are to conclude that government corrupts or is corrupted by those it rules.

In the passages from Timon quoted with most relish by Marx, the black magic of gold, and the sexual debasement it can cause, stand out together. In a society ruled by gold there can be little room for love. At best it can be looked back on by a mercenary old father as no worse than a fit of youthful silliness: the man for his daughter must have money (I.i. 112 ff.). Gold can join couples, and it can drive them apart: it is the 'bright defiler of Hymen's purest bed' (IV.iii.376-7). For the first and only time in Shakespeare we see and hear of women only at their tawdry worst. The only speaking parts, both small, are those of a pair of trollops kept and openly paraded by Alcibiades. 'We'll do anything for gold', one of them assures Timon (IV.iii.150), speaking, we must suppose, for her sisters in general. They provoke another outburst from Timon, and bode ill for their protector's future as reformer of Athens; but by the time he appears under the walls they have disappeared.

In Timon's fevered imagination, at least, sexual vice overflows all bounds of class, age, rank; lust is the great leveller. In a not very Shakespearian colloquy, but with some resemblance to the brothel-scenes in Measure for Measure and Pericles, a 'Fool' apparently attached to some such establishment is asked the meaning of 'whoremaster': he replies that the term may denote any male from thirteen to eighty, lords, lawyers, philosophers, and, most of all, knights (II.ii.104 ff.). Disgust with everything sexual is carried to an extreme. Intercourse is seldom alluded to without mention of disease as well. Timon can welcome immorality as helping to hasten the extinction of the human race. He bestows gold on Alcibiades' women, adjuring them to further this good work (IV.iii.134 ff.).

Of any interest in social reform he shows only an occasional flicker. There are touches of the puritanical, as when he censures wine and gluttony as likely to cloud or 'grease' men's minds; he goes on to talk disparagingly of 'the subtle blood o' the grape' (IV.iii. 193-4, 422 ff.). We have heard things like this in Hamlet and Othello. In one long speech he sounds as if suddenly transformed into a revolutionary agitator, calling on debtors to cut their creditors' throats, servants to steal, all law and order to be thrown to the winds (IV.i.1 ff.)—as they were by Laertes' anarchical mob. Lear wanted authority dissolved, Timon wants class war to take its place, but, apparently, without any plan or leadership.

Timon winds up by extending his curse to 'the whole race of mankind', of most of which he can scarcely know much. Earth, the all-mother, 'sick of man's unkindness', should no longer breed 'ingrateful man', but only venomous creatures like adders, or savage beasts (IV.iii. 176, ff.). Human beings will outdo the devil himself, Timon's man Servilius remarks. Apemantus seems to hint at recent English history as confirming his belief that a great man's neighbour at table is 'the readiest to kill him; 't has been proved' (I. ii.42 ff.). No remedy is to be looked for from the educated, who have a full share in the iniquities of the mass. Timon sees 'boundless theft' practised by the liberal professions. Lawyers in particular indulge in 'uncheck'd theft' (IV.iii.420 ff.). They are also oppressive. 'Religious canons, civil laws, are cruel': what can we expect war to be? (IV.iii.60-61). Many in Shakespeare's audience would have said Amen to this; lawyers were second only to usurers in the Englishman's list of social plagues. Alcibiades the soldier speaks apprehensively of 'the law, which is past depth' to those who rashly plunge into it (III.v.12-13). As for the medical faculty, its 'antidotes are poison' (III.iv.424-6). In all this, as in Lear's curses on mankind, the fundamental Christian doctrine of total depravity, rendered still more strident by Puritanism, must be borne in mind. Without it such maledictions would have sounded hysterical, as they do to us today. All men and women were corrupted, according to the Churches, by the sin of Adam; society is corrupt, Shakespeare is saying, because of the unbridled greed and egotism which have come to be the breath of its life.

