Something we’re all guilty of (myself included) is the oversimplification of plays that we don’t care for. For example, my deep dislike for Macbeth prevents me from properly dissecting the play and appreciating what Shakespeare was trying to do. I’ve been trying to do this less – for example, despite not liking Coriolanus all that much, I made every effort to appreciate what Shakespeare was attempting. And now I’m here to do this with Timon of Athens, which takes the cake as one of the least enjoyable plays I have read this year. But, hey, let’s give it a chance. More specifically, let us give Timon a chance.
Lord Timon of Athens is a very popular man. And why shouldn’t he be? He is generous (perhaps overly so?) and kind to every single person he meets. His arms, house, and purse are open to all.
I will unbolt to you.
You see how all conditions, how all minds,
As well of glib and slipp’ry creatures as
Of grave and austere quality, tender down
Their services to Lord Timon. His large fortune,
Upon his good and gracious nature hanging,
Subdues and properties to his love and tendance
All sorts of hearts – yea, from the glass-faced flatterer
To Apemantus, that few things loves better
Than to abhor himself; even he drops down
The knee before him and returns in peace
Most rich in Timon’s nod.
Timon is something of an angel – so good that he is able to get even the worst cynic to love him. Sadly, I immediately knew where this would lead. And I wasn’t the only one.
When Fortune in her shift and change of mood
Spurns down her late beloved, all his dependents,
Which labored after him to the mountain’s top
Even on their knees and hands, let him slip down,
Not one accompanying his declining foot.
Foreshadowing at its finest – I knew for a fact that Timon would be abandoned by all his admirers as soon as they were done using him. How could he not have noticed their lack of sincerity? It is as if Timon is so good that he just can’t fathom people being any other way.
And it isn’t just kindness that Timon doles out – it’s actual material goods.
He pours it out. Plutus, the god of gold,
Is but his steward. No meed but he repays
Sevenfold above itself. No gift to him
But breeds the giver a return exceeding
All use of quittance.
It’s no wonder that all of these high-ranking people like to keep his company. I appreciate generosity in people – I myself try to be as generous as I can with both my time and money. But boundaries need to be set, and for a grown man like Timon to not have any is, well, a bit depressing.
Timon invites everybody over for a lavish meal. Even Apemantus, who we can consider a professional cynic, is welcome at Timon’s table. His cynicism allows him to see right through the lords.
I scorn thy meat. ‘Twould choke me, for I should ne’er flatter thee.
[Apart.] O you gods, what a number of men eats Timon, and he sees ’em not! It grieves me to see so many dip their meat in one man’s blood; and all the madness is, he cheers them up too.
More than one character wonders why Timon doesn’t notice how phony his friends are. He has such an idealistic way of looking at things, which can be as charming as it is destructive.
In true Timon fashion, he begins to give lavish gifts to all of his guests.
The little casket bring me hither.
Yes, my lord. [Aside.] More jewels yet?
There is no crossing him in ‘s humor;
Else I should tell him well, i’ faith I should.
When all’s spent, he’d be crossed then, an he could,
‘Tis pity bounty had not eyes behind,
That man might ne’er be wretched for his mind.
I like Flavius a lot. He is one of the only people in this play who genuinely has Timon’s best interest at heart. I found his hesitance very interesting. How has Timon reacted to Flavius’ warnings before?
In any case, Flavius obeys his master’s every command. But he continues to voice his worries to the audience.
What will this come to?
He commands us to provide, and give great gifts,
And all out of an empty coffer.
Nor will he know his purse or yield me this –
To show him what a beggar his heart is,
Being of no power to make his wishes good.
His promises fly so beyond his state
That what he speaks is all in debt; he owes
For ev’ry word. He is so kind that he
Now pays interest for ‘t. His land ‘s put to their books.
Well, would I were gently put out of office
Before I were forced out.
Happier is he that has no friend to feed
Than such that do e’en enemies exceed.
I bleed inwardly for my lord.
Well, the cat is well and truly out of the bag. Timon is all but broke, and keeps falling deeper into debt. There is a rather simplistic way for us to look at Timon’s character. That is, we can see him as this kind fool who is so generous that he can’t help but give all of his love away. And, honestly, he is. But the fact that he gives away so many material objects vexes me a little, and makes me wonder about him. What set him on this path? Did he subconsciously realize that giving away gifts brought more admirers to his doorstep? Was his kindness and love not enough for people to return his affection? I don’t know. Shakespeare doesn’t tell us enough. All we know is that Timon has dug his own grave, and Flavius can’t get him out of it.
