Timon of Athens
By Dennis Abrams
Lord Timon of Athens
Lords and Senators of Athens
Timon’s false friends: Lucius, Lucullus, Sempronius and Ventidus
Alcibiades, an Athenian soldier
Apemantus, an ill-tempered philosopher
Servants of Timon’s various creditors
Flavius, Timon’s steward (head servant)
Timon’s other servants: Flaminius, Lucillus and Servillus
Phrynia and Timandra, prostitutes with Alcibiades
A Poet, a Painter, a Jeweller and a Merchant, all in Timon’s pay
An Old Athenian
All conjecture: Some critics argue for a date prior to King Lear (1605) – I’m going with this; others put it closer to Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus (1606-08); while others see it as one of Shakespeare’s very last plays – if it is, indeed, entirely by him. Thomas Middleton, among others, has been suggested as a collaborator.
As with the Roman Plays, Plutarch’s Lives (in Thomas North’s 1579 translation), seems to be the key course – enough to feature word-for-word in some places. An anonymous play, Timon (c. 1602) seems to have had some influence (although it is also possible it was written in response to Shakespeare’s version), as does William Painter’s collection of tales, The Palace of Pleasure (1566), the basis for numerous other works by Shakespeare.
Timon first appeared in print in the 1623 Folio (F1) – apparently in the place where Troilus and Cressida had been meant to go.
Act One: Timon’s enormous wealth – and, more importantly, his generosity – is the talk of Athens, and artists and tradesmen line up to gain his favor. Though the Poet has written a fable warning his patron that Fortune is, indeed, fickle, Timon accepts his work, and that of all the others, without blinking an eye, pausing only to pay his frie3nd Ventidius’s bail and to give his servant Lucillus money so that he can marry his wealthy sweetheart. Timon has even invited the churlish philosopher Apemantus to a great banquet for his fawning friends. At the party, Apemantus throws insults at the assembled guests and is particularly incensed when Timon insists on presenting expensive gifts to all the attendees. The fact that Timon is heavily in debt is known to only one man – his steward Flavius.
Timon opens with a Poet, Painter, and various other craftsmen and salesmen, all gathering to pay their respects to the “worthy lord” Timon – and of course, to advertise their work in the hope of selling it to him. The importance of patrons like Timon was a fact of life for playwrights and poets looking to make a living (Shakespeare himself had dedicated two poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, to the Earl of Southampton, and the 1623 Folio was addressed to two aristocrats), but nowhere else in Shakespeare’s drama is the paradoxical place of art in the fiscal economy so openly explored. Commending the Painter’s piece as “admirable,’ insisting that “it tutors nature,’ the Poet explains that his own work will do something similar. It warns Timon to beware of the “great flood of visitors” who cluster around him in the hope of material reward. Should Fortune decide to look the other way, the Poet insists, those crawling admirers will be the first to desert Timon:
When Fortune in her shift and change of mood
Spurns down her late beloved, all his dependants,
Which laboured after him to the mountain’s top
Even on their knees and hands, let him fall down,
Not one accompanying his declining foot.
Timon’s fall, when it does come, will be horribly lonely; his fawning “dependents” will not hesitate to make themselves scarce as soon as trouble arises.
But the Poet’s stark warning is by no means disinterested. For one thing, Timon accepts the poem without even reading it, warmly inviting the author to dinner without a second thought. For another, as Apemantus sourly jibes, the Poet is as bad as the rest – poetry, like painting or jewelry, is a flattering art, and the Poet writes in order to earn a living. Furthermore, as the Jeweler observes of the expensive jewel he presents to Timon,
My lord, ‘tis rated
As those which sell would give; but you well know
Things of like value differing in the owners
Are prized by their masters.
Which is to say, of course, that everything is relative; value has no value when money is involved. What something is worth depends entirely on what someone else is prepared to pay for it. That goes for poetry as well; and Timon is prepared, as with everything else, to pay the highest of prices. One question that the play poses is whether a Jeweler and a Poet can be though of as the same type of salesmen: one selling precious stones, the other pleasing words.