The play opens with a poet and painter waiting, along with skilled craftsmen, for a chance to sell Timon their wares. Shakespeare must have recalled his early days of dancing attendance on a rich patron and offering homage; a memory that, as Armstrong said, must have disgusted him (155). Since then he had shaken off this degradation by taking the public, with all its shortcomings, for his chief patron. Both poet and painter deplore Timon's reckless spending. But artists must live, and these two are as acquisitive as any other toadies when, getting word of his discovery of gold, they hurry out from Athens hoping to lay their hands on some of it. He overhears them talking, and quickly sends them packing; though it is to his credit that he recognizes in poetry a species of 'alchemy', able to turn base materials into gold (V.i.1 ff., 111). And whatever shifts artists may be reduced to in a soulless society, the poet's intended composition, approved by the painter, amounted to a warning against Timon's blindness, unlikely to have wrung many thanks from him. Artists are finding the new climate unpropitious, we may conclude.

Apemantus is a dull creature on most days of the week, with nothing to do in Athens except snarl at the gay world he sees in Timon's mansion, where his admission speaks well for its owner's tolerance. He has somehow got himself an education, which has left him an intellectual without occupation. Embitterment like his was no small ingredient in the cauldron of English social feeling. He has turned satirist, and occasionally shows wit. He has good warrant, after watching Timon's banquet, to ask 'what need these feasts, pomps, and vain-glories?'—and to sneer at elaborate upper-class etiquette as turning men into creatures more like 'baboon and monkey' (I.i.239 ff.). After Timon's fall Apemantus is seen in a better light, and is capable of some true eloquence. He claims a contentedness with poverty superior to never-satisfied grandeur; Timon retorts that he was born poor, and would have been a debauchee if he could (IV.iii.239 ff.). In their altercation in the wilderness Apemantus sensibly points out that Timon knows no mean, no moderation, but has always been at one of two opposite extremes. (IV.iii.300 ff.). But their talk falls off into an undignified exchange of abuse, sinking from poetry into prose.

Timon illuminates class-society in a few words when he says that life is brief, but sweet

to such as may the passive drudges of it Freely command.


His catalogue of human ills includes, like Hamlet's, the 'pangs of love', but not poverty (V.i.195 ff.). The lives he adds joy to are those of his fellow-aristocrats; we hear of no donations to the poor, no benefactions such as both lords and opulent merchants often preened themselves on. If he had sought companions among humbler folk, as Hamlet did, his disillusionment would have been less crushing. Here as in ancient Britain, simple virtue has taken refuge among the poor. Everyone makes promises nowadays, says the painter, but fulfilment lags very far behind, except among 'the plainer and simpler kind of people' (V.i.22-5). Timon has no ear for such talk. In one of Shakespeare's most terrible utterances he recommends his steward to give no charity to beggars,

But let the famish'd flesh slide from the bone.


There were famines in Shakespeare's Europe, one of the worst in Ireland, as there are today in our world. Through Timon's ravings Shakespeare is telling us that this is how the rich do, too often, treat the poor. Through Lear he has told us something of how they ought to treat the poor. Misfortune has turned the two men's minds in contrary directions.

In King Lear we meet good men of both high rank and low. Timon has faithful adherents only among the lower ranks, as if Shakespeare had lost hope of all grandees. To his servants Timon has doubtless been an indulgent master, in the old style of the great household, and their devotion to him is unbroken. Cast adrift, their 'hearts wear Timon's livery' still (IV.ii.18). Even the servants of the ruined man's creditors, sent to dun him, feel how basely his old associates are behaving (III.iv.22 ff.). Having vainly done his best to dissuade Timon from his fatal liberality, the steward gives his humbler fellows a share of his savings, and goes out to Timon's cave to offer the rest to him, together with his free service. For once Timon feels his now 'dangerous nature' almost subdued, and admits to the 'perpetual-sober gods' that there is one good man left alive. His steward, he knows, could have done better for himself by deserting and betraying him: many get employment with new masters 'Upon their first lord's neck' (IV.iii.485 ff.)—another piece of social realism.

