TIMON OF ATHENS
For further information on the critical and stage history of Timon of Athens, see SC, Volumes 1 and 20.
The publication in 1930 of G. Wilson Knight's highly laudatory study of Timon of Athens in The Wheel of Fire engendered a renewed interest in the drama. One of the most significant debates among succeeding critics has centered on the play's unity. In an authoritative essay, H. J. Oliver (1959) echoed one of the nineteenth century's leading Shakespearean critics, William Hazlitt, and praised the work as unified in both design and concept. F. W. Brownlow (1977) advocated the conceptual coherence of the drama as well, finding its tone predominantly dark and satirical. Many critics have extended this discussion of the play's unity to include the question of whether or not the text—as it appears in the First Folio—is complete. Most contemporary scholars agree that it is unfinished, and some have maintained that, in writing Timon, Shakespeare struggled with subject matter that ultimately proved resistant to the dramatic form. Oliver suggested that the biggest obstacles the playwright encountered were both the lack of dramatic conflict inherent in the tale, which sees Timon responding to adversity by removing himself from societal contact, and the lack of psychological depth in the title character himself, who moves abruptly from generosity to misanthropy. John Bayley (1981) found Timon "too extreme," and declared the concept of such a radical change in psychology "tyrannical," and thus, unfit for Shakespearean tragedy. Noting the incompatibility between Timon's antisocial nature and the dramatic need for character interaction, Richard Fly (1976) determined that with Timon Shakespeare was intentionally testing the limitations of drama. Fly focused on the play's experimental and metadramatic features, including the extreme domination of a title character who offers little insight into his own character and who remains separate from his society, and concluded that the play "marks a climactic juncture in Shakespeare's restless exploration into his demanding medium."
To which genre Timon of Athens properly belongs has been one of the most controversial questions among recent commentators of the play. The work has been interpreted variously as black comedy, a parable, or an allegory containing pronounced similarities to the masque form. Brian Vickers (1968) has attempted to synthesize a number of these approaches, suggesting that Shakespeare adapted several literary conventions in the construction of the work. A number of critics, however, have argued that the drama is primarily a tragical satire. Alvin Kernan (1959), for example, characterized Timon as Shakespeare's most thorough-going exploration of the satiric mode of life. Robert C. Elliott (1960) posited the influence of classical and Renaissance satire on the biting humor and extreme use of invective in the language of Timon and Apemantus. Highlighting the drama's medieval antecedents, David M. Bergeron (1967) focused on the play's abstract nature and compared it with the late morality drama Everyman (c. 1500). The critic concluded that, although the protagonists of these two dramas both face desertion by their friends and the loss of their wealth, they differ significantly in their responses to misfortune. For Everyman, knowledge of humanity inspires spiritual salvation, for Timon, it yields an implacable misanthropy.
In assessing Shakespeare's handling of language in Timon, most critics agree that much of the verse is highly uneven; however, several scholars have perceived in it poetry of intense artistry. Bayley, acknowledging the limited subject matter of the verse, which focuses primarily on one man's obsession, argued that its concision and compactness reveal "Shakespearean mastery." Harold S. Wilson (1957) determined that "the speeches of Timon himself … reflect Shakespeare's fullest poetic power." During the following decades, many commentators have contended that the title character's language mirrors his heightened mental state: as his hatred of mankind intensifies, so too does the degree of violence and hyperbole contained in his maledictions. Moreover, as his disgust with humankind escalates, so does his use of animal imagery in describing man's descent into beastliness.
The enigmatic nature of Timon's character has continued to intrigue critics. Since the eighteenth century, two interpretations have emerged: Timon has been perceived either as a noble, generous figure who is wronged by an unjust society; or, he has been viewed as a flawed figure who is deceived by his need for adulation and recognition. Until the early twentieth century, many critics viewed Timon as an ideal Renaissance aristocrat who is unfairly treated by his friends and subsequently turns into a misanthrope. By the latter half of the twentieth century, however, many scholars had begun to see Timon as an imperfect character who possesses few noble qualities. Representative of this perspective is David Cook (1963), who found Timon "pictured as flagrantly wrong-headed in both halves of the play" and "too negative a vehicle for [Shakespeare's] thinking." By contrast, Kenneth Muir (1972) argued that Timon gains the sympathy of the audience because "he is so much nobler than his environment. Athens is a corrupt society, mean, sordid, and hypocritical, its values entirely commercial. Timon himself … is entirely unaware of the nature of the society in which he lives."
Exploring the classical background of the drama has marked another area of emphasis for modern critics. Scholars generally agree that Shakespeare drew the Timon story primarily from two classical sources: Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, and Lucian's dialogue Timon, or the Misanthrope. In the mid-1980s, John M. Wallace introduced a more obscure source into the critical arena, Seneca's De Beneficiis, asserting that this Latin work influenced the playwright's conceptions of gift-giving and the evil of ingratitude. Wallace determined that Shakespeare examined the feasibility of the Senecan model through the character of Timon, ultimately proving that his source text "was a primer of old-fashioned, un-workable nonsense." In addition, several other critics have concentrated on the portrayal of Athens in Timon, noting that Renaissance writers, who were influenced primarily by Roman accounts, tended to regard Greek society as decadent and unstable. In particular, Howard B. White (1970) and Robert S. Miola (1980) found Shakespeare's choice of an Athenian setting appropriate to his examination of betrayal and deceit. White maintained that corruption in the world of the play is limited to the circle of societal rulers and their flatterers, and argued that their ungratefulness "shows the decay of Athens, its commercialization and its covetousness." In exploring the Renaissance conceptions of a lawless and violent Athens, Miola concluded that the playwright drew upon these images to demonstrate his aversion to the democratic system, which he believed encourages the abandonment of rank and authority, permits such moral wrongs as unjust banishments and flagrantly excessive banquets, and leads to a self-deceiving and animalistic society.
Some of the most suggestive criticism of the play has sought to place it in the light of social and cultural forces operating in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. M. C. Bradbrook (1966), for example, averred that Timon was written by Shakespeare in response to his theatrical company's move from a medieval open-air stage to London's Blackfriars Theatre, the indoor playhouse where the drama was performed late in 1609. According to Bradbrook, Timon is "the work of a theatrical craftsman, [a] new experimental approach to an indoor lighted stage." Seeking to illuminate the intellectual background of the play, Lewis Walker (1977) explored the Renaissance concept of Fortune, and concluded that the goddess's influence on the world of the play is "malignant," as she perverts the notion of friendship through her controlling presence. Coppélia Kahn (1987) applied the techniques of feminism and new historicism to Timon in order to uncover links between the portrayal of power in the play and the exercising of power during the reigns of Elizabeth and James. Kahn suggested that Shakespeare made use of the contemporary cultural practices of usury and gift-giving in order to examine the ways in which power was distributed among courtiers.
Alvin Kernan (essay date 1959)
SOURCE: "Tragical Satire," in The Cankered Muse: Satire of the English Renaissance, Yale University Press, 1959, pp. 192-246.
[In the following excerpt, Kernan, calling Timon of Athens "the most penetrating analysis ever made of the satiric sense of life," argues that the title character represents an aberration of nature whose "diseased outlook" stems from a perversion of goodwill.]
In Timon of Athens (c. 1605) Shakespeare … turned his attention to the satiric sense of life and the satiric character developed in the new satire. But Timon takes quite a different direction than does Troilus, for here the satiric character occupies the center of the stage and the play is primarily a search for the causes of this diseased outlook. Where Thersites is simply a given, a dark energy who has no final explanation, Timon the satirist is a mutation, a distortion of a nature which was originally one of love and generosity. The play is the most penetrating analysis ever made of the satiric sense of life, and so is of interest to us not only because of its place in the history of the satirist in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, but because of its bearing on our general argument, the nature of satire.
Timon is written in a symbolic or allegorical mode. There are realistic incidents and occasional speeches which ring true to life in the most immediate sense, but on the whole the characters change attitudes so rapidly and are such pure expressions of love or hate or greed, without subtle nuances and shadings, that they seem to be more symbols than men. Similarly, the situations and scenes are so obviously contrived and arranged as to suggest a morality play. When we first see Timon he is surrounded by wealth, by pleasure, and by joy. "We are lost in a riot of display, a gold-mist of romance and pleasures of the senses. The setting is brilliant, the wealth apparently inexhaustible, the pleasures free. We can imagine the rich food and wine, the blare and clash of music, embraces, laughter, and passages of glancing love; the coursing of blood, the flushed cheek, the mask of fair dancers and Cupid" [as quoted in G. Wilson Knight's The Wheel of Fire (1930)]. Presiding over this feast of pleasure is Timon whose generosity brings it into existence. He ransoms a friend from prison, is the patron of the arts, raises a faithful servant to a position where he can marry, showers his friends with rich gifts. His bounty has preserved the Athenian state and every citizen has at one time received favors from him. The banquet itself sums up the situation in symbolic terms: Timon is host and all Athens is his guest. The banquet is the feast of earthly love, of generosity, of human society, and Timon is the incarnate spirit of love itself, the divine energy that makes society possible by raising man above the level of beast. He expresses the ideal which he embodies with striking simplicity, "We are born to do benefits" (1.2.105).
