Timon of Athens
By Dennis Abrams
Act Three: One by one, Timon’s so-called “friends” refuse to help him, all making the feeblest of excuses. As the servants of Timon’s creditors move in pressing their claims, Timon enters enraged, but instead of paying them, invites their masters to dinner one last time. His guests assemble thinking that Timon’s good fortune has been restored, but when the meal is served, it turns out to be nothing but warm water (which Timon promptly throws at them) as he rails against their duplicity. Meanwhile, the soldier Alcibiades has been banished from Athens for pleading for one of his soldiers, who is under sentence of death for manslaughter. Alcibiades storms out, swearing to have his revenge on the city.
One by one, over three extraordinary scenes, Timon’s so-called friends refuse to help the man who has given them so much. Lucullus has the nerve to claim that Timon had it coming to him, and offers a far smaller amount than Timon had requested; Lucius is free with his promise, but when push comes to shove, pleads poverty; and Sempronius pretends to be offended that Timon did not come to him first – and then refuses him altogether.
In what seems to be an echo of the events of Titus Andronicus, Timon decides to get his revenge by inviting them all to dinner. But his approach will be far less grisly than his Roman counterpart, Titus, who as you recall famously baked a pie from the sons of his guest of honor. Timon decides to give his former friends food for thought instead: serving them bowls full of stones and warm water, he shouts, “Uncover, dogs, and lap”:
May you a better feast never behold,
You knot of mouth-friends. Smoke and lukewarm water
In your perfection. This is Timon’s last,
Who, stuck and spangled with your flattery,
Washes it off, and sprinkles in your faces
Your reeking villainy.
It is fitting that events come to a head at dinner, given that at the play’s previous feast – one sufficiently lavish enough to boast a chorus of dancing girls and a boy dressed as Cupid – the play’s resident cynic, Apemantus, had exclaimed: ‘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. (1.2.38-40)
As Timon’s situation worsens, images of cannibalism begin to reverberate in his language too. Though the bloody events of Titus are not repeated, his words continually hark back to the earlier tragedy – as well as to a tragedy narrowly averted, that of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice. Facing howling demands for his creditors’ “bills,” Timon offers the messenger nothing less than his body in repayment:
Knock me down with ‘em, cleave me to the girdle.
Alas, my lord.
Cut my heart in sums.
Mine fifty talents.
Tell out my blood.
Five thousand crowns, my lord.
Five thousand drops pays that.
If comparisons with Antonio seem obvious, for some critics read Timon’s betrayal by his so-called “friends” as nothing less than an analogy to Christ’s betrayal by Judas, especially given that images of them drinking his blood and eating his body seem to align nicely with the flesh-and-blood substance of the Christian Eucharist, which itself replays Christ’s final supper with his disciples. Other commentators however, (myself included) find it difficult to squeeze that much…nobility out of the situation, particularly given that Timon’s tragic mistake is, strictly speaking, his reluctance to confront the accountants.
“The second act ends, finely, on this happy expectation [of getting help from his friends] which everything in the audience’s dramatic sense, even without knowledge of the historical Timon, will lead them to expect to fail.