Another problem in Timon – in fact, Timon’s own problem – is that, contrary to the Jeweler’s assertion, our hero doesn’t “well know” the value of possessions at all. Or rather, his apparently boundless generosity blurs the meanings of value so badly that it becomes impossible for him to know the real worth of anything, as gifts of astronomical costs trade hands between his “friends” as liberally as if they were free. The word “priceless” does not appear in this play (Shakespeare seems to have invented the word, but used it just once in his entire career, in The Rape of Lucrece) but the concept of something that is worth everything and yet nothing hovers over it continually. At the lavish banquet thrown for his friends at the end of Act One, Timon receives extravagant gifts from his acquaintances – “Four milk-white horses trapped in silver” from Lucius, “two braces of greyhounds” from Lucullus – but no sooner are they delivered than Timon demands that other, even costlier presents be returned to them as compensation. As he declares to Ventidius, “there’s none/Can truly say he gives if he receives.” In this way the workings of gift exchange become as debased as those of the financial economy: Timon’s friends give him things not out of “free love” as Lucius declares, but because they hope they will get something even more valuable in return. A concept familiar to cultures around the world, for Timon’s first audience this competitive gift-giving may also have played on their own anxieties about inflation, which had sky-rocked through the 1590s to the point that indebtedness had become more commonplace than ever before.
There is more than a touch of fantasy in Timon’s seemingly unstoppable largess, and he is just as free with his promises as he is with his possessions. “Methinks I could deal kingdoms to my friends,/An ne’er be weary,” he explains, and his friends have no doubt that he would. But watching helplessly as his lord liberally gives out jewels to his dinner guest, his steward Flavius knows that Timon’s spectacular behavior is just that – a spectacle. “What will this come to?” he frets,
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 ehart is,
Being of now power to make his wishes good,
His promises fly so beyond his state
That what he speaks is all in debt, he owes
For every word.
“He is so kind,” Flavius mournfully continues, “he now pays interest for it.” Behind the appearance of infinite wealth lurks the reality of poverty;: despite acting as if nothing has a price tag (if you need to know, you can’t afford it), Timon is himself without worth, his very “words” indebted to his creditors.
“The Timon story was well known in classical times, and also in early modern England, where scholars have found references in the works of many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries (including the playwrights John Lyly, Thomas Nashe, Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge, Thomas Dekker, and John Marston). Both Greene and Dekker refer to ‘Timonists,’ indicating that the equivalence Timon = misanthrope must have been widely accepted; otherwise the term could not have been understood.
In Sir Thomas North’s 1579 of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, the version Shakespeare would have read, Timon is twice called ‘Timon Misanthropos,’ the appellation Misanthropos used as an ‘addition’ or surname, just as ‘Coriolanus’ (the conqueror of Corioles’) is used for Caius Martius. Shakespeare’s principal source for Timon of Athens would have been Plutarch’s ‘Life of Marcus Antonius,’ where the Timon story is told with great emphasis on what in the play is the second half of the narrative: Timon’s self-banishment, his odd affinity for Apemanus (‘Because he was much like of his nature and conditions,’) his affection for the ‘bold and insolent’ Alcibiades (whom Timon said he liked because he knew that ‘one day he would do great mischief unto the Athenians.’), Timon’s invitation to the Athenian lords to come and hang themselves on his fig tree, and the two epitaphs said to be written on his tomb, one composed by Timon, the other by the poet Callimachus. [MY NOTE: It’s because of Shakespeare’s use of Plutarch as his source material for the play, and in particular, his use of the chapter on Marcus Antonius, that many think Timon was written after Antony and Cleopatra.] Shakespeare includes both of the epitaphs, virtually word for word, in his text, although, as many commentators have observed, they contradict each other: the first instructing the passerby, ‘Seek not my name,’ the second declaring, ‘Here lie I, Timon.’