This golden world cannot last. Timon has, to borrow his own image, tried to give man love in the symbolic form of gold as generously as the moon floods the dark with light; but unlike the moon he has no sun to replenish his stores. When his money is gone, mankind turns on him; for them his gifts have been not symbols of love but simply hard cash, and, acting according to the dictates of "policy," they reject him. His reaction is violent, and his hate now becomes as powerful as his love has been. He is transformed into a railing satirist who curses the world as indiscriminately as he once blessed it. After giving a mock feast, a feast of hate which expresses his new attitude, he turns on his "mouth-friends" and denounces them in true satiric fashion:
Live loath'd, and long,
Most smiling smooth, detested parasites,
Courteous destroyers, affable wolves, meek
You fools of fortune, trencher friends, time's
Cap-and-knee slaves, vapours, and minute-jacks!
Of man and beast the infinite malady
Crust you quite o'er!
Burn house! Sink Athens! Henceforth hated be
Of Timon man and all humanity!
In his rage for truth and his desire to escape hypocrisy, Timon tears off his clothes and leaves Athens and society for the wilderness, where he subsists on roots, berries, and anger. He is now the true image of man as the satirist perceives him, and he becomes the heroic denouncer of vice. His war against mankind is not a war of correction, for he does not believe correction possible since man is entirely bestial. He hopes only to strip away pretensions, to destroy hypocrisy. When he discovers gold again he uses it to urge the men who flock to him once more to wage open warfare on their fellows. The women are paid to become absolute whores to sow consumptions "in hollow bones of man," and by giving man the bodily pox make evident the invisible moral infection of the mind. The soldier Alcibiades is paid to destroy all Athenians, who are entitled, Timon says, to no pity because in reality they are all bawds, usurers, and bastards. The thieves are paid to "do villainy … like workmen" because all men are no more than thieves who work "in holier shape."
No profession, no station escapes Timon's scathing tongue, but his boundless hatred transcends mere man and extends to nature itself:
The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea. The moon's an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun.
The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears. The earth's a thief,
That feeds and breeds by a composture stol'n
From gen'ral excrement. Each thing's a thief.
This is saeva indignatio raised to heroic proportions, and in Timon's titanic loathing of the world there is a romantic grandeur which is emphasized by contrast with two other satirists in the play. The Poet is one of the mouth-friends who returns to Timon on hearing that he once again has gold. Earlier the sycophantic Poet wrote elaborate allegories, but now that Timon has turned misanthrope, he suits his work to the patron's mood and proposes to write "a satire against the softness of prosperity, with a discovery of the infinite flatteries that follow youth and opulency" (V.I.36-8). This is the basest kind of satirist, one who writes only for money, and no doubt many of the satiric poems and plays we have discussed were written for this reason only. Apemantus, the second satirist, is a bitter cynic who sees through all pretensions and rails at all he encounters. His world is the usual satiric scene:
Who lives that's not depraved or depraves?
Who dies that bears not one spurn to their
Of their friends' gift? (I.2.145-7)
His view of human history is the usual one of steady degeneration to the animal state, "The strain of man's bred out into baboon and monkey" (I.1.259-60). Yet he goes out among the men he loathes "to see meat fill knaves and wine heat fools," and to curse those he watches because he enjoys cursing. He seeks Timon out in the wilderness, and when asked why, Apemantus replies, "To vex thee." Timon then asks him, "Dost please thyself in it?" and Apemantus answers directly, "Ay" (IV.3.236-8). Apemantus' pleasure in railing is obvious, but this is a rare moment of honesty, and elsewhere he offers the conventional reasons for his bitter attacks: when Timon tries to soften him early in the play by offering gifts, Apemantus snarls, "No, I'll nothing; for if I should be brib'd too, there would be none left to rail upon thee, and then thou wouldst sin the faster" (1.2.244-6).
After Timon has turned satirist, he and Apemantus are brought together (IV.3). In part the scene is a coup de theâtre in which two railers are brought face to face to pit their invective skills against one another; but the scene has more profound implications, for, with their intense knowledge of themselves and of satire, Timon and Apemantus seek out the weak points in one another. To Apemantus, Timon is a madman turned fool. He possessed the goods of the world and threw them away on the patently unworthy. Timon's present misanthropy and retirement from society are to Apemantus no more than "A poor unmanly melancholy sprung from change of fortune." He is completely incapable of understanding the intensity of Timon's vision, which seems to him only the "putting on the cunning of a carper," and believes that Timon would be a rich and favored man again if he could. In contrast Apemantus believes himself to live in "willing misery," not enforced, and takes pride in his own contented discontent.
But to Timon, Apemantus' disgust with the world is meaningless, for it is forced on him rather than accepted with knowledge. Apemantus, Timon tells us, was born "a slave, whom Fortune's tender arm / With favour never clasp'd, but bred a dog." Had he had the opportunity he would have plunged himself into "general riot" and followed pleasure. Therefore, Timon concludes, Apemantus' railing has no virtue in it:
Why shouldst thou hate men?
They never flatter'd thee. What hast thou given?
If thou wilt curse, thy father (that poor rag)
Must be thy subject, who in spite put stuff
To some she-beggar and compounded thee.
In short, Apemantus is no true satirist, only a freak of nature, the malcontent who rails and curses for the same reason that a dog barks or a snake bites. Timon proves this when he gets Apemantus to admit that if he had control of the world he would "give it to the beasts, to be rid of the men," and that he himself would "fall in the confusion of men, and remain a beast with the beasts" (IV.3.321-7). Apemantus would see no loss in this change for he is already a beast, but Timon who has been favored by fortune and blessed by nature has glimpsed the human potential, the possibility of being fully a man: "We are born to do benefits." Thus his satire has a moral force behind it, and its intensity is no mere rhetorical trick or the in-born envy of a poor creature for his betters, but the expression of agony of a man who fully perceives the "loss in transformation."
There is a Learlike grandeur to Timon, and his situation and speeches often resemble Lear's, but where Lear passes through satiric outrage with the world to tragic perception, Timon persists in his unyielding hatred. He is offered chances for redemption but rejects them. His steward Flavius remains faithful and follows him into the waste, the thieves vow to reform, and Alcibiades, who has also been rejected by Athens, offers the example of mercy after he takes the city. But Timon fails to see in these particulars what Lear sees in Cordelia, a principle of hope for all mankind. His hatred only deepens until he reaches the point where he can enumerate with feeling the terrors men are subject to, "their griefs / Their fear of hostile strokes, their aches, losses," and then callously propose that men prevent these trials by taking advantage of a tree in his "close" to hang themselves. Here is the final failure of the satiric sense of life when carried to the extreme. It refuses to accept any evidence of good in man, and it fails in pity toward "nature's fragile vessel," which is subject to such buffeting in life. There is no question in the play that the Athenians are despicable; they are, in fact, greed and selfishness personified. Shakespeare comes very close to granting the satirist his fundamental premise that the world is totally depraved, but the satiric reaction to such a world is brought into question. Do not a few signs of a human tendency to goodness qualify a total judgment? Is not some modicum of pity necessary?
The final judgment of Timon is made by the plot. In formal satire action is always arrested before it leads to change, and the satirist, inflexibly locked in an attitude of hostility to the evil world, stands always facing unregenerate fools and villains. So powerful is Timon's rage, however, that it demands an outlet and breaks through the satiric stasis, but since the world is adamant and Timon cannot obliterate mankind, his anger must vent itself on the only available object, himself. The subject becomes the object of hatred, and Timon kills himself. There is, as Shakespeare saw, a form of death wish lurking in satire, a compulsive urge to destruction and nothingness. He also saw that the titanic fury of a great satirist is not innate but rather the perversion, the twisting, of a desire for goodness and for love.
Timon of Athens is the culmination of one particular line of development of the satirist in the theater. Once he was transferred to the stage, the changed perspective and enlarged scene denied the satirist a controlling position in the satiric work, and he became in the lesser plays a figure who merely provided amusement with his railing and inconsistencies, in the better an object of appraisal. In those plays of Shakespeare, Troilus and Timon, in which a character clearly and directly connected with the traditional satyr appears, the criticizing functions for which the figure was designed have become of secondary importance, and the satirist now is used as the representative of a particular view of life and a particular reaction to the ills of the world. The satiric sense of life and the characteristic satiric attitude are thus brought under examination. In Timon the purest variety of satiric impulse is explored by allowing it its full extension and following it to its inevitable end of self-destruction in the endless and unperturbed roll of the ocean. In Troilus the meanest but most effective variety of satirist is placed in a wider context than he usually operates in, and his vision of the dark and travailing world is silently contrasted with more meaningful views.
H. J. Oliver (essay date 1959)
SOURCE: An introduction to Timon of Athens, edited by H. J. Oliver, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1959, pp. xiii-lii.
[In the following excerpt, Oliver argues that Timon of Athens lacks dramatic conflict and that the title character lacks depth, but agrees with William Hazlitt's praise of the play's intensity and unity.]
