Timon of Athens
By Dennis Abrams
Act Two: Timon’s creditors are getting restless and send their servants to request that he pay off his debts. Flavius is attempting to stall them when Timon appears and demands to know what is going on. Flavius informs that he has squandered his estate by his extravagance and that there is nothing left to pay off even half of what he owes. But Timon is undaunted, and remains confident that his friends will help him out.
Despite Flavius’s fears, when those creditors begin circling, the steward is forced to tell all. Finally telling his master about the state of his financial affairs – to Timon’s utter disbelief it must be said – Flavius sets into motion events that will occupy the rest of the play. To his credit, Timon does spring into action with impressive resolution, at first demanding that his land be sold (Flavius reveals that is already gone) and then suggesting that his “friends” will of course step in to help him out. But as we shall see, Timon’s judgment of character is even less grounded in reality than his assessment of his accounts…
“When the steward finally succeeds in convincing Timon that all his money has run out – act 2, scene 2, begins with a particularly vivid portrait of a man of business tearing his hair out at the profligacy of his noble client: ‘No care, no stop; no senseless of expense/That he will neither know how to maintain it/Nor case his flow of riot’ – Timon is serenely confident. ‘I am wealthy in my friends,’ he asserts. All he will need to do is ask them for their assistance. As was the case in Lear, however, the answer to his appeals is ‘no’ – however cleverly disguised the reply. First he sends to the Senators for help. ‘They answer in a joint and corporate voice,’ the steward reports,
That now they are at fall, want treasure, cannot
Do what they would, are sorry, you are honourable,
But yet they could have wished – they know not –
Something hath been amiss – a noble nature
May catch a wrench – would all were well – ‘tis pity…
In short, with fine and empty words, ‘They froze me into silence.’ But Timon is unfazed: ‘These old fellows/have their ingratitude in them hereditary.’ Flavius and the servants will have better luck if they try younger man, specifically those who have received beneficent and timely gifts from him, like Ventidius, whom he rescued from debtors’ prison, and whose father has just died and left him a great estate. The second act ends, finely, on this happy expectation, which everything in the audience’s dramatic sense, even without knowledge of the historical Timon, will lead them to expect to fail.”
And this from A.D. Nuttall’s Shakespeare the Thinker:
“If the writer of King Lear was strangely drawn to mathematical notation, Timon of Athens has the form of a demonstration in Euclid. One almost expects to read at the end the words, ‘Quod erat demonstrandum.’ Although there are some rough edges in Timon of Athens (the play as we have it may be an unfinished version of a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton) the central structure has an icy clarity – and it is all about ingratitude. Timon gives freely to all comers; he then falls on hard times. The friends he has showered with gifts reject him. He who has loved all mankind becomes in consequence a hater of mankind, a misanthrope. Timon is Lear without any of the old king’s grandeur of language and, more important, without any family. He has only friends, or perhaps I should say, ‘friends.’
In the first part of the play it is clear that Timon’s gifts are lavished on others with no expectation of a material return. Indeed, one sure way to secure an expensive present from Timon is to give him something. He seems to be driven by some inner force to outdo the giver, on a spectacular scale, at once. A notion of reciprocal payment is beginning to emerge here, but it operates in a reverse direction: Timon is not worried about securing a return from others, he is rather harassed by the thought that he must give back more than he received. Marcel Mauss observes how in certain societies this very different reciprocity-of-honour could become codified. The writes of the American Indian of the Northwest, ‘One does not have the right to refuse a gift or a potlatch. To do so would show fear of having to repay.’ He adds interestingly that it in certain circumstances a refusal can be an assertion of strength. Mauss is describing a society composed entirely of Timons. In Shakespeare’s play he is alone. The recipients of Timon’s gifts feel no obligation whatever to reciprocate his generosity. Their indifference to obligation can make them seem strong and Timon, inversely, weak in Maussian terms.