Things would be so much better if Timon would just listen to the people around him. But he refuses.
Now, Apemantus, if thou wert not sullen,
I would be good to thee.
No, I’ll nothing, for if I should be bribed 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?
Nay, an you begin to rail on society once, I am sworn not to give regard to you. Farewell, and come with better music.
Apemantus is the town cynic, but there is a hint of sincerity and genuine care in what he says to Timon. What is the point of all this lavishness? Timon doesn’t have an answer, clearly.
As one would expect, debt collectors begin to appear at Timon’s door. He doesn’t seem to understand that he has no money, no land, nothing.
To Lacedaemon did my land extend.
O my good lord, the world is but a word.
Were it all yours to give it in a breath,
How quickly were it gone!
Flavius speaks so well, and his words really tug at my heartstrings. I wish his love and loyalty were enough for Timon.
Anyway, Timon’s below average plan to address this issue is to send his servants to other noblemen. Apparently, he has some favors that can be cashed in. But all the nobles behave the same way – they start out very happy to see Timon’s servants because they’re expecting gifts. But when the servants ask for money, they immediately make excuses and disappear. So much for loyalty.
The servants of Timon’s creditors appear at his doorstep once more, and he loses his cool for the first time in the play.
Enter Timon in a rage.
What, are my doors opposed against my passage?
Have I been ever free, and must my house
Be my retentive enemy, my jail?
The place which I have feasted, does it now,
Like all mankind, show me an iron heart?
Put in now, Titus.
My lord, here is my bill.
And mine, my lord.
VARRO’S SECOND MAN
And ours, my lord.
All our bills.
Knock me down with ’em! Cleave me to the girdle.
I really can’t blame Timon for being so upset. None of his ‘friends’ rushed to his rescue, and now he’s being hounded by all of these annoying servants. Everything he thought he knew has turned out to be wrong – the illusion has shattered. Oh, Timon. Not everybody has a big heart and a generous soul. I am sorry he had to find this out at all.
He decides to invite all of his fake friends to a feast. The suggestion makes Flavius uncomfortable, but he does as he’s told.
And now I have to interrupt my look into Timon’s breakdown to introduce you to a
🎵 slightly unrelated subplot! 🎵
Alcibiades, an Athenian captain and also one of Timon’s non-garbage friends, stands before three Athenian senators to beg for the life of one of his soldiers. We are never explicitly told what his soldier did, but it sounds like he killed someone in self-defense. Alcibiades fights the senators for a few pages before they grow tired of him.
Do you dare our anger?
‘Tis in few words, but malicious in effect:
We banish thee forever.
Banish your dotage, banish usury,
That makes the Senate ugly!
If after two days’ shine Athens contain thee,
Attend our weightier judgement.
And, not to swell our spirit,
He shall be executed presently.
Okay, back to the actual plot.
At Timon’s house, the feast is underway. “Haha,” the nobles think, “this is classic Timon. There is no way he is angry at us for rejecting all of his pleas for money.”
And they think that until Timon serves them water and stones.
May you a better feast never behold.
You knot of mouth-friends! Smoke and lukewarm water
Is your perfection. This is Timon’s last,
Who, stuck and spangled with your flatteries,
Washes it off and sprinkles in your faces
Your reeking villainy. [He throws water in their faces.]
Live loathed and long.
Most smiling, smooth, detested parasites,
Courteous destroyers, affable wolves, meek bears,
You fools of fortune, trencher-friends, time’s flies,
Cap-and-knee slaves, vapors, and minute-jacks.
Of man and beast the infinite malady
Crust you quite o’er! [They stand.] What, dost thou go?
Soft! Take thy physic first – thou too – and thou. –
Stay. I will lend thee money, borrow none.
[He attacks them and forces them out.]
What? All in motion? Henceforth be no feast
Whereat a villain’s not a welcome guest.
Burn, house! Sink, Athens! Henceforth hated by
Of Timon man and all humanity!