Dedicating to the Duke of Buckingham his revision of Timon of Athens, Shadwell wrote: "it has the inimitable hand of Shakespear in it, which never made more masterly strokes than in this. Yet I can truly say, I have made it into a Play" [quoted in The History of Timon of Athens the Man-Hater (1678)]. So extravagant a claim, one would have thought, was likely to be laughed at by twentieth-century readers: it has in fact often been quoted with approval. Although convinced that Timon is unfinished, I think that it is a far finer play than Shadwell imagined, and that Hazlitt was not so far wrong when, after making the rather odd remark that it is one of the few plays in which Shakespeare "seems to be in earnest throughout", he added [in Characters in Shakespeare's Plays (1817)], "He does not relax in his efforts, nor lose sight of the unity of his design".
The "design" is announced most succinctly in the opening dialogue of Jeweller and Merchant, Poet and Painter. In a few brief lines, the atmosphere of hypocrisy is established (in, for example, the false modesty of the Poet's "A thing slipp'd idly from me"); and after a glimpse of the Senators who are paying court to Timon, the Poet describes his allegorical poem in which he has pictured one "of Lord Timon's frame" betrayed by false friends when misfortune overtakes him. Before the entrance of Timon himself, then, there is a clear announcement of what W. M. Merchant has called [in "Timon and the Conceit of Art," Shakespeare Quarterly (1955)] "the dual theme of the false appearance of friendship and the un-certainty of fortune".
The second premise is the noble generosity of Timon; and this too is established with remarkable economy of means in two brief interviews. The first (and it is all the more cogent in that it is also our first glimpse of Timon) is the conversation with the servant of Ventidius who comes asking Timon to send a letter of credit for a considerable sum to release his master from prison; and Timon's immediate answer shines out, like Portia's candle, as "shines a good deed in a naughty world":
Noble Ventidius. Well,
I am not of that feather to shake off
My friend when he must need me …
The second is the discussion with the Old Athenian who for purely mercenary reasons (the background of corrupt Athens is being filled in all the time) objects to the marriage of his daughter to Timon's servant Lucilius. Here the brevity of Timon's comments is most telling: "What of him?—Well; what further?—The man is honest—Does she love him?—Love you the maid?" and then the immediate decision to endow Lucilius with an equal fortune. There is certainly in this nothing "ridiculous" [quoted in O.J. Campbell's Shakespeare's Satire (1943)]; there is nothing that is even open to criticism.
The first note of warning that there is nevertheless a lack of discrimination in Timon's choice of friends is sounded very gently indeed in his few words with the Poet, Painter and Jeweller; and then it is sounded loudly in the first "flyting" with Apemantus. It should be noted that Apernante' cynical judgments of the Painter and Poet and then of the Athenian Lords are all later to be proved right and to be accepted by Timon himself: Timon later speaks of them in identical terms, agreeing that the Painter is fouler than any man he can paint and that the Poet's feigning is only lying. An audience which has absorbed anything at all from the opening section with the Poet and Painter will surely already sense which way the wind will blow. In an opening scene of under three hundred lines, then, bright with the exchange of wit and alive with the constant coming and going of characters on the stage, all the necessary data have been given.
Ventidius next offers to repay the money "from whose help I deriv'd liberty". I cannot see this as a false start. All Timon's alleged friends are prepared to give, when they know they will receive more in return. The audience cannot have forgotten from only four lines earlier (the modern scene division obscures the continuity) the Second Lord's
No meed but he repays
Seven-fold above itself: no gift to him
But breeds the giver a return exceeding
All use of quittance
and the policy is later re-affirmed by a Senator:
If I want gold, steal but a beggar's dog
And give it Timon—why, the dog coins gold;
If I would sell my horse and buy twenty moe
Better than he—why, give my horse to Timon;
Ask nothing, give it him, it foals me straight
And able horses …
Even if Ventidius' offer is interpreted by an audience as meant in good faith, the play is to demonstrate that an offer of money to a man when he does not need it and the giving of money when he does are two different things. The alleged inconsistency is a figment of the critical imagination.
Indeed, it is interesting that as sensitive a critic as Hazlitt saw no inconsistencies in Timon: one wonders how many of its difficulties have been read into it by later commentators. In particular, I wonder whether those twentieth-century critics who have brought to the play their knowledge of the Elizabethan "background" have not sometimes been blinded by such knowledge—blinded to the facts of the play. Hardin Craig, for example, writes [in his An Interpretation of Shakespeare (1948)] that "Timon's spending was set down as a mark of his nobility in the ancient world and was so understood in the Renaissance. Let us not intrude any bourgeois parsimony into the tale of Timon of Athens. It was noble to spend, and Timon was a spender". J. W. Draper and E. C. Pettet carry the same reasoning further and see in Timon "a straightforward tract for the times" [quoted in Pettet's "Timon of Athens: The Disruption of Feudal Morality," R.E.S. (1947)], an attack on usury; Draper even writes [in "The Theme of Timon of Athens," Modern Language Review (1934)] that "The play, indeed, is Shakespeare's Gulliver, a fierce and sweeping indictment of the ideals and social ethics of the age, an indictment largely consonant with popular opinion of the time. In Lear, Shakespeare depicts the social chaos consequent upon the abdication of royal authority; in Timon of Athens, upon the economic ruin of the nobility". The argument is that usury was in Elizabe-than eyes a sin; and that in the story of Timon, Shakespeare is dramatizing the fall of the feudal nobility who, borrowing to keep up their state, put themselves in the hands of usurers. Lending without interest, it is alleged, was the very symbol of the older feudal morality, the passing of which Shakespeare was lamenting. I think it should be suggested that the economic history on which such views are based is itself none too sound: Wilson's Discourse on Usury, from which so much is quoted, was published in 1572 and deplored an already changing situation, so that Shakespeare's supposed lament of, say, 1608 would hardly have been topical. The more important point, however, is that such theories as those of Draper and Pettet force their authors to see Timon as a symbol of an ideal, the feudal ideal. They have one advantage over those who speak of the play as an allegory of love and hate, in that they do see it as a dramatization of a particular situation; but they misrepresent the situation. In my judgment, they oversimplify. Could not Shakespeare hate usury and still not admire without qualification the kind of man who put himself into the hands of usurers? Timon is, in fact, not presented as an ideal, any more than are the other tragic heroes:indeed, ideal heroes probably do make tragedy impossible, and to this extent Draper and Pettet are at least being consistent in seeing the play as something less than tragedy. But perhaps the old-fashioned critics, for all their moral preoccupations, sometimes saw straighter; and it is illuminating to find Gervinus describing Timon as "refined in speech, brief, plain, select, but never deep" [quoted in Shakespeare Commentaries, translated by F. E. Bunnett (1892)]. That, surely, is the point—the point which Timon himself makes in his confession "Unwisely, not ignobly, have I given" (II. ii. 178).
We must stop short of saying, as J. C. Maxwell said [in "Timon of Athens," Scrutiny (1948)], that Timon's regular giving is a form of presumption; but we must agree that there is a shallowness in his "complacently accepting" praise for his generosity as he does. (Campbell similarly detected "self-satisfaction at the display of his own munificence".) The crucial passage here are Timon's self-conscious speech to his guests (I. ii. 86-105) beginning "O no doubt, my good friends, but the gods themselves have provided that I shall have much help from you" and ending "O what a precious comfort 'tis to have so many like brothers commanding one another's fortunes … Mine eyes cannot hold out water, methinks. To forget their faults, I drink to you" and the later lines:
Methinks I could deal kingdoms to my friends,
And ne'er be weary (I. ii. 219-20)
Timon has not the wisdom to see that the people who say most about their affection do not necessarily have the most (here the parallel with Lear is perhaps closest). He is deaf to the unctuous hypocrisy of the First Lord's
Might we but have that happiness, my lord, that you would once use our hearts, whereby we might express some part of our zeals, we should think ourselves for ever perfect (I. ii. 82-5)
and prefers this kind of company to that of Apemantus who, like his Steward, tries to warn him of the truth. Apemantus is one whose friendship cannot be won by giving:
No, I'll nothing; for if I should be brib'd too, there would be none left to rail upon thee, and then thou wouldst sin the faster. Thou giv'st so long, Timon, I fear me thou wilt give away thyself in paper shortly. What needs these feasts, pomps, and vainglories? (I. ii. 240-4)
What need they indeed? Timon, who will not listen to Apemantus now—and it is partly at least because Apemantus lacks the social virtues and will not flatter—is to learn that even unattractive cynics may be right. Apemantus, in his grace, prays that he may never judge by appearances or even trust his friends if he should need them; Timon, who scorns such cynicism now, is later to utter a far more savage grace himself. The counterpointing of the two graces should not be overlooked, nor should the ironical contrast of
Timon Thou art proud, Apemantus.
Apem. Of nothing so much as that I am not like
Timon (I. i. 189-90)
with the later:
Apem. Art thou proud yet?
