Timon of Athens
By Dennis Abrams
Act Five: The Poet and the Painter head out to the forest in hope of payment, but Timon drives them away. By this time Alcibiades is threatening Athens itself, and two Senators, accompanied by Flavius, turn to Timon in the hope that he can help. But Timon, only dream of death, is unmoved, and states that he does not care if the city is destroyed. As Alcibiades enters Athens, the senators plead with him to spare the innocent, and he agrees to punish only his enemies as well as those of Timon’s. As the gates of the city are opened to him, news arrives that Timon has died (conveniently offstage); leaving an epitaph that curses his enemies and exhorts all others to pass by and ignore the gravestone in front of them.
Timon, perhaps alone among Shakespeare’s gallery of “heroes” doesn’t learn or change. Longing for death, he neither repents nor acknowledges his mistakes. How can he? All that is left for him is a curse, as his self-written epitaph records: ‘Here likes a wretched corpse,” it begins,
‘Of wretched soul bereft.
Seek not my name. A plague consume
You wicked 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.
So, while the play might be structured like a traditional morality play, in the end, Timon of Athens denies that there is anything to learn.
Ultimately, Timon is a play not only about philanthropy and misanthropy, but also about the use and abuse of patronage. The word ‘patron’ derives ultimately from the same word as ‘father’ (Latin pater), and originally it denoted someone who stood to others in a relationship analogous to that of a father – that is, as a protector and defender. (Our word ‘pattern,’ for an exemplar or model is related to this: thus Lear says he will be the ‘pattern of all patience.’) The classical use of patronus, ‘patron,’ in Roman antiquity influenced the sense, common in the early seventeenth century, of a patron as one who accepted the dedication of a book, and led to our modern concept of a ‘patron of the arts.’ One contrast between King Lear and Timon of Athens is that the paternal-patron Lear and the arts-patron Timon, though they are addressed in very similar ‘ingrateful’ terms by those who benefit from their generosity, are seen from a modern perspective to be owed something different by daughters and by protégés. Thus sentiments that sound both heartless and tragic when spoken by Goneril and Regan in King Lear take on, in Timon, a discomfiting air of satirical comedy in the mouths of the flattering lords Lucius, Lucullus, and Sempronius.
The epistle dedicatory to the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, addressed to Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues John Heminge and Henry Condell to the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery, observes with customary praise, ‘There is a great difference, whether any book choose his patrons, or find them: This hath done both.’ Their purpose, Heminge and Condell say, is ‘only to keep the memory of so worthy a friend, and fellow, alive, as was our Shakespeare, by humble offer of his plays, to your most noble patronage.’ Heminge and Condell invoke as well the older sense of the patron as paternal protector, referring to the plays, significantly, as ‘orphans’ left behind by the death of their author-father: ‘We have but collected them, and done an office to the dead, to procure his orphans, guardians, without ambition either of self-profit, or fame.’ It is a matter of some small interest, perhaps, that at this moment in the history of the English language the word ‘patron’ was in the spirit of nascent capitalism, being extended to what we would today call ‘customers’ or ‘clients,’ so that Ben Jonson’s Volpone, disguised as a mountebank, or charlatan, addresses a crowd of potential purchasers as ‘most noble gentlemen, and my worthy patrons!’ By the time of Timon, the word was thus in use to describe both a noble benefactor and a mercantile consumer. The First Folio, with its separate invocation to ‘the great variety of readers’ to ‘buy it first…whatever you do, buy,’ is poised at the moment of this dichotomy, with two prefatory letters, one addressed to noble patrons, the other to potential purchasers (‘the fate of all books depends upon your capacities, and not of your heads alone, but of your purses’). Something of the same tension, and the same anxiety, can be found in Timon.
Timon’s epitaph, significantly, cannot be read by the simple soldier who first discovers it, presumably because the inscription is in another language (either Latin, the language of many early modern tomb inscriptions, or Greek). The Soldier therefore determines to take the ‘character,’ or writing, in a wax impression and bring it to Alcibiades, ‘[a]n aged interpreter, though young in days.’ Thus the stage is set for the play’s final moments, in which the Senators ask clemency from Alcibiades and his troops; he answers in tones of mild and equitable justice – ‘Those enemies of Timon’s and mine own/Whom you yourselves shall set out for reproof/Fall, and no more’ – and he reads aloud, to the audience of Senators on the city walls and patrons in the theater, Timon’s angry two-part epitaphs: ‘Seek not my name; ‘Here lie I, Timon.’ It is Alcibiades, the ‘[n]oble and young’ captain who has the final words, Alcibiades who has custody of Timon’s story and his reputation, ‘of whose memory/Hereafter more.’ He is, at the last, both pattern and patron, replacing – as we see so often at the ends of Shakespeare’s tragedies – something like greatness with something like efficiency.”
Come not to me again; but say to Athens,
Timon hath made his everlasting mansion
Upon the beached verge of the salt flood,
Who only a day with his embossed froth
The turbulent surge shall cover. Thither come,
And let my grave-stone 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.
The two epitaphs Timon writes for himself are useless doggerel in contrast to that. When Cordelia and Lear die, we are more moved than Dr. Johnson could tolerate. Timon’s vanishing rests our ears, in our out of the theater. Shakespeare, a great self-critic, probably made an aesthetic judgment upon this play, and so dismissed it as largely unworthy of him. Perhaps he glanced back at the best lines spoken by the Poet at the play’s start:
Our poesy is a gum which oozes
From whence ‘tis nourish’d. The fire i’ th’ flint
Shows not till it be struck.
Not enough of the fire of poetry is shown to redeem Timon of Athens from its furies. It was time for Shakespeare to embark [MY NOTE: Assuming, as Bloom does, that it’s a much later play than I’ve placed it] upon the ‘unpath’d waters, undreamed shores,’ of his final, visionary phase.”
And from Nuttall:
“When Timon tells his guests he is giving them nothing, we may think of Cordelia’s more frightening ‘Nothing,’ the key word of King Lear. Timon really is a kind of nobody. It may be that pure negation, as distinct from the slow approach to negation, is un-dramatizable. The approach to nothingness is exciting, but nothingness itself is boring and featureless. Even Hamlet, unmanned though he was by an enervating darkness within, was able to embark on the strenuous business of filling the inner void with fictive, histrionic ‘selves’; ‘the joker,’ ‘the bloody avenger,’ and so on. Lear is broken down and dies in error, but he dies on a loving error. ‘Love survives’ is, I suppose, a cliché, but at the end of King Lear it is no cliché. But Timon in the wilderness is thoroughly dehumanized. Aristotle said that the unsocial man is either a god or a beast (Politics, 1253a). Coriolanus is unsocial and is an artificial god-man operated by his mother. Timon, having turned his back on society, is a beast. He can still talk but he uses language only to curse. This is tedious, but it is necessitated by the strong intellectual form of the drama.
It may be an accident arising from the unfinished character of the text before us, but this boring sub-man in one way embodies a more perfect negation than any other figure in Shakespeare. What I mean is that he simply vanishes. We do not see him die as we see Lear die. As with the visual field as Wittgenstein described it, there is the visible Timon, and then elsewhere, later, there is no Timon. The eye cannot check the line between them any more than it can check the border of the visual field. Timon of Athens has an oddly Greek feel to it. We seem to be looking at figures in profile, in a frieze. The pattern of a hero humiliated to whom come, in succession, various figures soliciting his aid can be seen in Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus, in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound
(if the play is indeed his), and, after Shakespeare’s death, in Milton’s ultra-Greek Samson Agonistes. Timon of Athens is conspicuously frigid from the opening paragone, or ‘contest of the arts.’ Instead of dying Timon dissolves, and then re-forms as a succession of monuments, recording his strange tick-tock life. Imagery of dissolution runs through the play. Perhaps this is enough to justify the inference that the mysterious ending is deliberate. Even the letters incised in stone on the surviving monument are transferred as we watch to a softer medium, as the passing soldier takes their impression in wax. When the good servant departs, he goes ‘into this sea of air.’ Later Timon says, addressing himself,
Then, Timon, prepare thy grave;
Lie where the light form of the sea may beat
Thy grave-stone daily.
Later still he says,
say to Athens,
Timon hath made his everlasting mansion
Upon the beached verge of the salt flood,
Who once a day with his embossed froth
The turbulent surge shall cover.
Timon’s identity dislimns. It merges first with stone and then with the eroding sea and air. If he remains he remains only in his epitaph – as words. Notoriously it is difficult to set up a murder trial if there is no body as central exhibit. In like manner it is hard to have a tragedy in which the protagonist, as physical being, slips through our fingers before the end comes. The generic status of Timon of Athens is a puzzle. Is it a tragedy? It is the strangest of Shakespeare’s plays.”
And finally, Harold Goddard’s concluding thoughts:
“Whether by choice or because the last scenes lacked revision, the main point of the play is left so merely intimated that the majority of readers miss it entirely. Yet nothing is really in doubt. An illiterate soldier brings an impression in wax of the epitaph Timon wrote for himself. Alcibiades reads it, and then utters the moving words that conclude the play:
These well express in thee thy latter spirits:
Though thou abhorr’dst in our human griefs,
Scorn’dst our brain’s 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 ward breed peace, make peace stint war, make each
Prescribe to other as each other’s leech.
Let our drums strike.
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 this 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 or justice.”
So…that’s it for Timon of Athens. What did you all think? Better than you expected? Worse? Share your questions and thoughts with the group!
My next posts:
Sunday evening/Monday morning: Sonnet #137
Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning: My introduction to our next play (and it’s one of the big ones): Macbeth
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.