Indeed, the name Timon was so strongly associated with this devolution into rage and general hatred that he became a type, as is clear in a passage from Montaigne’s Essays, where (in the John Florio translation of 1603) we hear of
‘Timon, surnamed the hater of all mankinde. For looke what a man hateth, the same thing he takes to hart. Timon wisht all evill might light on us: He was passionate in desiring our ruine. He shunned and loathed our conversation as dangerous and wicked, and of a depraved nature.’ Michel de Montaigne, ‘Of Democritus and Heraclitus’
Montaigne thought Timon was a captive of his own emotions; he closes his assessment of philosophers who ‘laugh’ or ‘weepe’ ‘at the spectacle of humanity by expressing the view that ‘[o]ur owne condition is as ridiculous as risible, as much to be laught at as able to laugh.’
Francis Bacon’s essay ‘Of Goodness, and Goodness in Nature’ brings together the key words ‘philanthropy’ and ‘misanthropy’ by defining goodness as what ‘the Grecians call philanthropia,’ calling it ‘of all virtues and dignities of mind…the greatest’ and expressing his conviction that ‘without it man is a busy, mischievous, wretched thing.’ But even philanthropia, this ‘habit so excellent,’ is prone to error, and Bacon’s list of the possible errors of the philanthrope, the benevolent lover of mankind, reads like a primer of good advice for Timon: ‘Seek the good of other men, but be not in bondage to their faces or fancies; for that is but facility or softness; which taketh an honest mind prisoner. Neither give thou Aesop’s cock a gem, who would be better pleased and happier if he had had a barley-corn.’ In Aesop’s fable, ‘The Cock and the Pearl’ a rooster unearths a pearl in the farmyard, but would prefer something to eat, however humble: ‘You may be a treasure,’ quoth Master Cock, ‘to men that prize you, but for me I would rather have a single barley-corn than a peck of pearls.’ In the same way Shakespeare’s Timon will come to prefer a root dug from the earth to unwanted and corrupting gold, once he has seen through the ‘faces or fancies’ of his flatterers. (There is probably a trace memory here, too, of the Sermon on the Mount – ‘Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine’ [Matthew 7:6].)
For Bacon the disposition to goodness in some men is matched, in others, by a ‘natural malignity,’ whether through crossness, difficulty, envy, or ‘mere mischief.’ This sounds like a good description of Shakespeare’s Iago (we might compare ‘natural malignity’ with Coleridge’s famous phrase ‘motiveless malignity’), but the canonical example Bacon gives, the personage who personifies misanthropy is, once again, Timon of Athens. Thus Bacon writes of ‘misanthropi that make it their practice to bring men to the bough, and yet never a tree for the purpose of their gardens, as Timon had.’ The reference is to the well-known incident in the Timon story told by Plutarch, in which Timon invites Athenians, ‘if any of you be desperate’ to hang themselves on the fig tree in his garden. Shakespeare dramatizes this event in act 5, scene 1, of his play.
The general effect of this story is thus to turn Timon, as we have seen from the word ‘Timonist,’ into a kind of allegory of misanthropy. A striking comparison from a narrative poem of the period is the incident, described by Edmund Spenser in the third book of The Faerie Queene, of the transformation of a tormented character called Malbecco into an emblem of jealousy:
Yet can he never dye, but dying liues,
And doth himself with sorrow new sustaine,
That death and life attonce vnto him giues,
And painefull pleasure turnes into pleasing paine.
There dwels he euer, miserable swaine,
Hatefull both to him selfe, and euery wight;
Where he through priuy griefe, and horrour vaine,
Is woxen so deform’d, that he has quight
Forgot he was a man, and Gealousie is hight.
Spenser, The Faerie Queen, book 3, canto 10, stanza 60
This is a version of the general pattern of metamorphosis that, following Ovid (and indeed Homer’s Circe), details the upward or downward conversion of a human being into a flower, jewel, beast, or constellation. It is also the same kind of transformation into archetype that took place with Pandarus in Troilus and Cressida. Timon’s story, like that of Pandarus, would have been familiar to Shakespeare’s audiences, whose interest would presumably therefore lie in how, rather than whether, the expected change would take place.
The transformation is explicitly performed in act 4 of Shakespeare play, when the self-exiled Timon encounters the self-exiled Alcibiades:
What art thou there? Speak.
A beast, as thou art…
What is thy name? Is man so hateful to thee
That art thyself a man?
I am Misanthropos, and hate mankind.
In the course of historical transmission the name Timon becomes the equivalent of “Misanthrope’ – a living contradiction, as Alcibiades observes.
It is a measure of the acuteness and acerbity of Timon of Athens that it begins with one of those familiar Shakespearean scenes of exposition-via-secondary-character, but instead of lords, servants, or soldiers the commenting onlookers here are artists and artisans: a painter, a jeweler, and a merchant. Each of course, regards Timon as a patron. The Painter and the Poet are particularly vain and empty, the Poet is full of false modesty (‘A thing slipped idly from me’ is how he describes his current piece of verse, dedicated, as the Painter observes, ‘To the great lord,’ while the Painter displays his work to the vapid approbation of his colleague: ‘What a mental power/This eye shoots forth! How big imagination/Moves in this lip! To th’dumbness of the gesture/One might interpret.’ The Painter is as archly modest as his friend, pressing him for more (‘is’t good?’), and receives the benison of a further banality: ‘Artificial strife/Lives in these touches livelier than life.’ But as self-absorbed as these creative personages are made to seem, they are accurate enough when it comes to assessing favor and fickleness in Timon’s followers Although all follow him now, ‘his lobbies fill with tendance,/Rain sacrificial whisperings in his ear,/Make sacred even his stirrup/’ the minute his luck changes they will desert him.
On the heels of this dire prophecy Timon enters and, as the stage direction says, ‘address[es] himself courteously to every suitor.’ He is the personification of assured elegance and modest attentiveness, a generous patron whose flaw, if he can be seen to have one, is that he seems invested in his own persona as a source of endless bounty. The first to need his assistance is a messenger from Ventidius, whose debts have landed him in prison. Not only will Timon ‘pay the debt and free him,’ but also sends for Ventidius to give him further aid: ‘Tis not enough to help the feeble up,/But to support him after.’ The next man Timon helps is Lucilius, who wants to marry but is not wealthy enough to satisfy his lady’s father. Again Timon is ready to help, offering to double the dowery. Needless to say, these will be among the first to deny him when he comes to them for succor.
From the first it is clear that Timon is not only generous but liberal. When Ventidius tries to repay him, he insists that the money was a gift, not a loan. The first scene ends with the sight of guests enroute to ‘Lord Timon’s feast,’ and the feast itself, including a masque of Cupid and another of Amazon ladies, features the influential men of Athens displaying ‘much adoring of Timon’ (stage direction, act 1, scene 2) as they give and receive yet more gifts. Cautionary notes punctuate this event: first, the invective of Apemantus, who scorns the feast, warns the host, and reflects to himself, ‘[W]hat a number of men eats Timon, and he sees ‘em not!’, and second, the dismay of Flavius, Timon’s loyal steward, a figure often compared to Kent in King Lear, who sees his master’s folly and is powerless to stop him:
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 now power to make his wishes good.
His promises fly so beyond his state
That what he speaks is all in debt, he owes
For every word. He is so kind that he now
Pays interest for ‘t…”
And finally, from the introduction to the Oxford edition of the play, a look at the question of collaboration:
“Timon of Athens is a peculiar and to some an unpalatable play: the plot is rather more allegorical than is typical of Shakespeare, there are many loose ends and insufficiently integrated episodes, several of the characters have generic rather than personal names, the verse is frequently uneven and the main character is hard to sympathize with – he starts as a pathologically generous and ends a misanthrope. Unlike the classic Shakespearean tragic hero, he dies offstage (exactly what kills him remains uncertain) and leaves behind only an ambiguous epitaph. But the play turns what might seem like disadvantages into assets; its sheer ferocity, its intense concentration on the destructiveness of economic relations and its virulent critique of human ingratitude have won it a valued place among present-day performers and playgoers. Though it may never have been staged in Shakespeare’s day and was rarely produced before the twentieth century, it has, over the past thirty or forty years, proved to be not only relevant but brilliantly effective in performance.
This edition of Timon of Athens is a collaborative one. To us, this seems eminently appropriate, since the text we have edited and her present to readers and performers is also the result of collaboration. It was written by two playwrights, William Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, whose work together may account for some of the play’s apparent oddity. [MY NOTE: I’ll just say that not everyone agrees with this.] Each author has unique characteristics that contribute to making the play what it is while at the same time their separateness is sometimes blurred or complicated by the process of working together and adapting to the other’s habits. Much work has been done on the problem of the play’s authorship, starting with the pioneering study by nineteenth-century editor Charles Knight, who first cast doubt on Shakespeare’s authorship of the whole text, and continuing up to the most recent scholarly edition of the play…Until recently there was strong disagreement on the issue of collaboration, but it is now widely, though not universally, accepted that Middleton was responsible for a sizeable proportion of the text. Earlier analysts, focusing on style and versification, with some attention also to distinctive vocabulary and phrasing, showed that there were major inconsistencies in the writing, casting doubt on Shakespeare’s authorship of the whole play but without identifying who his collaborator might have been. Recent studies, refining older techniques and adding evidence gathered from statistical mapping of such writerly habits as the use of certain contractions or grammatical forms, have homed in on Middleton as the co-author. The result has been an accumulation of convergent evidence that is, in our view, convincing.
Almost everything that has been written recently about the play’s authorship has been devoted to sorting out which parts of the play were written by whom. We will turn to that issue in due course. But it might be fruitful to begin with a more fundamental, if, at the same time, unanswerable question. Why did Shakespeare, who, except at the beginning and end of his career, typically wrote his plays single-handedly, turn to another, much less experienced playwright for help with this one? The plays that he wrote around the time Timon was composed are, among his greatest and most famous works: King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra. Why did he change his habits at such a juncture? Although this question is unanswerable, to think about the issue is, we hope, to cast some light on what makes this play so distinctive.
Timon combines tragedy and urban satire in a way that is unique in the Shakespearean canon. While satire plays a role in several of his plays, notably Troilus and Cressida, none of the others trains its sights on the sordid details of modern urban greed and economic relations in quite the way Timon does. Such themes were Middleton’s forte and so it seem possible, even likely, that Shakespeare sought him out to provide both the required sardonic tone and a vivid attention to the grittiness of city life (the Athens of the play resembles Jacobean London more than it does the city of Aristophanes or Plato). The play is first and foremost about money – who has it, who doesn’t, who owes what to whom, and how debts both mount up and are (or are not) collected. The tension between gifts and debts is a key theme: Timon regards his vast fortune as a treasure house for gift-giving, but in order to sustain his munificence he has to borrow, and those debts are not forgiven. He goes from being immensely rich to desperately poor, and since his friends, whose love and admiration he has bought dearly, refuse to bail him out, he turns against them and all mankind, retreating to a nearby forest to live in a cave and eat roots. That he finds a cache of gold while scrabbling for sustenance is the key irony of the play, bestowing on him a power and centrality he no longer wants. His virulent misanthropy is impressive and infectious, and the language he finds to express his scorn is unmatched in the rich mine of Shakespearean invective. This latter fact may provide a clue as to why Shakespeare was initially drawn to a story, decidedly allegorical in shape and without the typical Shakespearean focus on family relations, that was perhaps not as well suited to his talents as other, more expansive possibilities such as those offered by King Lear. And so, in mulling over the possibility of making a play out of the Timon story he might well have recognized that he would benefit from some help to achieve the mixed tone that he felt it needed. The play itself also shows signs of hasty composition, as if it was in fact the case that it needed to be written quickly, Middleton would have been the natural choice to assist Shakespeare in moving the project along briskly.”
More from this in my next post, looking at the process of how the script was (if indeed it was) put together.
Our next reading: Timon of Athens, Act Two
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning
And as a reminder – I know that Timon probably won’t rank among your favorite plays (although you might be surprised), but after we’re done with this…Macbeth, King Lear, and Antony and Cleopatra. It doesn’t get much better than that.