And fail it does, spectacularly. The ‘busyness’ of these rich men and their oblivious self-absorption have something of the spirit of Ben Jonson’s comedies, just as the whole story of a good rich man surrounded by pretentious climbers has something in common with Jonson’s great country-house poem, ‘To Penshurst.’ The first three scenes of the third act present three man, all recently – and in our sight onstage – given lavish gifts by Timon, each turning away Timon’s embassy with excuses that are simultaneously comic and painful. Lucullus, hearing that one of Timon’s men is at the door, expects yet another gift – ‘I dreamt of a silver basin and ever tonight’ – and addresses the messenger in flirtatious terms: ‘And what hast thou there under thy cloak, pretty Flaminius?’ Told it is ‘nothing but an empty box,’ which Timon hopes he’ll fill with money, Lucullus instantly turns prig and scold: ‘Many a time and often I ha’ dined with him and told him on’t, and come again to supper to him of purpose to have him spend less.’ Business is business: ‘[T]his is no time to lend money, especially upon bare friendship without security.’ Lucullus tries to offer Flaminius a tip, or a bribe, to go away: ‘Here’s three solidares…[W]ink at me, and say thou saw’st me not’
The next encounter, with Lucius, is brilliantly conceived to show the quickwittedness that accompanies a complete lack of moral fiber. First Lucius expresses incredulity at the gossip about Timon (‘He cannot want for money;), then surprise at the news that Lucullus denied to help him (‘Denied that honourable man?…I should ne’er have denied his occasion). Then, when approached himself, he expresses disingenuous regret about ‘[h]ow unluckily it happened’ that he has managed not to have the funds on hand to help his friend: ‘[T]ell him this from me: I count it one of my greatest afflictions, say, that I cannot pleasure such an honourable gentleman.’ What makes the scene both more amusing and more pointed is the fact that Lucius, like Lucullus before him, has misperceived Timon’s emissary as someone who is bring gifts, not seeking them:
May it please your honour, my lord hath sent:
Ha! What has sent! I am so much endeared to that lord,
he’s ever sending. How shall I thank him, think’st thou? And
what has he sent now?
He’s only sent his present occasion now, my lord, requesting
your lordship to supply his instant use with so many talents.
As for the third ungrateful friend, Sempronius, his response is equally devastating and equally funny. This part of the play is Shakespeare at his social-satirical best. Why bother me? Sempronius begins by asking of Timon’s servant. Others have benefited from Timon’s lavishness, like Lucius, Lucullus, and Ventidius. ‘All these/Owe their estates unto him.’ Told that Timon has asked them, and that all three have ‘denied him’ (the echo of Christ and Peter cannot be completely accidental), Sempronius immediately mounts his high horse and demands to know why he is being approached only now: ‘Must I be his last refuge?’ If Timon had just asked him first, he says, he would happily have sent him three times what he is requesting. ‘And does he think so backwardly of me now/That I’ll requite it last? No.’ ‘No’ is of course the point here. These lords are experts at getting to no, by whatever route necessary. The rest of the act turns sharply colder as the creditors gather, presenting their bills to the steward and Timon, who have no money to pay them. Like Lear, Timon is ill-used by those to whom he has been generous. He has also, it seems clear, been unwise, not only in his choice of ‘friends’ but in his management of money. His generosity – like that of many patrons and philanthropists, of whatever era – has become not only a way of live but a self-definition and a self-justification. It is not entirely surprising that Timon, bereft of money and grateful hangers-on, should dwindle into a railing caricature, and then into a pair of epitaphs.
The four major characters of the play – Timon, Apemantus, Alcibiades, and the steward, Flavius – are compared and contrasted with one another in various ways. Like Timon, whom he counts as friend, Alcibiades finds himself at odds with Athens, though for political and pragmatic rather than ethical reasons. In act 3 he pleads with the Senators for clemency for an unnamed friend, in an oration that has been compared to Portia’s and Isabella’s eloquent pleas for mercy. The Senators, as befits their structural role as well as their nature, insist repeatedly, ‘We are for law; he dies.’ In the upshot, when Alcibiades persists in his suit, they banish him from the city, incurring his wrath in return: ‘[Banish me? /Banish your dotage, banish usury,/That makes the senate ugly.’ This intemperate rejoinder has something of Coriolanus in it (‘I banish you’ [Coriolanus 3.3.127]), and indeed the ‘Life of Alcibiades’ was partnered in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans with the ‘Life of Coriolanus.’ Each man, being banished, led an army against his own city. But Alcibiades is far more politic and judicious than Coriolanus, and less a suffering ‘tragic hero.’ He occupied the position in this play that is held in other tragedies by the political man who closes out the action: Octavius Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra, Aufidius in Coriolanus, Fortinbras in Hamlet, Richmond in Richard III, even Malcolm and Edgar in the final scenes of Macbeth and King Lear, respectively. Such a man, that is to say, is always ultimately a rationalist, even a compromiser when it suits his circumstances. Like Octavius and Aufidius, Alcibiades is not a tragic character – he will avoid suffering, rather than endure it, if he can. He not only survives the play, but speaks its last, conventional lines of mourning and recovery.
