“There’s nothing level in our cursed natures,/But direct villany. Therefore, be abhorr’d /All feasts, societies, and throngs of men!”

Timon of Athens

Act Four

By Dennis Abrams


Dover_Timon_ish_300Act Four:  Although his servants remain loyal to him, Timon is now driven insane with anger; he curses the city and its residents, and leaves to lives in the woods. While digging for roots in the forest, he discovers gold, but still remains implacable in his hatred – even when Alcibiades makes an appearance accompanied by two whores and offers to help him. Timon gives gold to Alcibiades for his campaign against Athens, and also to the whores, encouraging them to go forth and spread disease among the citizens. Timon is also visited by Apemantus, who insists that his misanthropy is just another kind of pride. Only the visit of Flavius manages to touch what remains of his humanity, but Timon even dismisses him.

Who’s to blame?  Timon’s view seems to be that is not his own behavior that was at fault, but money itself – a conclusion that is reinforced by a bitter irony, for when he tried digging the ground for roots toe at, he somehow (fairy tale here?) finds gold. Counting it out in his hands, he addresses what he calls the “yellow slave” in tones of wonder:

O, thou sweet king-killer, and dear divorce

‘Twist natural son and sire; thou bright defiler

Of Hymen’s purest bed; thou valiant Mars;

Thou ever young, fresh, loved, and delicate wooer,

Whose blush doth thaw the consecrated snow

That lies on Dian’s lap; thou visible god,

And mak’st them kiss, that speak’st with every tongue

To every purpose; O thou touch of hearts:

Think thy slave man rebels, and by thy virtue

Set them into confounding odds; that beasts

May have the world in empire.

I’ve read that Marx quoted Timon’s words in his early Political Economy and Philosophy (1844), describing the way in which money acts as “the universal whore…the alienation of human capacity” in early capitalist societies, but it is tempting to say that in doing so he missed (or more likely chose to ignore) Shakespeare’s larger suggestion. Timon diagnoses money as the root of all his troubles – the alienating effect of money, which perverts good things into evil – when in point of fact it is his alienation from himself and others that begins his downfall. Even while pouring scorn on the “sweet king-killer,” Timon is still unable to get away from its glittering allure. Blaming money for everything, just like giving vast amounts of it way, has no meaning: the 100% all or nothing attitude makes both acts meaningless. As Apemantus himself declares to Timon on a trip to the forest, “the middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends.”

In fact, Timon’s attack on money seems to be an expression of a terrible poverty of spirit. While Lear’s ravings (as we shall see), which express in a convoluted way the king’s own overwhelming guilt at his own personal failings, have a kind of savage grandeur, Timon’s ravings are passionate only in their absolute hatred of absolutely everything – with the important exception of himself. Handing gold to a group of thieves who come across his dean in the forest, he promises to “example you with thievery,” but his philosophy is sadly limited in its scope:

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.


From Garber:

timon act 4“In the next scene, the beginning of the fourth act, Timon has left Athens and, outside its walls, addresses the audience in a lengthy soliloquy of invective ending in a prayer: ‘[G]rant, as Timon grows, his hate may grow/To the whole race of mankind, high and low./Amen.’ Since the entire railing speech is an apostrophe of topsy-turvy instructions, and since Timon is alone on the stage, the recipients of his contempt are the spectators in the theater:

     Matrons, turn incontinent!

Obedience fall in children! Slaves and fools,

Pluck the grave wrinkled statue from the bench

And minister in their steads!


     Maid, to thy master’s bed!

Thy mistress is o’th’ brothel. Son of sixteen,

Pluck the lined crutch from thy old limping sire;

With it beat out his brains!

As the speech continues, the personal turns general, and the spirit of Lear railing against the storm is joined with the tone of Ulysses’ speech on ‘degree’ (in Troilus and Cressida):

      Piety and fear,

Religion to the gods, peace, justice, truth,

Domestic awe, night rest, and neighborhood,

Instruction, manners, mysteries, and trades,

Degrees, observances, customs, and laws,

Decline to your confounding contraries,

And let confusion live!

Timon’s two chief encounters with Apemantus mark both the difference between these two characters and their points of intersection. At the feat in act 1 Apemantus, sitting apart, offers a grace that ends, prophetically, ‘Rich men sin, and I eat root.’ (1.2.70). As we will see, the opposition between ‘root’ and ‘rich,’ or, more specifically, between ‘root’ and ‘gold,’ will provide a chief imagistic narrative within the play.