Timon Ay, that I am not thee (IV. iii. 278-9)
—which perhaps establishes the further point that however low a Timon may sink, he will always have reason for thinking himself above an Apemantus. But it is essential that Apemantus should be seen correctly as the Jaques of the play—that is, not as a fully likeable person (Alfred Harbage once remarked that whenever Shakespeare provides commentators, he seems always to make them in some ways unlikeable, as if to prevent our fully identifying ourselves with them) but as one who is often right and is at least a very useful check on those who find sermons in stones and good in everything. Fittingly, then, Apemantus closes the first act with the lines
O that men's ears should be
To counsel deaf, but not to flattery.
Shakespeare must, I think, have started from the "fact" of Timon's misanthropy, a misanthropy for which he was proverbial and, incidentally, not admired; and to the question "What might conceivably have reduced a man to this condition?" he offered the answer "the shock that betrayal might give to a noble but not profound mind". It would not do to have some arbitrary cause, such as the loss of Timon's ships; the shock must come from a situation for which Timon himself was partly responsible, in however worthy a way, namely the gradual dissipation of his estate. Act II, then, shows the tide flowing out. Creditors like the Senator of II. i—a perfect sketch of the purely mercenary mind—send for their money, and the Steward at last makes Timon understand the position. (The only break in the continuity comes from the interlude of Apemantus and the Fool.) Timon, still not comprehending the situation as he should—although, ironically, he knows that "these old fellows have their ingratitude in them hereditary"—sends to his alleged friends for enormous sums of money, to stem the tide.
In the early scenes of Act III, the greasily confidential Lucullus, the heartily evasive Lucius and the hypocritically indignant Sempronius refuse. Timon in turn. Of these scenes, particularly praised by Hazlitt also, Una Ellis-Fermor has justly commented [in "Timon of Athens: An Unfinished Play," Review of English Studies (1942)]: "The masterly skill of long experience lies behind the treatment of the parallel episodes of Lucullus, Lucius, Sempronius and Ventidius, so handled, in different ways, as to avoid repetition while building up the impression of accumulation, to reveal at once the individuality of characters and the monotony of their behaviour. No dramatic novice wrote this". Nor is it certain that Shakespeare originally intended to dramatize the repudiation of Timon by Ventidius. There would have been something mechanical in a refusal by Ventidius as a climax; as it is, by letting us hear of Ventidius' refusal only casually, Shakespeare achieves a far finer effect: in the rising tide of ingratitude, even the baseness of a Ventidius becomes relatively insignificant. The bustle of the servants clamouring for their money (III. iv) and the scene of Alcibiades' pleading before the Senate then precede Timon's famous mock-banquet and his withdrawal from Athens. His tragedy, as Peter Alexander well says [in his Shakespeare's Life and Art (1939)], "is not that he is reduced to poverty and cast off, but that the godlike image of man in his heart is cast down, and his dreams of human fellowship destroyed".
"To say that Timon took his trouble too much to heart", the same critic continues, "is just what the senators said of the soldier". This is true but, with respect, not quite the point. As Wilson Knight has said [in his The Wheel of Fire (1930)], "We are given no chance to sentimentalize Timon's hate. Its nobility derives solely from its utter reversal of love". Shakespeare is not saying that Timon ought not to have taken his troubles so much to heart; he is saying that noble natures do take their troubles to heart and so their very virtues count against them because those virtues leave no place for such worldliness and practical efficiency as those of Alcibiades, worthy but less so than Timon.
The scene in which Alcibiades pleads before the Athenian senate is therefore perfectly placed to introduce this contrast between the ways in which two men of honour meet a given situation. The oration of Alcibiades is apparently of Shakespeare's own invention (as were many of the orations in his other plays) and in its development of the theme of the necessity for mercy is comparable with the speeches of Portia in The Merchant of Venice ("The quality of mercy is not strained …") and of Isabella in Measure for Measure (" … Why, all the souls that were, were forfeit once …"), and not far inferior to them. What has been found faulty here is the lack of "connection" with the Timon plot. Sir Walter Greg went so far as to say [in The Shakespeare First Folio (1955)] that "there is no clear link between the story of Timon and that of Alcibiades … They might almost belong to different plays"; Shadwell and Cumberland in their versions of the play tried to link the two men through female characters, Cumberland by having Alcibiades love Timon's daughter Evanthe; and Una Ellis-Fermor suggested that Timon was perhaps the man for whom Alcibiades was pleading. I think that all these theories place in sufficient emphasis on the dramatic principle on which Timon of Athens is constructed—that of counterpoint.
The play is indeed, as Miss Ellis-Fermor has herself implied, a most interesting experiment in dramatic technique; and the technique used is far in advance of its own day and is very like that of certain modern novels, those of which Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point is the proto-type. With an absolute minimum of chronological narrative, Shakespeare has set off against each other the reactions of one man to different situations, and the reactions of different men to the same situation. Timon's response to prosperity in one half of the play is counterpointed against his response to adversity in the other; the hypocritical flattery of Poet and Painter and the Athenian Lords is counterpointed against the unflattering cynicism of Apemantus. The third act sets against each other the refusals of the various creditors; and then in the unbroken second half ("Acts IV and V") the visits to Timon of Poet and Painter, Apemantus, Alcibiades and the Senators are counterpointed against each other and also against the visits which each of them paid to Timon in the first half of the play.
Any plot-link between Alcibiades and Timon, then, would have been gratuitous; it would have cut across the constructional principle of the play. Act III, Sc. v may be a trifle abrupt, as it stands; but what the dramatist needed to do, and what he has surely done, was to give each of the men justifiable reason for resentment against an un-grateful and corrupt state. In the remainder of the play their responses are set one against the other.
It would be easy to compile from the criticism of Timon an anthology of contradictory remarks about Alcibiades, and their very number is no doubt some indication that Shakespeare has not made his intention perfectly clear. Suffice it to say that to one school of thought Alcibiades is "young and fair" [quoted in Henri Fluchère's Shakespeare (1953)], "really noble" as against the "seemingly magnificent Timon" who "lacks greatheartedness" [quoted in B. L. Joseph's Elizabethan Acting (1951)]; to the other he "is of much grosser grain than Timon and much inferior to him in spiritual worth, but nevertheless he has ability to meet and overcome hostile forces in the world whereas Timon can only let himself be crushed by them" [quoted in Willard Farnham's Shakespeare's Tragic Frontier (1950)]. Can there be any real doubt that the second opinion is correct, even if it needs to be modified? The appearance of Alcibiades on the stage with retainers and harlots, while Timon digs for roots, itself makes the point clearly enough (and, incidentally, shows that the Alcibiades of Timon is not as far from Plutarch's as some critics would maintain). He is the Fortinbras who restores order only after the tragic hero is dead; still more, he is the Octavius, the Aufidius—the man who survives partly because he has a clearer view of things and is more efficient, but partly because (it is the thought that recurs most often in Shakespeare) efficiency has been bought at the price of a certain loss of sensitivity. Timon, like Hamlet, Coriolanus and Antony, has a greater soul than the man of action with whom he is contrasted.
Timon's wrongs, then, have to be avenged by Alcibiades, while Timon, in a series of dialogues that are magnificently varied but still perhaps disappoint theatrically in that they give little sense of rising or falling action, hurls his incomparable invective against the hypocrites who come to see him, and against the world. I suspect, however, that the finest exchange in the last two acts is that between Timon and Apemantus. Even in his new-found misanthropy Timon feels superior to Apemantus, in not deriving from a refusal to love mankind a certain satisfaction or even enjoyment. But why Fluchère speaks of Apemantus' "fundamental villainy" I do not understand. To the end, Apemantus has something on his side; he rightly tells Timon: "the middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends". He has been right also about the Poet and Painter, of whom Timon now speaks in Apemantus' very words (v. i. 30-1); he has always been content with the roots which Timon truly appreciates only now (compare I. ii. 71 and 130-I with IV. iii. 23 and 187-98). That he is also not without a certain regard for Timon is implied in the first act: "I fear me thou wilt give away thyself in paper shortly"; and the audience's knowledge of this must prevent it from accepting without modification Timon's charge that Apemantus comes to him later only to flatter misery. The philosopher might well have answered with Jaques "Out of these convertites / There is much matter to be heard and learn'd" (AYL., v. iv. 190-1); and Apemantus and the Steward are, notably, the only characters in the second half of the play as in the first who cannot be bribed in any way with Timon's gold. The cynic's last interview with the misanthrope ought to be played with a certain half-amused tolerance: in the attitude of the philosopher (whose view that men cannot be trusted is at least based on a lifetime's disinterested observation) to the misanthrope (who is cursing all mankind simply because his own limited experience has found some men false) there is something of the contempt of the professional for the amateur.