By way of parody (and a reminiscence perhaps of his burlesque brigands in Two Gentlemen of Verona), Shakespeare brings into his procession of visitors to Timon's new abode a group of 'banditti' (IV.iii.392 ff.). They try to pass themselves off as soldiers, in distress as many always were, but Timon sees what they are, or it may be is implying that there is not much difference between the two occupations. They call their trade a 'mystery'—mastery, craft; a joke, like Falstaff s 'vocation' of highway robbery, that Shakespeare never tired of. When Timon assures them that all men are thieves, he comes close to saying 'Property is theft'. He urges them to go to Athens and break into shops: they take this as differently meant, and are moved to thoughts of giving up their anti-social life. Here, still more evidently, Shakespeare is teaching back-handedly.

Religion, like all else, is in a bad way. Gold can 'knit and break religions' (IV.iii.34); priests are among those who ignore 'the general weal' in their chase after private gain. A servant speaks of 'those that, under hot ardent zeal, would set whole realms on fire' (III.iii.31), fanatics bent on stirring up broils. Amid this hubbub morality is abandoned to the lowly and unassuming. 'Man was wished to love his enemies', the good steward reminds us (IV.iii.459). There is frequent invoking of 'the gods'. Timon calls on them to confound mankind. They are 'righteous', the steward believes (IV.ii.4); he does not ask why they have made so unrighteous a world. As in King Lear, such epithets tell us what virtues human beings feel their rulers most lack.

Nature partakes far more now of human malignity than of heavenly innocence. Apemantus's warning to Timon of how little 'these moss'd trees/That have outlived the eagle' will care about his wishes contains some of the play's superbest poetry (IV.iii.221 ff.). Timon himself makes no attempt to idealize Nature. All living things prey on one another; here again allusions to the political jungle are thinly disguised. For good measure Timon goes on to accuse even sun and moon, earth and sea, of thievery (IV.iii.326 ff., 429 ff.).

We expect a Shakespearian tragedy to work towards events crucial to the public weal or woe. It is never the hero who is commissioned in the end to launch a reconstruction, as new kings could be in the Histories with their simpler requirements. Hamlet and Lear can catch sight of the needs of a new age, but they must leave it to others to provide for them. Timon is so hopelessly overwhelmed by the evils surrounding him that he cannot even dream of reformation; the only cure for mankind is to be wiped out. Change cannot be inaugurated by any legitimate means, or by insurrection, but only by a coup d'état. Its leader Alcibiades is an admirer of Timon, which supplies a degree of continuity. With his army on the march, the Senate begs Timon to come back to Athens, assume full power, and save the city, as he saved it once before from foreign attack. He repels its deputies harshly, but twice in the colloquy rises into a mood of tragic serenity. His thoughts are on his coming death, his sea-washed tomb. 'Lips, let sour words go by, and language end' (V.i.183 ff.): we can fancy we are hearing Shakespeare, in his mood of this play, bidding farewell to poetry, like Prospero, reconciled to life, later on.

Unlike all the other heroes, Timon disappears unseen, careless of how he will be remembered, and leaving no more of a message than the necessity of root and branch change. Salvation from a mutinous army chief is a very new departure in Shakespeare's political thinking, though Fortinbras and Albany are in their own ways forerunners, and Antony and, more distinctly, Octavius successors. Shakespeare is far from wishing to romanticize war, as he had sometimes done before. Timon talks with aversion of 'contumelious, beastly, madbrain'd war' (V.i.171); a far cry from Othello's glorification of it. There is in Alcibiades' closing speech a return to something like the notion, so frequently met with in Shakespeare, that peace breeds maladies which only war can cure (V.iv.80-82); but the gist is now rather that each must be kept in its proper place. As to army service, Shakespeare is making explicit what he must always have been conscious of more or less: the sacrifices of war fall on the soldier, the benefits go to his sleek employers (III.v.108 ff.), a ruling class as Timon has called them of 'large-handed robbers', who 'pill [pillage] by law' (IV.i.11-12).