First of all, that is an impressive string of insults. Second, I know that Timon’s outburst may seem like an over-exaggeration, but that’s because we are not Timon. We have to realize that Timon was an idealistic fool down to his very core. There was no sense of suspicion in him – someone like me, for example, would be immediately suspicious of these friends of his. In fact, I was like Timon once. Granted, I was a pre-teen at the time, but there was a friend who would drift away until some gift or token would return me to her good graces. I realized very quickly that this was no friendship – and, well, that situation combined with many others turned me into a bit of a cynic. So I understand Timon. You always want to believe that people are good, kind, and genuine. Most of us, when we realize that they aren’t, become slightly cynical and a bit melancholy. But then again, most of us were not as deluded as Timon. His reaction is more violent because of how deeply he believed in the sincerity and goodness of others. The longer you stay in your bubble, the more jarring the outside world is when it pops.
In a very Henry David Thoreau move, Timon ditches Athens and makes for the woods. He leaves the servants of his household behind. Flavius continues to impress, and proves himself to be as kind as Timon was just a few acts ago.
Good fellows all,
The latest of my wealth I’ll share amongst you.
Wherever we shall meet, for Timon’s sake
Let’s yet be fellows. Let’s shake our heads and say,
As ’twere a knell unto our master’s fortunes,
“We have seen better days.”
[He offers them money.]
Let each take some.
Nay, part out all your hands. Not one word more.
Thus part we rich in sorrow, parting poor.
[The Servants embrace and part several ways.]
The servants truly are my favorite part of this play. I am 90% sure there is a dissertation or two out there about the homoerotic subtext that can be gleaned from Flavius’ dedication to Timon. But whatever the nature of his love, it’s very pure and admirable.
Timon, meanwhile, is digging for roots. At this point, I felt that the play had really gone on for long enough. For some reason, I thought Timon of Athens was a short play – but no. Let’s stick it out.
Timon comes across some gold. A reader, at this point, might think that this would cause Timon to revert back to his old self, but it doesn’t. This is bad, because it means he’s still looking to have roots for dinner, but also good, because it means his disappointment with mankind is genuine.
Shakespeare has been known to harbor a bit of contempt for humans – or you would think so, given some of the things we’ve read in his plays. I wonder how much like Timon he was – and, as always, I wonder what sort of man could think so deeply about such things. Only Shakespeare.
Alcibiades, captain of this play’s subplot, appears. He has his two concubines in tow – I suppose they decided to join him on his banishment. Let’s not talk about what that does or does not imply about Alcibiades.
How came the noble Timon to this change?
As the moon does, by wanting light to give.
But then renew I could not, like the moon;
There were no suns to borrow of.
Noble Timon, what friendship may I do thee?
It is a sincere question, which is why I would group Alcibiades with Flavius (and, to a certain degree, Apemantus) as actually caring for Timon. In any case, Timon offers him money and asks him to use it to destroy Athens. I almost typed Rome, because this is exactly what happened in Coriolanus. Good lord.
I was very unimpressed with the exchange Timon had with the concubines. Actually, I am unimpressed with the lack of women in this play. Even Coriolanus had women of substance, like Virgilia and Volumina. And before that, I was writing thousands and thousands of words about Measure for Measure‘s Isabella. Shakespeare was exceptionally good at writing women, and yet we have none to discuss at the moment.
Apemantus shows up eventually.
I was directed hither. Men report
Thou dost affect my manners and dost use them.
That line was the only time I laughed while reading this play. Apemantus is great. But whereas he is a professional cynic who revels in harassing people, Timon’s cynicism comes from genuine heartbreak over how terrible people can be. They are the same in some ways, and very different in others.
Flavius finds his master, and is very distraught about the way Timon is spiraling. But Timon realizes that Flavius genuinely cares for him, and that he is not like the other base men.
Look thee, ’tis so. Thou singly honest man,
Here, take. [Timon offers gold.] The gods out of my misery
Has sent thee treasure. Go, live rich and happy,
But thus conditioned: thou shalt build from men;
Hate all, curse all, show charity to none,
But let the famished flesh slide from the bone
Ere thou relieve the beggar; give to dogs
What thou deniest to men; let prisons swallow ’em,
Debts wither ’em to nothing; be men like blasted woods,
And may diseases lick up their false bloods!
And so farewell and thrive.
Clearly, Flavius is not going to do any of that. But at the very least, he has been recognized for the lovely person he is.