The final impression of the play, however, is not determined by the attitude of Apemantus or even by Timon's misanthropy. "How fain would I have hated all mankind", Timon cries (IV. iii. 503)—but he cannot hate them all, for the Steward stands there to make such hatred impossible. The presence of the Steward among the characters, then, so far from being the puzzle or contradiction that Chambers found it, is essential to the meaning of the play and expressly forbids us from identifying our judgment (or Shakespeare's) with Timon's. Ivor Brown's comment [in Shakespeare (1949)] that "in Timon of Athens there is no affection left for man or woman, fair or dark" is mis-guided. Timon's misanthropy, like everything else in Shakespeare's plays, is part of a dramatized situation and is in no sense a lyrical statement of the poet's own belief; and Timon's invective, for which the play has received most of such praise as has generally been given it, is all the more remarkable when one pauses to reflect that it states an attitude from which, through the presence of the Steward, Shakespeare has dissociated himself completely. The mood of Timon, it may be said, is akin both to that of Lear, in its portrayal of complete despair and yet its refusal to believe that suffering is all, and to that of the romances.
It remains to ask the question to which any answer is presumptuous: why then did Shakespeare leave the play unfinished? Unless my interpretation is very sadly astray, it was not, as Chambers and Brown believed, because the dramatist was "in a mood verging upon nervous break-down" [quoted in Brown's Shakespeare] nor, as G. B. Harrison insisted [in Shakespeare's Tragedies (1951)], because of "sheer boredom". More probably Shakespeare was influenced by dramatic difficulties inherent in the subject. There are, it seems to me, two difficulties in particular. One is the problem of making a great tragic hero out of a man who by hypothesis lacks depth or profundity; and so it is not that Timon was "the wrong character to support his theme" [quoted by Una Ellis-Fermor], I suggest, but rather that he was the only right one—right for the given situation, that is to say, but not right for great tragedy. The other problem is similarly created by the fact that the story does not lend itself to treatment in drama. As Hardin Craig has said, "there is no drama in mere non-participation, where it arises from avoidance of the conflict or from definite refusal to participate". In the second half of Timon, indeed, there is no true dramatic conflict; and neither the series of debates between Timon and those who seek him out in his solitude nor the contrast between Alcibiades and Timon can quite make up for this deficiency. This absence of conflict no doubt explains why so many critics have inferred wrongly that the play was intended as a parable or morality or something less than true drama, and why others have thought that Shakespeare was interested only in the lyrical possibilities and have assumed Timon to be only "a moral voice censuring humanity" [quoted from Hardin Craig]. Could it have been because he felt a certain failure to overcome these weaknesses that Shakespeare turned from it, if he did, to not dissimilar themes which lent themselves more readily to treatment in drama, the themes of Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra?
But these weaknesses, if they are such, are so only by Shakespearian standards. One might still say of Timon of Athens, as Swinburne once said of another work, that whatever in it is not good is also less than important.
Kenneth Muir (essay date 1972)
SOURCE: "Timon of Athens, " in Shakespeare's Tragic Sequence, 1972. Reprint by Barnes & Noble Books, 1979, pp. 187-96.
[In the following essay, Muir provides a general assessment of Timon of Athens, maintaining that its "last two acts are Shakespeare's most powerful statement of what he seems to have regarded as the worst of sins—ingratitude."]
Timon of Athens presents a number of insoluble problems: its date, its text, even its single authorship have been questioned. It has been regarded as 'a first sketch of King Lear set aside unfinished', as an 'after vibration' of King Lear, as a close neighbour of Troilus and Cressida—Apemantus echoing Thersites—and as the last of the tragedies, the subject of which being suggested by the account of Timon in Plutarch's life of Antony, and by the account of Alcibiades in the life of Coriolanus. The text of the play given in the Folio cannot have been acted. The scene in which Alcibiades pleads for a nameless friend (III.v) is not properly linked with the rest of the play. As Una Ellis-Fermor said [in Shakespeare the Dramatist (1961)], 'It tumbles suddenly into the action with the bewildering inconsequence of an episode in a dream'. In the middle of IV.iii Apemantus hails the approach of the Poet and the Painter, but they do not actually appear until Timon has talked with some Bandits and had a long conversation with Flavius. Then, as many critics have noted, there is a great contrast between the magnificent verse of Timon's best speeches and the feeble, disjointed verse in other scenes of the play. Professor Bradbrook, who believes that Timon was staged at the Blackfriars, and that the text we have is rough rather than corrupt, nevertheless admits that some inconsistencies may have been caused by recopying.
It is not necessary to go over the arguments afresh. As Coriolanus was probably written after Shakespeare had retired to Stratford, it would be very difficult to place Timon as late as that. It seems much more likely, as Bradley maintained, that the date of the play was close to that of King Lear. The most plausible explanation of the play's defects is that, whether Shakespeare ever completed it or not, we have to do with a fragmentary first draft and that the poet, as his custom apparently was, revised first those scenes which he found most stimulating to his imagination, and that the Folio editors did what they could with the scenes which had been left unrevised.
The most obvious pointer to the meaning of the play is the dialogue between the Poet and the Painter in the opening scene. The allegory of Fortune, which the Poet is presenting to Timon, is intended to guide the response of the audience to what follows, just as Menenius's pretty tale illustrates the political moral of Coriolanus. It is true that the Poet deserts Timon when he goes bankrupt and returns to him when he discovers gold; but the Poet lives on patronage and, after all, his desertion of Timon is merely an illustration of his own fable:
When Fortune in her shift and change of mood
Spurns down her late beloved, all his
Which labour'd after him to the mountain's top
Even on their knees and hands, let him slip
Not one accompanying his declining foot.
The allegory prepares the audience for the central action of the play, the ingratitude of Timon's friends, though it does not tell how Timon will react to it.
Plutarch has an essay on 'How a man may discerne a flatterer from a friend', and its length is some indication of the difficulty. 'Where there is authoritie and power', Plutarch says, thither flatterers flock; but 'no sooner is there a chaunge of fortune but they sneake and slinke away, and are no more seen'. As Wyatt put it, echoing the same essay,
Like lyse awaye from ded bodies thei crall.
[quoted in Collected Poems (1969)]
To Wilson Knight, Timon's all-embracing love is turned to hatred through man's ingratitude. At the other end of the scale are those critics who regard the play as a tragical satire, in which the hero is as absurdly prodigal in the opening scenes as he is absurdly misanthropic after his self-imposed exile. Neither view is satisfactory. On the one hand, Timon's susceptibility to flattery, his refusal to listen to warnings, and his later indiscriminate rage make it impossible to agree with Knight's extravagant eulogy; on the other hand, his splendid generosity, the affectionate loyalty of his servants, and the poetic grandeur of his curses do not fit the satiric genre.
We sympathise with Timon, even in his excessive prodigality and equally excessive hatred, because he is so much nobler than his environment. Athens is a corrupt society, mean, sordid, and hypocritical, its values entirely commercial. Timon himself, although it could be argued that he tries to buy love with gold, is entirely unaware of the nature of the society in which he lives; but, after his disillusionment, he gives a penetrating analysis of the power of gold in society. It resembles the great speech at the beginning of Volpone, but appropriately transposed into a tragic key. Volpone worships gold, 'the world's soul', 'the price of souls':
Thou art virtue, fame
Honour, and all things else! Who can get thee,
He shall be noble, valiant, honest, wise.
Timon acknowledges the truth of Volpone's words but his reaction to the truth is one of violent revulsion. He refuses to worship:
I am no idle votarist …
Thus much of this will make black white, foul
Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward
Ha, you gods! why this? What, this, you gods?
Will lug your priests and servants from your
Pluck stout men's pillows from below their
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless th' accurs'd,
Make the hoar leprosy ador'd, place thieves
And give them title, knee, and approbation,
With senators on the bench. This is it
That makes the wappen'd widow wed again—
She whom the spital-house and ulcerous sores
Would cast the gorge at this embalms and spices
To th' April day again.
Later, he speaks of gold as 'king-killer', 'defiler / Of Hyman's purest bed', a 'delicate wooer / Whose blush doth thaw the consecrated snow / That lies on Dian's lap'. Volpone thinks of the advantages and honours bought by gold; Timon thinks only of the crimes and sins.
These speeches of Timon were quoted and analysed by Karl Marx in 1844, at the period in his life when he was moving towards communism. Nor is this surprising, for the attack on the cash-nexus has never been more powerfully or more terrifyingly expressed. The revelation that drove Timon into the wilderness drove Marx to write the Communist Manifesto.
We can see from the parallel attacks on the acquisitive society by Jonson, Massinger and others that Shakespeare was expressing a common feeling of disquiet. He chose as his hero, not a king, a statesman or a warrior, but a man whose eminence depended entirely on his wealth, and whose power vanished with his wealth. It is as though he realised at the beginning of the capitalist era that power was shifting from one class to another and that authority was decreasingly invested in the nominal rulers. It is for this reason that the play may be said to continue the debate on order and authority, begun in the Histories and continued in the great tragedies, the praise of order and the criticism of authority being the thesis and antithesis of the Shakespearian dialectic. Money, the new basis of authority, is the destroyer of order. The all-embracing idea of order, inherited from the medieval world, may have been undermined by Luther, Copernicus, and Machiavelli; but Hooker's conception of order differs very little from that of pre-Reformation thinkers, the new astronomy substituted a new order for that which it disproved, and Machiavelli, whatever his effect on political morality, was primarily concerned with the maintenance of order in the state. Shakespeare, though he may have nominally accepted the Copernican theory, continued in his poetry to assume the Ptolemaic system; he could regard Machiavellism as a temporary aberration; but the new money-power was clearly a threat to the traditional conception of order. It substituted for it an order divorced from morality, an authority without responsibility, a power which was animated by self-interest alone.
One characteristic of Timon's curses remains to be mentioned. Although he is concerned generally with the over-throw of order—
Degrees, observances, customs and laws,
Decline to your confounding contraries
And let confusion live—
he returns again and again to sexual examples. Matrons are instructed to 'turn incontinent'; 'green virginity' is told to convert to 'general filths'; maids are directed to their masters' beds; youths are told to give themselves up to lust, with its accompanying diseases. In a later scene, when he gives gold to Phrynia and Timandra, he instructs them with obscene relish to spread venereal disease.
Critics, who accept the appropriateness of Thersites' curses on 'those that war for a placket', have been puzzled by Timon's diatribes, since there is nothing in the early part of the play to suggest that he has any cause for what the critics call 'sex-nausea'. But it may be observed that the only women invited to Timon's banquets are professional masquers and that the Fool's mistress is a whore who writes to Timon. It is surely appropriate that, in a society in which everything is subordinated to gold, sexual relations should also be bound by the cash-nexus. Marx in the unfinished treatise referred to above made the same point: that from the sexual relationship in any society can be seen 'how far the natural behaviour of man has become human, how far another person has become one of his needs as a human being, how far existence depends on mutuality'.
Lear's ravings about sex have naturally been associated with Timon's curses and both have been attributed to the intrusion of Shakespeare's personal feelings: yet it is worth noting that Lear proceeds directly from his invective against the simpering dame to analyse the corruption of society through the power of gold. So in Timon of Athens love is a commodity like everything else.
Plutarch argues that the most effective protection against flatterers is self-knowledge:
That every man would labour and strive with himselfe to roote out that selfe-love and overweening of their owne good parts and woorthinesse: For this is it that doth flatter us within, and possesseth our minds beforehand, whereby we are exposed and lie more open unto flatterers that are without, finding us thus prepared already for to worke upon.
If we sought to know ourselves, we should
finde there an infinite number of defects and many vanities, imperfections and faults, mixed untowardly in our words, deeds, thoughts and passions.
As a result we should not so easily be taken in by flattery.
When Caroline Spurgeon rediscovered the multiple imagery linking flatterers, dogs and sweets, she claimed that this constituted the iterative image of Timon of Athens and she dismissed in a footnote Wilson Knight's essay in The Wheel of Fire because he stressed the central importance of gold-symbolism, a 'contrast between gold and the heart's blood of passionate love of which it is a sacrament'. She was right to point out that there is not, properly speaking, any gold imagery in the play; but as the essential nature of an image is that it should throw light on an idea or object by means of a comparison, Shakespeare was precluded from using gold as the basis of imagery because of the numerous references to it in the course of the play and its visible presence when Timon is digging for roots.
Timon's discovery of gold is not mentioned by Plutarch or Painter and Shakespeare took the incident, directly or indirectly, from Lucian's dialogue. But in Plutarch's essay on flatterers there is a passage, which may have caught Shakespeare's eye, that links the theme of flattery with gold symbolism:
Like as false and counterfeit pieces of gold which will not abide the touch, represent onely the lustre and bright glittering of gold: So a flatterer resembling the sweete and pleasant behaviour of a friend sheweth himself alwaies jocund, mery and delightsome, without crossing at any time.
Timon cannot tell the difference between true and counterfeit friendship, any more than Lear can distinguish between love and flattery, or Othello can penetrate the hypocrisy of his Ancient.
Many critics feel that Timon lacks the stature of a true tragic hero, since he is a foolish and credulous prodigal in the first three acts of the play and equally unbalanced in his 'beastly' hatred of his fellow-men in the last two. Shakespeare, however, is careful to show that Timon has initially a certain grandeur and nobility which evokes a response from characters who act as a kind of chorus. After three strangers have observed the way in which Lucius has refused to send Timon money, they make the following comments:
1 Stranger Why, this is the world's soul; and
just of the same piece
Is every flatterer's spirit. Who can call him
That dips in the same dish? for, in my
Timon has been this lord's father,
And kept his credit with his purse;
Supported his estate; nay, Timon's money
Has paid his men their wages. He ne'er
But Timon's silver treads upon his lip;
And yet—O, see the monstrousness of man
When he looks out in an ungrateful shape—
He does deny him, in respect of his.
What charitable men afford to beggars
3 Stranger Religion groans at it.
The First Stranger says that although he himself has never been indebted to Timon, he admires 'his right noble mind, illustrious virtue / And honourable carriage', so much that he would have gladly made him a present of half his wealth. This scene shows both that Timon is genuinely noble and also that he is wrong to condemn the whole population of Athens.
Equally significant is the way Timon's servants react to the ingratitude of his friends. Flaminius is disgusted at Lucullus's refusal, and throws his bribe in his face:
Let molten coin be thy damnation,
Thou disease of a friend, and not himself!
Has friendship such a faint and milky heart
It turns in less than two nights? O you gods,
I feel my master's passion! (III.i.51-5)
Another of Timon's servants, horrified at the ingratitude of Sempronius, calls him 'a goodly villain'.
After Timon's ruin, four of his faithful servants lament the fall of a noble master and attack the ingratitude of his false friends:
2 Servant As we do turn our backs
From our companion, thrown into his grave,
So his familiars to his buried fortunes
Slink all away; leave their false vows with
Like empty purses pick'd; and his poor self,
A dedicated beggar to the air,
With his disease of all-shunn'd poverty,
Walks, like contempt, alone …
3 Servant Yet do our hearts wear Timon's
That see I by our faces. We are fellows still,
Serving alike in sorrow … (IV.ii.8-19)
Flavius, the honest steward, shares what money he has with his fellow-servants, telling them 'Let's yet be fellows'; and in a soliloquy in gnomic couplets he points the moral—the 'fierce wretchedness' of wealth, 'a dream of friendship', and his dearest lord
brought low by his own heart,
Undone by goodness!
This touching scene of affection and loyalty is strategically placed between two of Timon's soliloquies in which he curses the whole of mankind for its ingratitude; but although it shows that Timon is as absurd in his hatred as in his universal benevolence, it also makes the audience feel that there is something magnificent about both.
In the last act the deputation of senators makes the audience reassess Timon's position in Athens before his self-imposed exile. That they urge him because of the threat from Alcibiades to be a virtual dictator—"The captainship … Allowed with absolute power'—suggests that he must have had martial qualities as well as wealth. It is these qualities which are implied by Alcibiades' final speech and the roll of drums with which the play concludes.
There is one other method by which Shakespeare ensures our sympathy for his hero: both in prosperity and adversity he is contrasted with Apemantus, whose very name suggests a subhuman figure. A churlish, envious, cynical, selfish railer, Apemantus, like Thersites, is inferior to the men he satirises; and, though his attacks on Timon's friends are shrewd, and his criticisms of Timon himself largely valid, he comes in Act IV to jeer rather than sympathise. He is wrong to imagine that Timon would return to Athens if he were not penniless, and wrong to prefer beasts to men. Timon becomes a misanthrope because he has been disillusioned and his tragedy is that his attitude superficially resembles that of Apemantus. Yet he is right to be indignant at Apemantus' sneering:
Thou art a slave whom Fortune's tender arm
With favour never clasp'd, but bred a dog.
Hadst thou, like us from our first swath,
The sweet degrees that this brief world affords
To such as may the passive drugs of it
Freely command, thou wouldst have plung'd
In general riot, melted down thy youth
In different beds of lust, and never learn'd
The icy precepts of respect, but followed
The sug'red game before thee. But myself,
Who had the world as my confectionary;
The mouths, the tongues, the eyes, and hearts of
At duty, more than I could frame employment;
That numberless upon me stuck, as leaves
Do on the oak, have with one winter's brush
Fell from their boughs, and left me open, bare
For every storm that blows—I to bear this,
That never knew but better, is some burden.
Thy nature did commence in sufferance; time
Hath made thee hard in't. Why shouldst thou
They never flatter'd thee. What hast thou given?
If thou wilt curse, thy father, that poor rag,
Must be thy subject; who, in spite, put stuff
To some she-beggar and compounded thee
Poor rogue hereditary. Hence, be gone.
If thou hadst not been born the worst of men,
Thou hadst been a knave and flatterer.
After this splendid piece of invective, however, Timon descends to the level of Apemantus, and the two men are reduced to mere abuse—'Beast! … Slave! … Toad! … Rogue, rogue, rogue!' The misanthropes become indistinguishable. But Timon recovers dignity as his death approaches, when his 'long sickness / Of health and living … begins to mend'. His actual death is almost as mysterious as the passing of Oedipus:
Say to Athens,
Timon hath made his everlasting mansion
Upon the beached verge of the salt flood,
Who once a day with his embossed froth
The turbulent surge shall cover. (V.i.212-16)
The best passages in the play are so splendid that one can understand why some critics have waxed enthusiastic about the whole play. But although one recognises its splendours, one must accept the more usual verdict that, even when one makes allowances for its unfinished state, it is not quite on a level with the other great tragedies. Wilson Knight goes so far as to say that the play transcends Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, Othello and King Lear and that it expresses 'the central essence of tragic drama' [as quoted in Principles of Shakespearian Production (1949)]. But even the histrionic abilities of Wilfred Walter, Paul Scofield and of Wilson Knight himself did not make it seem wholly satisfying as an acting play: some scenes were comparatively inert. Yet the last two acts are Shakespeare's most powerful statement of what he seems to have regarded as the worst of sins—ingratitude. The theme was touched lightly in one of the songs in As You Like It and in one scene in Twelfth Night; ingrateful man was excoriated by Lear in the storm; and it was the ingratitude of Athenian society that drove Timon into voluntary exile.
The chronology of the last three or four tragedies is uncertain. Timon of Athens may have followed, or even preceded, King Lear; and Coriolanus may, as we have seen, belong to Shakespeare's final period. What is certain is that with his writing—or rewriting—of Pericles, he became interested in the possibilities of tragi-comedy. This may have been due to the popularity of the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher, Heywood and others; to revivals of early romantic dramas, to a realisation that he had gone to the limits of the tragic form; to a wish (in Keats's phrase) to devote himself to other sensations; perhaps even to a change of mood, traces of which may be found in Antony and Cleopatra.
In the tragedies the hero's error is irreparable. In the last plays he is given a second chance. Pericles and Leontes regain their wives and daughters; Posthumus Leonatus regains his wife; Prospero regains his kingdom. The daggers of the murderers miscarry. The wronged ones—Imogen, Hermione, Prospero—forgive their wrongers. To some critics these plays represent a decline in Shakespeare's 'imaginative vision', 'an old man's compensation for the harshness of man's lot', a turning away from reality, the expression of boredom or sentimentality. Human life being inescapably tragic, it is assumed that tragedy is a higher form of art than comedy. Yet it is not necessarily sentimental to show the workings of Providence in human affairs and the parabolic art of The Tempest is as legitimate as that displayed in the tragedies.
Richard Fly (essay date 1976)
SOURCE: "Confounding Contraries: The Unmediated World of Timon of Athens," in Shakespeare's Mediated World, Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1976, pp. 117-42.
[In the following essay, Fly examines the experimental and metadramatic characteristics of Timon of Athens, concluding that the work "marks a climactic juncture in Shakespeare's restless exploration into his demanding medium."]
Even in our troubled century Timon of Athens has not attracted many admirers. Still, we are less willing than we once were to take our critical departure from the admonishment carved on Timon's gravestone: "Pass by and curse thy fill; but pass, and stay not here thy gait" (V. iv. 73). Timon's harsh gesture of radical disengagement makes us wonder just what affinity Shakespeare could have glimpsed between the misanthrope's rhetorical stance and the expansive, though finally limited, capabilities of his medium. No contraries would appear to hold more antipathy, as Kent might say, than such an antisocial knave and the dynamic interdependence characteristic of poetic drama. At the height of his powers Shakespeare seems to be making more audacious formal demands on his craft than ever before: demands impossible to realize and made perhaps for that reason.
We should not underestimate the play's deficiencies. For instance, our curiosity should only be intensified by the repeated demonstrations of the play's unfinished quality, since they compel us to ask exactly how such a dramatic undertaking—given the baffling misalliance of content and form—could have ever been finished satisfactorily.
Shakespeare could not have cradicated the problems in the play simply by correcting the inconsistencies in the spelling of names, by smoothing out metrical irregularities, or by eventually getting straight the precise worth of a Greek talent. A more solid basis for criticism is A. C. Bradley's observation [in his Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on "Hamlet," "Othello," "King Lear," "Macbeth" (1904)] that "though care might have made it clear, no mere care could make it really dramatic," since he correctly implies that observable structural flaws are really more a matter of conception than formal execution. However, the once common line of approach that tried to account for that apparent misconception by regarding the play as "an exercise in purgation, personal to Shakespeare rather than dramatically controlled" [quoted in Donald A. Staufier's Shakespeare's World of Images: The Development of His Moral Ideas (1949)] no longer commands much assent either. The naive assumption that Timon, in his fury, represents the catastrophic release of some fundamental disturbance in Shakespeare's soul grossly ignores the critical distance Shakespeare sustains between himself and his raging protagonist. The time has passed when the perplexed critic could dismiss the play either as an odd instance of perverse dramaturgy or as an embarrassing occasion of personal breakdown. Nor can it be reasonably argued, as G. W. Knight tries to do, that in its achieved perfection Timon "includes and transcends" Shakespeare's great tragedies. Its bold and damaging experimentation—its sensitivity to the divisive tendencies in poetic drama—does not associate it with those master-pieces but rather with the supposed dramatic failures like Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure: plays that relinquish popularity and formal coherence to more pressing artistic imperatives. Timon of Athens is not an isolated phenomenon in the Shakespeare canon but another of those moments of radical scrutiny into the nature and potentiality of the dramatic medium. Before we can pursue this hypothesis, however, we need to briefly summarize the relationship of the dramatist to his medium.
More than other artists the poetic dramatist is at the mercy of circumstances over which he can exercise little control, since he must communicate his vision to a live audience through a complex synchronization of speech, action, and the interplay of personalities. The peculiar worldliness of the dramatic event forces the playwright to bring forth his subjects on the "unworthy scaffold" and to acquiesce in the judgment of his "fair beholders." His stance, whether he likes it or not, must be that of the "prologue armed" who introduces Troilus and Cressida with "Like or find fault; do as your pleasures are: / Now good or bad, 'tis but the chance of war" (Pro. 30-31). Like Prospero he must finally apologize for his "crimes" and beg for his audience's "indulgence" (Epi. 19-20). Shakespeare's acute sensitivity to the mediated nature of his art cannot help but deepen his understanding that a vulnerable between-ness is a condition common to all human relations. His evolving knowledge of his medium is simultaneously an exploration into that aspect of the human condition.
An increasingly somber thread, woven into the variegated fabric of Shakespeare's drama, traces his response to the bondage both of man and artist to processes of mediation. For instance, the happy endings of the comedies written before 1600 are usually brought about by the providential intervention of benevolent agencies, such as Oberon, Portia, Rosalind, and Don Pedro, who exploit staged actions and language to create harmony and peaceful continuity. Yet even those joyous plays can occasionally allow us glimpses of a more ominous potentiality dormant in such comic intercession. Oberon and Puck have good intentions, but that fact does not keep them from indulging at times in a simple delight in the human confusion they half-inadvertently produce. Portia and Rosalind also reveal a penchant for verbal and spectacular theatrics slightly in excess of immediate needs. Don Pedro's benign intervention on behalf of Claudio and Hero is not only confusing in itself but must compete against the devilish agency of his bastard brother Don John. In Much Ado, in fact, mediation polarizes into the clear opposition of the two brotherly "practisers," and there is consequently a growing realization here of the negative potential coexisting in all mediated relationships. So that when Don John's vulgar insinuations cause Claudio to misinterpret Don Pedro's efforts on his behalf, the young man can exclaim with some cogency, "Let every eye negotiate for itself / And trust no other agent" (II.i. 176-77). Claudio's aspiration for a self-negotiating, unmediated love relationship is only lightly sounded and quickly abandoned, but his desire is fundamental to the tragic experiences of Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Desdemona, Lear and Cordelia, Antony and Cleopatra, and especially Troilus and Cressida. Indeed, it is in Troilus' prophetic cry, "O gods, how do you plague me! / I cannot come to Cressid but by Pandar" (I. i. 90-91), that we hear most clearly the tragic lament shared by all those death-marked lovers. In the ludicrous figure of the Pandar—that indispensable but grossly inadequate go-between—Shakespeare concentrates his increasing skepticism concerning the legitimacy of the benign mediation which reigns in his comic universe.
In the great tragedies that follow Troilus and Cressida the dramatic embodiments of unreliable mediation assume the more clearly demonic forms of Iago, Edmund, and the Weird Sisters: malevolent agencies who now operate uncontestedly and whose interventions produce only separation and death. The necessity of leading mediated lives is no longer a neutral condition capable of both good and evil (as in Much Ado); it has become the sign of our inescapable isolation and doom. Benign mediators are now routed by their evil counterparts. We can see in Iago's triumph over Desdemona and in Edmund's easy manipulation of Edgar the belated vengeance of Don John over Don Pedro and his talent for reconciliation. In fact, it is Desdemona's willingness to mediate, her earnest solicitations on Cassio's behalf, that provides the means whereby Iago can "make the net / That shall enmesh them all" (II. iii. 344-45). Those evil intermediaries also function, like Friar Laurence, Pandaras, and Duke Vincentio, as playwrights in their control of their play-worlds. Now, however, Shakespeare uses surrogate figures to sustain a gloomy commentary on his own necessary commitment to artistic strategies of mediation. As a dramatist he knows himself to be an accomplice in the illusory pageants that ensnare Othello and Gloucester, and as a poet he realizes he must bear some responsibility for the ambiguos mediacy of language: its tendency, as Macbeth learns, to "palter with us in a double sense" (V. viii. 20). In the very creation of those plays Shakespeare tacitly acknowledges his own complicity in the evil he brilliantly sets forth. The treacherous mediacy, within which his doomed characters must act, is essentially the same mediacy within which he must struggle for artistic mastery.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the last tragedies—Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens—is the sudden disappearance of the malicious middleman (the playwright surrogate in his negative aspect) from his major role in the play's action. Indeed, those difficult plays seem to have turned away from processes of mediation almost entirely, abandoning their worlds to a self-destructive dialectic involving unarbitrated extremes: Rome versus Egypt, Coriolanus versus Rome, Timon versus all humanity. The potential intermediaries who do still appear are now neither good nor bad but simply pathetically impotent figures like Lepidus and Octavia, Menenius and Virgilia, or Flavius. They are characters whose main function is to illuminate, by their helplessness, the peculiarly bleak kind of world they inhabit. Octavia is offered to Antony and Caesar as the means "To hold you in perpetual amity, / To make you brothers, and to knit your hearts / With an unslipping knot" (II. ii. 125-27), but no one really believes she will succeed. "A more unhappy lady," she is soon lamenting, "ne'er stood between, / Praying for both parts" (III. iv. 12-14). As she finally acquiesces in her inability to arbitrate the widening gap between her husband and her brother, she finds precise expression for her functionless role in the phrase "no midway / 'Twixt these extremes at all" (III. iv. 19-20). No villainous agents need appear to generate destructive actions in such a world because the dialectical nature of the unmediated conflicts makes such a catalyst unnecessary and redundant. "The Jove of power make me most weak, most weak, / Your reconciler!" Octavia prays, but her awareness of her ineptitude as a mediator allows her prayer to modulate into a vision of what the world of Antony and Cleopatra has been destined to become from the outset:
Wars 'twixt you twain would be
As if the world should cleave, and that slain
Should solder up the rift.
(III. iv. 30-32)
Enobarbus takes up and rephrases Octavia's monstrous image of a world split apart when he exclaims, "Then, world, thou hast a pair of chaps, no more; / And throw between them all the food thou hast, / They'll grind the one the other" (III. v. 12-14). We glimpse the radically fragmented worlds of Antony and Cleopatra and of Coriolanus in such utterances. There is nothing to "solder up the rift" in those worlds but the men slain by its self-destructive warfare. There is no operative middle term.
The plays have an austere and uncompromising magnificence, but it is Timon of Athens that finally brings to an explosive climax Shakespeare's progression towards a play composed with "no midway."
In both the structure and content of Timon of Athens we encounter a persistent refusal to acknowledge any effective form of the mediate. The formal principle guiding the rising structure approximates the syllogistic law of the excluded middle with its rejection of such mediating processes as compromise, modulation, subordination, and continuity. The play stubbornly resists all formal tendencies towards synthesis or fusion, and, therefore, structural units tend to remain disparate, isolated, and paratactic. Shakespeare has abandoned for the moment his more familiar talent for pitching voice against voice and personality against personality in realistically conceived scenes that are vibrant with complex and dynamic interaction. In place of such anticipated resonance and multiplicity we are confronted with a dramatic texture characterized by stark oppositions and abrupt noncommunicative contrasts and by disturbing disjunctions and harsh antitheses. The most visible example of that general tendency is Timon himself, whose radically disjunct character stands fully illuminated in Apemantus' succinct comment: "The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends" (IV. iii. 299-300). In what M. C. Bradbrook aptly calls [in The Tragic Pageant of "Timon of Athens" (1966)] "this drama of the gaps," Apemantus' phrase transcends its immediate dramatic context and resonates suggestively through the whole design of Timon of Athens. It suggests that Shakespeare's determination to avoid the middle ground of compromise and moderation extends far beyond the schizoid personality of his protagonist. The same disjunctive impulse shapes and controls the discontinuous progression of the play's scenario, the puzzling juxtaposition of main plot and sub-plot, the dislocations in Timon's relations to his Athenian society, the atomism in patterns of imagery and syntax, the strangely bifurcated conclusion of the play, and even the play's difficulty in establishing real communication with its audience. Every element of the play's organization reflects the nonparticipatory stance of the misanthrope.
We enter the polarized social world of Timon of Athens by observing the unusual manner in which Shakespeare fashions and projects Timon's dramatic image against the backdrop of his Athenian society. That image appears in bold relief, for no other protagonist in the tragedies—not even Coriolanus—so clearly dominates the world of his play. From the time of his mock banquet until his death near the play's end Timon monopolizes the stage and speaks well over sixty percent of all the lines. He is the constant focal point of attention from the moment the play begins until its conclusion, and all the action converges on him quasi-magically, like base metal attracted by the magnet. The Poet, who watches the Athenian populace swarm into Timon's palace, opens the play with the astonished exclamation: "Magic of bounty, all these spirits thy power / Hath conjured to attend!" (I. i. 6-7). As he and the Painter talk of Timon's "amplest entertainment," the crowd rapidly increases until the Poet can refer to them as "this confluence, this great flood of visitors" (42). In less than one hundred lines in the first scene there are five separate stage directions indicating entrances, some, such as "Enter Alcibiades with the rest" (244), including a large number of people. Timon is subjected throughout to the varied solicitations of Athenian society, first in his crowded palace in Athens but no less so, curiously enough, in his cave in the wilderness. He even attracts the gold he now despises and is actually richer in the wilderness than he ever was in the city. His last gesture is appropriately an ironic invitation to all "Athens, in the sequence of degree / From high to low throughout" (V. i. 206-07) to visit him one final time in order to "stop affliction" by hanging themselves from his tree. Even after his death there remains his standing command for Athens to "Thither come, / And let my gravestone be your oracle" (V. i. 216-17). Neither in misanthropic withdrawal nor in death does Timon succeed in separating himself from his despised society. "Dead / Is noble Timon," Alcibiades announces as the play concludes, "of whose memory / Hereafter more" (V. iv. 79-81).
Yet Timon never really seems to be an integral part of that society. Nor do we know much about his essential character. Despite his great importance in the play's action Timon reveals far less personality than do such relatively secondary figures as Cassius or Gloucester in other tragedies. Unlike Brutus or Macbeth, Timon is not given to introspection, so we learn practically nothing about his motives either before or after his self-banishment. Indeed, it is difficult to attribute any interior depth, any psychology, to Timon at all. His ontological identity consists almost entirely of his public acts vis-à-vis his community. And although he is in fundamental conflict with that society, he is not endowed with enough being to stand apart from it. Unlike Hamlet he cannot fall back on the onto-logically reassuring sense of possessing "that within which passeth...
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Rolf Soellner (essay date 1979)
SOURCE: "The Rise of Alcibiades," in Timon of Athens: Shakespeare's Pessimistic Tragedy, Ohio State University Press, 1979, pp. 50-63.
[In the following essay, Soellner analyzes the ambiguous character of Alcibiades, maintaining that his "credentials as champion of good against evil are weakened by his lax morality and excessive flexibility."]
Alcibiades is a puzzling character; the question is whether he is so owing to design or to the unsatisfactory state of the text. Critics frequently think him not fully developed. As H. J. Oliver says, [in his introduction to the Arden edition of Timon of Athens...
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M. C. Bradbrook (lecture date 1966)
SOURCE: "Blackfriars: The Pageant of Timon of Athens" in Shakespeare the Craftsman: The Clark Lectures, 1968, 1969. Reprint by Cambridge University Press, 1979, pp. 144-67.
[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1966, Bradbrook contends that Shakespeare wrote Timon of Athens for the new indoor theater at Blackfriars, where the critic suggests the play was staged in late 1609.]
When an Elizabethan craftsman printed off a volume, painted an inn-sign or erected a gorgeous playing place in the fields, each took traditional forms. Adapting to local need, adding fine touches, he...
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Howard B. White (essay date 1970)
SOURCE: "The Decay of the Polity: Timon," in Copp 'd Hills Towards Heaven: Shakespeare and the Classical Polity, Martinus Nijhoff, 1970, pp. 25-42.
[In the following essay, White examines the decline of Athens in Timon of Athens, pointing out that ingratitude and corruption amongst the city officials and flatterers caused the decay.]
Let us explore the surface meaning of the play as I understand it. Timon of Athens is a play about an Athenian philanthropist, who lived considerably later than Theseus. The presence of Alcibiades in the cast might help us to fix the internal chronology of the play....
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Barber, C. L., and Wheeler, Richard P. "'The masked Neptune and / The gentlest winds of heaven': Pericles and the Transition from Tragedy to Romance." In their The Whole Journey: Shakespeare's Power of Development, pp. 298-342. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
Noting an absence of the "redemptive feminine presence" in Timon of Athens, Barber and Wheeler argue that "Timon does without maternal nurturance by trying to be himself an all-providing patron."
Bergeron, David M. "Timon of Athens and Morality Drama." College Language Association Journal X, No. 3 (March 1967): 181-88.
Discusses Timon of Athens as a...
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