Plutarch's portrait of Alcibiades was a mixture of praise and blame; he was not much admired in England (Soellner 51-2). Like his disgruntled men he deems himself illrewarded, but the issue over which he takes up the cudgels is a comrade's condemnation by the Senate for killing a man in a fight. It is the only occasion when Shakespeare debates the ethics of duelling seriously; his old problem of Honour comes up afresh. In Alcibiades' view the culprit showed a noble disposition by fighting, because his 'reputation' (so much heard of in that military play Othello) had been 'touch'd to death', or traduced. A senator states judiciously the case against duelling: it is 'valour misbegot', or mere revengefulness, and for a man to risk his life without need is folly. It emerges, moreover, that though a bold soldier this man was often drunken and riotous. How many good soldiers are not, Shakespeare—always severe on drunkenness—may be asking? What will an army be, Alcibiades asks, if courage is to be stifled, or why keep an army at all if it is right to swallow injuries (III.v.18 ff.)?

Once again we are witnessing a clash between the outlooks of two eras, two dominant classes. Alcibiades wants law to be its old feudal self, flexible and pliable, taking account of individual claims to favour; the Senate answers him, as it answered Timon's appeal for financial aid, in a spirit of cold, formal legalism. Justice has no room for pity; mercy only encourages law-breaking (as it did in Romeo and Juliet): 'We are for the law; he dies.' No person is entitled by his services to ask for law to be set aside. 'My wounds ache at you', the general protests. He is banished for his persistence, and breaks out in fury, telling his masters to banish their own 'dotage', and the practice of usury 'That makes the Senate ugly'. He is left resolving to stir up the soldiers against their employers, who have been enriching themselves by money-lending while he has been out fighting, like his men, for miserly pay (III.v.95 ff.).

Alcibiades marching on Athens has a resemblance to Coriolanus marching on Rome; but his intention as it takes shape is a far better one. It is truly revolutionary, the overturning of a selfish government of the rich. The trumpets sounding his 'terrible approach' (V.iv.1-2) reverberate like Bolingbroke's 'brazen trumpet' outside Richard II's crumbling castle. England, like Athens, must have harboured some hankerings for an armed saviour; if Essex had come back from Ireland a triumphant conqueror, as Shakespeare had predicted in Henry V, he might have had better fortune. Alcibiades' philippic against the senators and their abuse of power, now grown intolerable, is a powerful expression of patience worn out (V.iv.3 ff.). New spokesmen of the Senate assure him that his enemies have died of 'shame'. It is not very clear what is the dividing line between sheep and goats; but those now in the lead offer dignified submission, and appeal to Alcibiades' feeling for his 'Athenian cradle'. He responds in statesmanlike tones: only a few of the most guilty will be punished, the army will be kept in order, Athens can make a new beginning. Forgiveness, so often spoken of in the tragedies, has a place here too; he proclaims a 'more noble meaning' than revenge (V.iv.40 ff.), very much as Prospero, with his enemies in his grasp, chooses to be guided by his 'nobler reason'. Alcibiades is thus faithful to the maxim he had urged in his dispute with the Senate, that justice should be tempered with equity and mercy.

England's evolution had gone far enough, this play shows, for political judgments of considerable maturity to be made. More clearly than ever Shakespeare is recognizing the decay of an old social order, without welcoming the new one taking its place. Each has its better attributes, which he would like to see combined in one whole. His Alcibiades is among the earliest sketches of a populist dictator, with army backing, coming to purge society and promote justice and progress, as in Cromwellian England only forty years later, and as in so many outdated fantasies of our modern world. The senators offering surrender address Alcibiades as 'Noble and young' (V.iv.13); it is fitting that those in Shakespeare who undertake this vanguard role should be young men like him—Fortinbras, Edgar, Malcolm, Octavius. Their youth augurs a new springtime of rejuvenation for their people. Athens is opening its gates to the future.

Source: "Timon of Athens (1606-08)," in Eight Tragedies of Shakespeare: A Marxist Study, Verso, 1996, pp. 140-53.