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.
Flavius, the steward, tries repeatedly to warn Timon against his fair-weather friends, who, like the elder daughters of King Lear, flatter him to his face and take his gifts, but turn against him, full of self-righteousness and self-justification, the minute he requires something of them. Once Timon has turned misanthrope and taken refuge in his cave, the steward will join him, declaring his fidelity to his master in a way that again recalls Kent’s fidelity to Lear:
I’ll follow and enquire him out.
I’ll serve his mind, with my best will,
Whilst I have gold I’ll be his steward still.
Timon, unlike Lear, remains resolute in his distaste for mankind, despite a variety of overtures (Alcibiades wants him to fight against Athens; the Senators want him to defend it). Ultimately he writes his own epitaph, which is declaimed, with suitable solemnity by Alcibiades to the Athenian Senators as they make their peace at the end of the play.
As for Apemantus, he, too, is a familiar Shakespearean type, closely akin to ‘philosophical’ or skeptical commentators like Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, Jaques in As You Like It, and even Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. Identified as a ‘churlish philosopher,’ Apemantus is often called a ‘dog’ in the text’ thus he is linked with the philosophical school of the Cynics (literally ‘doglike, currish,’ although the name came from that of the Athenian gymnasium, Cynosarges where this philosophy was taught). The omnipresence of dog imagery and dog language in this play (Painter to Apemantus: ‘You’re a dog’; Apemantus: ‘Thy mother’s of my generation’; Page to Apemantus: ‘Thou was whelped a dog, and thou shalt famish a dog’s death’; Timon to Apemantus; ‘I had rather be a beggar’s dog than Apemantus’, plus the frequent use of words like ‘bites,’ ‘fangs,’ etc. (the examples are too numerous to mention), is not only thematic, indicating a general tone of carnivorous destruction, nor merely an allusion to the Cynics, but also allegorical in the same veiled though ultimately discernible way that the name of Timon is allegorical. As the play’s tragic hero is a ‘man-hater,’ so the fool is a ‘dog.’ In fact, the many canine references applied to Apemantus the Cynic, starting as they do so early in the play, function as a kind of model or ‘control’ for the emergence of Timon, within the dramatic action, as a one-dimensional symbol of the qualities historians had already attached to him.
The design of the play is marked by telling repetitions: two banquets, two encounters with the Poet and the Painter, two sets of occasions on which Timon deals with his flattering friends. In each case the second event undoes any hope or optimism engendered by the first.
The first banquet is a sumptuous feast, its splendor resisted only by Apemantus, who sits alone at a separate table, and sees through the shallowness of the occasion:
I scorn thy meat, ‘Twould choke me, for I should ne’er flatter thee. O you gods, what a number of men eats Timon and he see ‘em not! It grieves me to see so many dip their meat in one man’s blood.
A masque and gifts given by the host to his guests complete the magnanimity of the occasion, which is marked by Timon’s unfailing courtesy and openhandedness. The second banquet, arranged after his requests for aid have been ingeniously rejected by his self-serving ‘friends,’ is quite the reverse. Cautioned by his steward that ht does not have enough money left ‘to furnish out/A moderate table’ Timon determines, nonetheless, that he will ‘once more feast the rascals.’ The blindly flattered flatterers, now assuring one another that they would have come to Timon’s assistance – ‘I am sorry when he sent to borrow of me that my provision was out’ – and that it is clear now he was only testing the, sit down to the ‘noble feast’ they confidently expect, only to have the dishes uncovered to reveal nothing but warm water and stones. ‘Uncover, dogs, and lap’ is Timon’s memorable invocation. His railing against the ‘knot of mouth-friends’ begins here in earnest, as they stumble out of the banquet hall, leaving behind their caps and gowns:
Most smiling, smooth, detested parasites,
Courteous destroyers, affable wolves, meek bears,
You fools of fortune, trencher-friends, time’s flies,
Cap-and-knee slaves, vapours, and minute-jacks!