Both gold and roots are products of the earth uncovered by digging. ‘Gold’ in its various senses is omnipresent in Shakespeare, although the use perhaps the most closely analogous to that in Timon of Athens comes in Romeo and Juliet, which begins with the mention of a woman who will not ‘ope her lap/To saint-seducing gold,’ moves on to an apothecary shop where gold and poison are equated, and ends with the extravagant and empty gesture of two gold statues raised in memory of the dead lovers. In folktales and fairy tales, and as, for example, in Chaucer’s ‘Pardoner’s Tale,’ those who seek gold – especially buried or hidden gold – often find death instead. (It is perhaps worth noting that the other well-known ‘digging scene’ in Shakespeare takes place in a graveyard, in Hamlet.) The cautionary tale of King Midas, who asked for the gift of turning everything he touched to gold and therefore almost starved to death, was told vividly in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Once he has left the city, Timon, digging for roots for sustenance, in a deeply ironic moment discovers gold, the last thing he wants:

     What is here?

Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold?

No, gods, I am no idle votarist:

Roots, you clear heavens…


This yellow slave

Will knit and break religions, bless th’ accursed,

Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves,

And give them title, knee, and approbation.

It is here that he sounds his most Lear-like, railing twice against ‘ingrateful man,’ invoking ‘tigers, dragons, wolves, and bears’ and ‘new monsters.’

To his cave will come, in steady succession, whores, bandits, and the Poet and the Painter, all hungry for the gold that cannot nourish them. (‘Believe’t that we’ll do anything for gold,’ says Alcibiades’ mistresses.) Timon will keep digging until he finds the ‘one poor root’ he seeks for food. The word ‘root’ is surprisingly omnipresent in the play, from the scene of the first feast, where Apemantus mentions it twice, to the digging scene (4.3), where Timon digs passionately in the earth, longing aloud (five times) for roots to eat. Unlike ‘gold,’ this is not a Shakespearean commonplace; ‘root’ appears more times in Timon than in any other play, and other uses tend to refer more metaphorically to history or to family trees. In the digging scene the two terms come emphatically together, as Timon, eating a root, is asked by Apemantus what news he would like borne back to Athens:


Tell them there I have gold. Look, so I have.


Here is no use for gold.


The best and truest,

For here it sleeps and does no hired harm.

It may be that this ‘root’ symbolism is related in some way not only to the common theme of digging (and the opposition of humble and exalted, nature and artifice) but also to the hanging tree of the Timon story. In any case, it is Timon himself who will wind up ‘entomb’d’ at the end of the play.

When Timon, digging for sustenance, finds gold instead, he offers a rueful panegyric:

O, thou sweet king-killer, and dear divorce

‘Twist natural son and sire; thou bright defiler

Of Hymen’s purest bed; thou valiant Mars;

Thou ever young, fresh, loved, and delicate wooer,

Whose blush doth thaw the consecrated snow

That lies on Dian’s lap; thou visible god,

That sold’rest close impossibilities

And mak’st them kiss, that speak’st with every tongue

To every purpose; O thou touch of hearts:

Think thy slave man rebels, and by thy virtue

Set them into confounding odds, that beasts

May have the world in empire.

Apemantus’s pledge, ‘I’ll say thou’st gold./Thou wilt be thronged to shortly,’ immediately comes true, as a group of outlaws, or ‘bandits,’ tries to come to steal it. ‘Where should he have this gold?’ asks one. ‘It is noised he hath a mass of treasure,’ another replied. These are lower-class versions of the Senators and suitors who swarmed around Timon in the beginning of the play, but they are more direct, and, oddly, more honourable: ‘We are not thieves, but men that much do want.’ Timon tries to persuade them that nature possesses sufficient bounty: ‘Behold, the earth hath roots./Within this mile break forth a hundred springs.’ When they protest, ‘We cannot live on grass, on berries, on water,/As beasts and birds and fishes,’ he faces them down with the same charge of cannibalism that Apemantus had leveled at the lordly flatterers in the court. ‘[W]hat a number of men eats Timon, and he sees ‘em not!’ Apamentus had said, scorning the meat at the feast, and now Timon echoes him to the bandits, noting that they are not content to eat even the birds, beasts, and fishes, much less the roots and berries: ‘You must eat men.’

Timon sees clearly, as should audience, that the bandits are less venal and less self-deceiving than the rich men: ‘Yet thanks I must you con/That you are thieves professed, that you work out/In holier shapes.’ And when he gives them gold, together with a ringing lecture about how ‘[e]ach thing’s a thief,’ from the laws to the sun, moon, and earth, concluding, ‘Steal no less for this I give you,/And gold confound you howsoe’er. Amen,’ they contemplate the same kind of conversion as the one effected by the eloquent virgin Marina among the brothel-goers in Pericles. ‘He’s almost charmed me from my profession,’ says one, and another says, ‘I’ll believe him as an enemy, and give over my trade.’ Although at leas tone editor prefers to regard these declarations as ironic (‘Shakespeare can hardly have wanted at this stage of the play to give a repentant thief the last word;), it seems to me that the contrast between the dishonest, self-blinded noble thieves of the first half of the play and the self-aware and threadbare bandits of the fourth act makes a key point.

No sooner do they exit than the loyal steward, Flavius, enters, seeking his master as Kent sought Lear in the storm:


O you gods!

Is yon despised and ruinous man my lord,

Full of decay and failing? O monument

And wonder of good deeds evilly bestowed!

Timon’s recognition of the steward as ‘[o]ne honest man,’ and his ironic recognition that the one honest man is a steward, who manages the money and estates of another, moves naturally – once he has sent Flavius away, rejecting his company and comfort – into the second embassy of the Poet and the Painter, again come in search of ‘gold’ from their former patron (‘[o]ur late noble master’), and ironically addressed by Timon as ‘honest men’ over and over again, eight times in thirty lines. Again the satire against patronage is savage. This time, instead of actual works of art, these workmen come bearing nothing but promises. They have learned that ‘intent’ always looks better than the product itself.”


timon_of_athensbeale.jpeg.size.xxlarge.letterboxAnd finally, from Harold Bloom.  Now, Bloom isn’t the biggest fan of this play, “As Bloom Brontosaurus Bardolater, an archaic survival among Shakespearean critics, I do not hesitate to find an immense personal bitterness in Timon of Athens, including a fierce animus against sexual indulgence. Timon, when he raves to Alcibiades’ whores, is outrageously obsessed with venereal infection, as Pandarus was in the Epilogue to Troilus and Cressida. There is an excessive fury that pervades Timon of Athens, a near-madness that transcends Timon’s outrage at ingratitude…the play in some crucial aspects is an open wound,” but his analysis of Act Four is very much worth reading.

“Timon is the most vivid cartoon in his play, and almost the only one who matters. There is his faithful steward, Flavius, Apemantus the Cynic, described in the list of characters as ‘a churlish philosopher’; and there is Alcibiades, much diminished from his appearances in Plato and in Plutarch. All the rest are sycophants, flatters, and whores; not even Macbeth so centers his drama as Timon does. Coriolanus lacks inwardness, but not in comparison with Timon, who lacks not less than everything until he cascades into his first rage in Act III, Scene iv, when he instructs his steward to invite all the flatters, leeches, and false friends to a final feast, which will consist of lukewarm water and stones in covered dishes. After throwing the water in the faces of his guests and pelting them out with stones, Timon at last touches a rancorous eloquence in his farewell to Athens:


O blessed breeding sun, draw from the earth
Rotten humidity; below thy sister’s orb
Infect the air! Twinn’d brothers of one womb,
Whose procreation, residence, and birth,
Scarce is dividant, touch them with several fortunes;
The greater scorns the lesser: not nature,
To whom all sores lay siege, can bear great fortune,
But by contempt of nature.
Raise me this beggar, and deny ‘t that lord;
The senator shall bear contempt hereditary,
The beggar native honour.
It is the pasture lards the rother’s sides,
The want that makes him lean. Who dares, who dares,
In purity of manhood stand upright,
And say ‘This man’s a flatterer?’ if one be,
So are they all; for every grise of fortune
Is smooth’d by that below: the learned pate
Ducks to the golden fool: all is oblique;
There’s nothing level in our cursed natures,
But direct villany. Therefore, be abhorr’d
All feasts, societies, and throngs of men!
His semblable, yea, himself, Timon disdains:
Destruction fang mankind! Earth, yield me roots!

This is so sublimely outrageous as to cross over into the grotesque, as Shakespeare clearly recognizes. The satire begins to bite backwards, against Timon and his creator, when we hear the exuberant suggestion that the dimpled babe be minded ‘sans remorse.’ Shakespeare is not done with us, and returns to Timon’s horror of sexuality. After urging Alcibiades’ camp followers to ‘be whores still,’ Timon surpasses himself with a litany of venereal invective that makes me believe, with the late Anthony Burgess, that Shakespeare had endured something of this:


Consumptions sow
In hollow bones of man; strike their sharp shins,
And mar men’s spurring. Crack the lawyer’s voice,
That he may never more false title plead,
Nor sound his quillets shrilly: hoar the flamen,
That scolds against the quality of flesh,
And not believes himself: down with the nose,
Down with it flat; take the bridge quite away
Of him that, his particular to foresee,
Smells from the general weal: make curl’d-pate
ruffians bald;
And let the unscarr’d braggarts of the war
Derive some pain from you: plague all;
That your activity may defeat and quell
The source of all erection. There’s more gold:
Do you damn others, and let this damn you,
And ditches grave you all!