We may think for a moment that Timon in the first half of the play is like one of those sad children who take presents to school in the hope of buying friendship. But Timon did not give with the conscious intention of obtaining anything for himself. He really does give freely (freedom is at the heart of the grace-gratitude-gratuitous complex of terms). The thought of a return does not cross his mind until he is financially ruined. Then indeed he assumes that his dear friends will come to his aid as he would certainly have gone to theirs in like circumstances. When Timon poured out his good things upon others they were really gifts, gratuitous extras, outside and above the low world of contracts. But now he thinks that after all a return is in order. Gracious giving is properly answered by gratitude, and gratitude may even be expected on occasion to express itself financially. This does not mean that he has slipped back into the sphere of legally enforceable bonds. Timon is not looking for ‘the money due to me,’ he is looking for an ethical response. The freedom of his original beneficence depended on his continuing unawareness that an obligation was being created in the recipient. But the grateful recipient is conscious of obligation. How, then, can we say that he makes his grateful return freely? The freedom lies in the fact that the return is not enforced by any legal sanction. The recipient of bounty responds only because he wants to, but from the ethical point of view, he ought to want to. A wholly sincere suspension of all legal obligation can without inconsistency coexist with an implicit belief in ethical obligation. That said, we must add that the original giver must retain a certain innocence. If the giver is too vividly aware that the secondary ethical obligation is always there, he may begin to give with an eye to having help at hand later, a sort of insurance policy. If this happens, his giving is no longer gracious, disinterested, and the whole scheme is now tainted. But Timon (who is not one of Shakespeare’s clever characters) is entirely innocent.
Nineteenth-century critics tended to see Timon as a noble spirit vilely used by others. Earlier critics saw him as less than admirable, a fool or an extravagant show-off. Ethically, his generous actions ask for a generous response. On the practical level his near-hysterical giving virtually invites abuse from the recipient. There is the low idiom; ‘He asked for it.’
We now have an extraordinarily subtle structure in counterpoint to that we saw exposed in The Merchant of Venice. In the earlier play Shylock, the man of legal bonds, takes the Christians at their word. In effect he says, ‘You all know very well that I function usefully in your society as the man who deals not in charity but in strict business terms – and now I want what is owing to me,’ and the Christians are aghast. In Timon of Athens the faithless friends take Timon at his word and say in effect, ‘You are the man who is above bonds and contracts, the free giver, the man to whom we owe nothing, right?’ and he is aghast.
In The Merchant of Venice it is clear that the opposite of grace is bond. Portia never uses the word ‘grace’ in her famous appeal to Shylock to be merciful, but for all that she is talking about grace (to this day we can feel that the Christian Venetians are graceful and that Shylock is graceless without understanding the full meaning of the terms we continue to use). In Twelfth Night, the Fool says, ‘Words are very rascals since bonds disgrac’d them.’ This is far too clever for your average twenty-first-century audience. The Fool means, ‘You may give me your words and this would have been fine in the good old days when gentlemen were gentlemen and people like Shylock were kept out of sight, but now the growth of legal safeguards has removed the old element of gentlemanly generosity (‘dis-grac’d’) in promises. Since then words can no longer be trusted.’ My paraphrase is long because it is adapted to the reduced understanding of modern readers (of whom I am one).
Because Timon is not intelligent he does not philosophize as Ulysses does in Troilus and Cressida. But it is no straining of terms to say that Shakespeare philosophizes in Timon of Athens. The analysis of the intricate dance of social giving in which obligation is first erased and then reinscribed, conducted with careful attention to linguistic usage, would have delighted J.L. Austin. It is his sort of thing, but, I am tempted to say, cleverer than anything in Austin’s writings. The subsequent embedding of this paradox of giving in a bleakly cynical society then throws further light on the way causes operate (sometimes in unexpected ways) between individuals and groups – something that as we have seen fascinated Shakespeare from the beginning. This also is very intelligent but perhaps belongs more with social psychology than with philosophy (if a label must be attached). Certainly, Shakespeare is thinking in this play.”
And finally, more from the introduction to the Oxford edition of the play, and a look how the collaboration between Shakespeare and Middleton (if indeed there was one) might have worked:
“How, then, was the actual process of putting together the script developed? Again, we are on speculative ground here, but we need imaginatively to reconstruct the course of development when we consider each author’s contribution – how, that is, they divided their labor. Writing collaboratively can be handled a number of ways: Elizabethan dramatists were sometimes assigned different acts or scenes of plays and wrote them without much interaction with their fellow authors. But certain collaborations, most famously that between Beaumont and Fletcher, seems to have involved a fair amount of give and take, even when, as occasionally happened and may have been the case here, the authors worked from different source documents. It seems to us that Timon is more likely to be an example of this closer collaborative process, since there is evidence of cross-fertilization. The way we see it Shakespeare probably took the lead, not only contributing about 65 percent of the whole, but producing the overall plan. By 1606-7, when the play was probably written [MY NOTE: Or not], he was the foremost playwright of the time, while Middleton was just coming into prominence, with a series of biting urban comedies, including Michaelmas Term (1604-5) and A Trick to Catch the Old One (1605), and the irreverent and parodic tragedy The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606). Shakespeare no doubt recognized his younger colleague’s satirical skills, especially when they were aimed (with a kind of jaunty cynicism) at human greed and hypocrisy. Mapping out the story in general terms, Shakespeare would then have suggested that his partner take on certain elements: the tawdry masque and banquet scene, spiced up with witty commentary on the party of the cynic Apemantus (1.2), the scene of attempted borrowing (3.1 to 3.3), the debt-collecting sequences (parts of 2.2, 3.4) and most of the sections involving the faithful steward, Flavius. Shakespeare took the meatiest scenes for himself, such as the long opening sequence, with its brilliant interweaving of ambiguous magnanimity in the characterization of Timon and satirical portraiture in the representation of the false friends who flock to his house; and, no doubt recognizing the potential for invention that eventually came to mark the great speeches of imprecation in the fourth act, he reserved most of the final two acts for himself: the vehement vituperation of the forest scenes as well as the elegiac and muted ending.
As we ourselves have learned over the long stretch of time that we have been working together on this edition, collaborators have a way of harnessing each other’s ways of thinking, of adopting their partner’s verbal patterns and suiting their individual characteristics to the joint project. While there are obvious and multiple differences between the patterns of collaboration typical of seventeenth-century playwrights and twenty-first century editors, there are similarities as well. Like Shakespeare and Middleton, we too divided our labors, with Dawson taking initial responsibility for Acts 1, 3, and 5, and Minton for Acts 2 and 4. But before long we found ourselves thinking about, and working with, material from each other’s segments. And of course we read, discussed and revised what each of us did to such a point that individual differences, while still there and important, were partly submerged. We have little doubt that if someone wanted to take the trouble to analyse our writerly characteristics (not that anyone would), it would be possible to figure out which parts of our commentary were written by whom; but we also know that there would be a kind of overlay, a mixture of styles, that would make decisions about certain parts of occur text difficult to ascribe to one of us or the other. Our view of what Middleton and Shakespeare contributed to Timon has been influenced by this experience. There are certain parts of the play that seem purely one or the other playwrights’ work. But there are other parts where it is harder to tell and which we prefer to leave open. We can be confident that the opening scene is Shakespeare’s and the one that follows, Middleton’s, that the first three scenes of Act 3 are likewise clearly by Middleton, while the first and third scenes of Act 4 (possibly excepting 4.3.453-531) and much of Act 5 are Shakespeare’s. Act 2 is a little more murky. The first, short scene with the Senator has been attributed to both playwrights by different scholars, while much, though not all, of the next scene (2.2) seems to be Middleton’s. There is similar uncertainty about the mock banquet scene (3.7) and about the senate house scene with Alcibiades (3.6), which has many Middletonian characteristics but also reads in part like Shakespeare’s work.”
Of course Bloom just dismisses the whole thing: “Some recent scholars assign several scenes of the play to Thomas Middleton, but their evidence is not at all persuasive, and one or two of them would be glad to give much of Macbeth to Middleton, which arouses absolute distrust in me.”
So what are your thoughts so far…about the play? about the possible collaboration? Share with the group!
Our next reading: Timon of Athens, Act Three
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.