In the next scene, the beginning of the fourth act, Timon has left Athens…”
And finally, from Nuttall’s Shakespeare the Thinker:
“The connection with The Merchant of Venice is strong, but the link to King Lear is stronger still. I am assuming that King Lear is earlier than Timon of Athens, but the date of Timon is hard to fix. It could belong to 1604, the year of Measure for Measure, with King Lear following in 1605. When Lear says, ‘Our basest beggars/Are in the poorest thing superfluous’ (II, iv, 265-265), his thought flows from his grief at what he calls ingratitude in a way that modern audiences, again, usually miss. He has moved into the logic of the ‘grace’ nexus. The essence of grace is that it is superfluous to desert or requirement. When Alexander Pope wrote of the ‘nameless graces’ of poetry, he was setting aside the rational Augustan scheme he had set up in order to acknowledge the possibility of inexplicable splendours the scheme itself could never generate. The whole point of a gratuity to a waiter is that it be over and above the sum named on the restaurant bill. If play is allowed to speak to play, when Lear notes that even the poorest will have about them odd, gratuitous objects that are not valued solely for their efficacy in the practical business of survival, he counters one central drive of The Merchant of Venice, which is to suggest that grace is a luxury that only the rich can afford, something unavailable to the economic work-horses on whom Venice depends. ‘No,’ says Lear, ‘Such graces are the property of humanity, in whatever condition.’ Yet when Lear says later,
Take physic, pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
Then mayst thou shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.
he implicitly assents to the claim of rational justice: that the extra wealth should be distributed not in pure, unsystematic freedom but in accordance with demonstrable need and desert. But of course Lear is here speaking at the level of the ethical, not the contractual. What shows in the word ‘just’ is that the scheme deemed contrary to cold justice, the scheme of grace, can lead us, as we move from contract to ethical desert, back to the claim of justice – now having high moral status! This is exactly the sequence played out in Timon of Athens.
In fact it looks as if Shakespeare’s mind must have passed from The Merchant of Venice to Measure for Measure before he wrote King Lear. In Measure for Measure Angelo offers the unlovable proposition that in practical life the rigorous application of punitive law may in the long run be more merciful (that is, may cause less pain) than the generous forgiveness the Duke has been freely granting to criminals. In King Lear the supremacy of unconditional charity is reasserted with even more power than Portia could give it in The Merchant of Venice. But to make the good, loving Cordelia the mouthpiece of quantified love, as she is when she says she will need so much love for husband, leaving so much for her father, is as disconcerting as it was to make the wicked, punitive Angelo the mouthpiece of practical mercy. Lear expects reciprocal gratitude after the gift of the kingdom to his three daughters at the beginning of the play. Goneril and Regan are like Timon’s false friends. They profess love but are insensible of any ethical obligation. They simply hang on to whatever they can get. Lear’s folly, we could say (as we said of Timon’s), ‘asked for it.’ This the King could have borne, but when Cordelia begins to ‘mathematize’ and hesitate, he snaps. Cordelia has perceived that the King’s free (though hierarchically ordered) generosity has become enmeshed in its predicable practical effect: the creation of a mercenary temper in the recipient. Political economists used to like to point out that charity pauperizes the supposed beneficiary. This also is like Timon of Athens. Cordelia is bewildered by her sudden apprehension of the dangerous social context, tries to resolve the matter by moving into the cooler medium of rationally demonstrable desert. This makes her language uncomfortably similar to that employed by her sisters in their wholly destructive application of mathematics to human flesh and blood.
‘Grace’ normally refers to the initial act of generosity, but ‘Grace before meat’ is prayer of thanksgiving, the other side of the equation. This too get into Timon of Athens at III, v., 70-84, where the protagonist utters a parodic Grace. Man to God, giver to Giver, he warns the Supreme Being not to give, because the recipients will only despise the giver. He ends by asking God to destroy his creatures and by explaining that his own guests will be given no food at all: ‘In nothing bless them, and to nothing are they welcome.’