This hymn to syphilis is unmatched and unmatchable. Wilson Knight, carried away by a visionary enthusiasm, commends ‘the unity of his curses: he is violently antagonized by human health, bodily or social,’ Much as I still revere Wilson Knight, I blink in astonishment, and I would hope that Shakespeare also, whatever his possible agony, mastered this madness by expressing it so magnificently. In the power of Timon’s utterance, we are halfway between scourging prophecy and self-satire, but that is Timon’s perpetual dilemma, and the expressive genius of this extreme drama. Lear’s curses, even at their wildest, maintained a certain royal decorum. Timon is beyond any restraints, social or political, and he has no inwardness to check him. What can we do with such hatred, particularly when Shakespeare has done nothing to foreground or otherwise account for Timon’s zeal against sexuality? All of us doubtless respond to the denunciations of the crooked lawyer, and the false priest (flamen), and braggart nonsoldiers, but the graphic reductions of syphilis seem disproportionate to the sin of ingratitude. Shakespeare does little to distance us, or himself, from Timon. Alcibiades, although an honourable enough soldier, is certainly one of Shakespeare’s failures of representation, the charisma of Socrates’ would-be lover is never located by Shakespeare. Where we might expect an Athenian Prince Hal or at least a Hotspur, we get an earnest plodder. That leaves only the Cynic philosopher Apemantus, but he also fails to inspire Shakespeare to much zest. Apemantus arrives, in order to see for himself whether Timon has become a true Cynic or merely a complainer. Wit deserts Shakespeare, as these two codgers rail away at each other, making us long for Rosalind, whom Apemantus parodies by offering Timon a medlar:


The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the
extremity of both ends: when thou wast in thy gilt
and thy perfume, they mocked thee for too much
curiosity; in thy rags thou knowest none, but art
despised for the contrary. There’s a medlar for
thee, eat it.


On what I hate I feed not.


 Dost hate a medlar?


Ay, though it look like thee.


An thou hadst hated meddlers sooner, thou shouldst
have loved thyself better now. What man didst thou
ever know unthrift that was beloved after his means?


Who, without those means thou talkest of, didst thou
ever know beloved?




I understand thee; thou hadst some means to keep a


What things in the world canst thou nearest compare
to thy flatterers? 


Women nearest; but men, men are the things

This is the height of their exchanges, which decline into shouting insults at each other. This has a certain liveliness on the stage, but yields little as language or insight.”


So…what do you all think so far?  Is the play little seen/read/performed for a reason?  Or is there more here than meets the eye?

Our next reading:  Timon of Athens, Act Five

My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning.


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4 Responses to “There’s nothing level in our cursed natures,/But direct villany. Therefore, be abhorr’d /All feasts, societies, and throngs of men!”

  1. GGG says:

    I think that more than some of the other plays the structure has taken over the characters, so that when Timon becomes so dramatic and arresting in the last part of the play, we can’t help but remember the nutty cipher that he is in the beginning of the play–and the two halves don’t really make a whole.

    Whether or not Shakespeare suffered from syphilis, the disease and its ravages and “cures” must have been omnipresent for him, given the milieu he lived and worked in. Looking out at every audience, he must have seen people with the “signs” of syphilis.

    The problem with the play for me is that it becomes didactic rather than dramatic. Maybe that is why it is supposed to be unfinished–we need some more characterization or background, or something…. Too much of the fairy tale or the morality play….

    • GGG: I suspect you’re right about this — and in particular the play’s structure. This, in part, is why I think it makes more sense to date Timon BEFORE Lear…it doesn’t make sense to me that after composing Lear, Shakespeare would then go back to a similar theme and create a lesser version, while it does make sense that after the “relative” creative failure of Timon, he could use what he learned and go on to write what is probably his greatest play, King Lear.

  2. GGG says:

    I don’t know if I have suggested this reading in a post before, but this is an interesting (sometimes gross) article about Spenser’s The Faerie Queen and syphilis imagery: http://english.ucdavis.edu/people/directory/milburn/Milburn_Syphilis_in_Faerie_Land.pdf/view

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