Timon must have hidden himself in a very obvious spot, because he keeps getting visitors. He drives both the Painter and the Poet away, and eventually finds himself face to face with two Athenian senators. They hope that he can stop Alcibiades from destroying Athens.
FLAVIUS, [to Senators]
Stay not. All’s in vain.
Why, I was writing of my epitaph.
It will be seen tomorrow. My long sickness
Of health and living now begins to mend,
And nothing brings me all things. Go, live still.
Be Alcibiades your plague, you his,
And last so long enough!
Of course, I would rather Athens didn’t get destroyed. But I see why Timon refuses to budge – the senators really have some nerve showing up to his very obvious and easy to find hiding place.
Come not to me again, but say to Athens,
Timon hath made his everlasting mansion
Upon the beachèd verge of the salt flood,
Who once a day with his embossèd froth
The turbulent surge shall cover. Thither come
And let my gravestone be your oracle.
Lips, let four words go by and language end.
What is amiss, plague and infection mend.
Graves only be men’s works, and death their gain.
Sun, hide thy beams. Timon hath done his reign.
Such chilling last words. The Folger edition of this play wrote that Timon ‘withdraws to die,’ in their scene summary, which I found kind of funny. It’s like Timon can just die on demand whenever he pleases. In any case, I think it’s safe to assume that he takes his own life. Despite becoming a raving madman, I do feel very sorry for him. As I said before, I am sorry that he had to find out how terrible people can be.
Alcibiades is pretty much set to destroy Athens (I keep typing Rome!) when one of his soldiers brings a wax impression of Timon’s epitaph to him.
ALCIBIADES reads the epitaph.
Here lies a wretched corse, of wretched soul bereft.
Seek not my name. A plague consume you, wicket caitiffs left!
Here lie I, Timon, who, alive, all living men did hate.
Pass by and curse thy fill, but pass and stay not here thy gait.
These well express in thee thy latter spirits.
Though thou abhorred’st in us our human griefs,
Scorned’st our brains’ flow and those our droplets which
From niggard nature fall, yet rich conceit
Taught thee to make vast Neptune weep for aye
On thy low grave, on faults forgiven. Dead
Is noble Timon, of whose memory
Hereafter more. Bring me into your city,
And I will use the olive with my sword,
Make war breed peace, make peace stint war, make each
Prescribe to other as each other’s leech.
Let our drums strike.
And the plays ends. I have two things I want to say: one is that Alcibiades describes the corruption that Timon saw as only human griefs. And that’s really because Alcibiades was never deluded the way Timon was. We see so much of what happens in this play through Timon’s eyes, and we feel for him, but you really have to wonder how much of what he hated was worth hating to the extent that he did.
I know that this play seems pointless. It’s like Shakespeare was writing the opposite of a love letter to humankind. But, as usual, Harold C. Goddard has come to our rescue. He says: “Timon is dead. But the spirit of the rarer Timon (how mistake it? the very accent is the same) has passed into Alcibiades and, in the teeth of the mad Timon’s misanthropy, has brought peace to Athens. ‘He has almost charmed me from my profession,’ the Third Thief confessed to the living Timon. The dead Timon has the same effect, even more powerfully, on the professional warrior and revenger. Alcibiades’ ‘occupation’s gone.’ Timon in the first part of the play was a deluded and foolish man, and in the last half a wild and frenzied one. But he was a lover of truth and sincerity. And the play seems to say that such a man, though buried in the wilderness, is a better begetter of peace than all the instrumentalities of law in the hands of men who love neither truth nor justice.”
This is such a beautiful way of looking at this play and, frankly, the only way I can look at it now. Though we saw Timon as delusional, it was his kindness and generous spirit that made its way from his epitaph into Alcibiades’ soul.
Maybe Shakespeare didn’t write Timon to be a fool at all then. Maybe he wrote what he considered to be the best kind of person.
Once again, I find myself a bit behind. It’s okay (I say through gritted teeth), because I know that I won’t give up until the remaining three plays are read and written about. I will take Pericles home with me, but I may be distracted by the holidays. That said, happy holidays! May 2018 bring us peace, happiness, and tons of time to talk about Shakespeare. Thank you for joining me on this journey – I know it was supposed to be over, but there isn’t any harm in it going on for a little longer.