With these words Timon modulates from a parodic Grace into something even more shocking, a parodic Eucharist. It is entirely natural when staging this scene to place Timon in the center of the far side of a long table, with his guests on either side. Already the composition of innumerable Last Suppers, from Leonardo da Vinci and earlier to Luis Bunuel’s version in the film Viridiana (as savage as Shakespeare’s), is in place. This is Timon’s last supper and he is, as we think, on the point of inviting his guests to ‘take, eat,’ but then we hit – or are hit by – the word, ‘nothing.’ On this word, according to the Folio stage direction, ‘The dishes are uncovered and seen to be full of warm water.’ It is possible that the stage direction is incomplete and that the words ‘and stones’ should be added. As the terrified and embarrassed guests fall over each other in their haste to get their hats and coats and leave, one says, ‘One day he gives us diamonds, the next day stones.’ If Timon had indeed served them stones in water we have a reversal of Jesus’ words, ‘If a son should ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone?’ (Luke 11:11). These words follow closely on the passage in which Jesus teaches his disciples the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’
‘Grace before meat’ is the giving of thanks for that physical sustenance God has given us in response to our prayer, ‘Give us this day…’ This elemental form can be seen in one of the Graces printed in The Primer set forth by the Kinges Majestie and his Clergie of 1545: ‘Most mightie lord and merciful father we yeld the hartie thankes for our bodily sustenance,’ but the prayer of simple thanksgiving immediately slides into a petitionary prayer for the grace of God (grace in its primary sense). Further conceptual contortions followed in later Graces, until we get, instead of ‘Thank you for this food,’ a plea to be made grateful (‘For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful.’) Christian devotion is invaded by the convulsive neurosis proper to competitive courtesies among fallen human beings. In the original Last Supper, meanwhile, a more fundamental transposition of terms takes place, as the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, the host of the supper. Eucharist belongs to the ‘grace-gratitude’ nexus. In modern Greek eucharisto means ‘thank you.’ ‘Charity,’ we now see, belongs to the same family of terms.
The questions whether the body and blood of Christ are actually consumed by participants in the Mass or Holy Communion, or whether the whole business is to be understood figuratively, was a matter of hot contention in the sixteenth-century. The transition from ordinary bread and wine to Christ’s body can seem, especially in an Anglican context, a move to a higher plane. But the notion of eating one’s god and drinking his blood carries simultaneously a charge of barbarous magic. I am sure that Shakespeare was sensible of all these things. The heavily recurrent cannibalistic imagery of the play, joined as it is to the parodic Grace and Eucharist, presented as a great set-piece, must have the effect of sanitizing us to the primitive force latent in the doctrine. The most interesting instance is at 1.ii, 41. ‘So many dip their meat in one man’s blood.’ This evokes the moment in the Last Supper when Jesus dips the sop and passes it to the traitor, Judas (John 13:26). Nor is this the only one. ‘The fellow that sits next him, now parts bread with him…is the readiest man to kill him.’ (I, ii. 46-49) and ‘Who can call him/His friend that dips in the same dish? (III, ii, 46-49) keep the thought alive.
Does this mean that Timon is a Christ figure? G. Wilson Knight had no doubt about the matter. After all we have seen Angelo as a redeemer. Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice are not the only plays in which Shakespeare allows his mind to be engrossed by theology. If Timon is a Christ figure he is so, in a curiously trivial manner, in the first half of the play only; thereafter he becomes, as the hater of all mankind, an inverse Christ figure. He is monumentally inconsistent, moving from witless love to insane loathing…Even in the first part of the play Timon’s bounty never seems Christlike. If he is crucified he is crucified as much by his society and his own stupidity as by treachery. Even in his final phase of total misanthropy he lacks moral grandeur. The phrase ‘inverted Christ’ might suggest a frightening devil, but that is not what we are given. Instead, the prolonged ranting begins to sound unreal in our ears. Perhaps, in the words of Albert Camus, he is ‘the only Christ we deserve.’”
Our next reading; Timon of Athens, Act Four
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning.