Timon of Athens
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
TIMON OF ATHENS
The sketchy ending of the play, and the appearance of it as a corrupt manuscript having been included in the 1623 First Folio only as a last-minute replacement for the cancelled Troilus and Cressida, have Stratfordians assuming that Shakespeare didn’t finish revising this one, that it was abandoned and never performed in his time. Its dating as a late tragedy is conjectural and dependent on spurious dating of other plays with which it is seen as sharing “affinities” (Kermode 1490). Certainly, Shakespeare’s main source was North’s edition of Plutarch’s Life of Antony, in which a tangent appears concerning this fifth-century BCE misanthrope. Shakespeare significantly augments the Plutarchan sketch in this play which some feel functioned as a kind of “safety valve, through which Shakespeare blew off excess thought and emotion” (Goddard, II 172).
Besides Plutarch, Lucian’s Timon the Misanthrope seems to have been an influence, though translations were available only in Latin, French, and Italian. (An Inns of Court play named Timon is clearly a later academic effort.) The elder Ogburns suggest checking out Plato’s Symposium and Agathon, the charming hospitable host of a banquet for his friends after winning the prize for tragedy; his dinner is interrupted by revellers and a flute-playing girl (Ogburn and Ogburn 124).
It’s possible that an early version of Timon of Athens called The Historie of the Solitarie Knight, reflected, as Eva Turner Clark thinks, the Earl of “Oxford’s temporary eclipse upon his return from the Continent. The Queen was angry with him, and probably fair-weather friends sought more promising attachments” (Ogburn 584). This would mean the play was written in 1576 and performed first in February 1577 (Ogburn and Ogburn 110). Charlton Ogburn thinks the 1580s more likely, “when the sale of thirty tracts of land in five years left him stripped near as bare as Timon” (584; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 114). De Vere was indeed extravagant. Thomas Nashe, in his 1593 Epistle Dedicatorie to Oxford, wrote:
how many pounds you have spent … upon the dirt of wisdom called Alchemy: Yes, you have been such an infinite Maecenas to learned men … [who] have tasted the cool streams of your liberalitie … I would speak in commendation of your hospitalitie…. (qtd. in Ogburn and Ogburn 117)
And the play does seem to warrant a much earlier date than is typically ascribed: “this is a schematic play, a parable in which the elements of the design lie close to the surface, and in which characters are more important for their contribution to the play’s pattern of ideas than as individuals. Indeed, many of them lack personal names” (Wells 274). The play is generally seen as a failure and has been called “the still-born twin of Lear” (qtd. in Wells 275). But other aspects are pretty fascinating in light of Oxfordian authorship.
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. (Goddard, II 182)
As for why it ranks among Shakespeare’s lesser plays (and for the same reason as does All’s Well That Ends Well): “Timon is too raw, too real for comfort. It was begun too close to the catastrophe which prompted it. That must be why it was left artistically undigested, incomplete” (Edward Holmes, qtd. in Farina 181).
At Timon’s house in Athens — an Athens that seems more Rome, with senators as Roman aristocrats and characters mostly with Roman names (Asimov 134), or really an Athens that seems like renaissance London — a poet, painter, jeweler, merchant, and others await the generous lord Timon. They either want patronage from him or expect that he’ll purchase their wares. The poet and painter begin the scene with some empty pleasantries and some sussing up of who else is present. The poet recites to himself (loud enough to be heard): “When we for recompense have prais’d the vild, / It stains the glory in that happy verse / Which aptly sings the good” (I.i.15-17). In other words, ass-kissing pollutes the truth. The poet casually remarks that this is merely “A thing slipp’d idlely from me. / Our poesy is as a gum, which oozes / From whence ’tis nourish’d” (I.i.20-22): lovely imagery.
They praise Timon highly, perhaps in case anything they say gets back to him. Senators are admired for their access to Timon. In a bit of Italian paragone — a formal debate on the status of painting — rendered more naturalistic, the painter’s work is declared “a pretty mocking of the life” (I.i.35): a compliment but also a foreshadowing pun. The poet’s “rough work” (I.i.43) is an allegory of Fortune that captures the plot of the play, but the main figure could be any of them, as the painter notes (I.i.76f), all hoping to be singled out for favor. Interestingly, then, the play itself acknowledges the allegorical function of the arts (as Lucrece does overtly). All the more interesting, then, that the poet’s description includes seeming allusions to Queen Elizabeth:
I have upon a high and pleasant hill
Feign’d Fortune to be thron’d. The base o’ th’ mount
Is rank’d with all deserts, all kinds of natures,
That labor on the bosom of this sphere
To propagate their states. Amongst them all
Whose eyes are on this sovereign lady fix’d,
One do I personate of Lord Timon’s frame,
Whom Fortune with her ivory hand wafts to her,
Whose present grace to present slaves and servants
Translates his rivals.
The painter’s comment — “Yet you do well / To show Lord Timon that mean eyes have seen / The foot above the head” (I.i.92-94) — refers to Fortune’s wheel with a phrasing derived directly from Queen Elizabeth.
Timon enters and pays his friend Ventidius’ way out of debtor’s prison. Ironically, in freeing him, “Your lordship ever binds him” (I.i.104) — to gratitude, that is (or to E.Ver?). Timon will be even more generous, since “‘Tis not enough to help the feeble up, / But to support him after” (I.i.107-108).
Then arrives an old Athenian — another Burghley-like possessive father in the works of Shakespeare — ostensibly concerned about his daughter: “I have bred her at my dearest cost / In qualities of the best” (I.i.124-125). He requests that Timon join him in forbidding Timon’s servant Lucilius from wooing this daughter. The servant Lucilius is called forth, acknowledging the love. The old man threatens:
If in her marriage my consent be missing,
I call the gods to witness, I will choose
Mine heir from forth the beggars of the world,
And dispossess her all.
(This threatened self-inflicted class-based punishment reminds us that Shakespeare has made Timon a lord. There was no indication of class in Plutarch, and there are any number of possible reasons for a merchant-class fellow to grow misanthropic; yet Shakespeare read him as an aristocrat.) Timon will match the old man’s dowry, thus raising the servant’s financial status extravagantly (a process of status-raising resembling what seems to have been done to allow Anne Cecil to marry the Earl of Oxford). The old Athenian is well satisfied with that plan.
The artists make their moves on Timon as patron of the arts. Timon pronounces on the value of painting, but in a disturbing and confusing way:
Painting is welcome.
The painting is almost the natural man;
For since dishonor traffics with man’s nature,
He is but outside; these pencill’d figures are
Even such as they give out.
The jeweler pushes an outrageously expensive gem on Timon [Oxfordians are reminded of Oxford’s gifts to the Queen (e.g., Clark 34).]
Apemantus, an outspoken and churlish cynic, arrives and brazenly denounces all present. When the painter calls him a dog — etymologically appropriate because of the Greek connection to Cynicism (Asimov 136) — Apemantus offers a particularly intricate insult: “Thy mother’s of my generation; what’s she, if I be a dog?” (I.i.201-202). (In other words, after a couple steps in logical progression, “you’re a son of a bitch.” Compare Hamlet IV.iii.33f.) But Timon is only entertained and ultimately dismissive of Apemantus’ dour perspective. [The elder Ogburns suggest that he also represents Burghley, disapproving of Oxford’s lifestyle and company (117; cf. Clark 35).]
Alcibiades, another friend of Timon’s, and his soldiers arrive. Apemantus chides some more and all enter the dining room for the feast, with one lord declaring of Apemantus, “He’s opposite to humanity” (I.i.273). Another lord referring to Timon’s largesse says, “He pours it out: Plutus, the god of gold, / Is but his steward” (I.i.276-277). Classical mythology associated Pluto with the wealth of the soil (Asimov 137), and the “pouring” functions as a prefiguring image. This lord declares not “Long may he live,” but “Long may he live in fortunes” (I.i.282).
One hopes not to blame the (eventual) victim, and Timon is truly naïve; but some have perceived a darker side of his generosity. Does he give in order to do good or in order to continue generating a culture of fawning with himself at the center? His generosity is very public and ostentatious, and he does deprive others of the opportunity of giving back (Asimov 136), as we see plainly at the start of the next scene. The Oxfordian admission is that the Earl of Oxford “grew up without the slightest idea of the value of money” (Clark 31). His “only sense of money was that it existed to be spent and given away without limit” (Sobran, qtd. in Farina 181).
In the dining room, Ventidius, now out of jail, explains that his father has died and he has inherited, so now he can pay back Timon. Timon insists it was a gift, not a loan: “You mistake my love; / I gave it freely ever” (I.ii.9-10). Timon makes a brief speech about “Ceremony,” anticipating the King in Henry V (I.ii.15ff):
Ceremony was but devis’d at first
To set a gloss on faint deeds, hollow welcomes,
Recanting goodness, sorry ere ’tis shown;
But where there is true friendship, there needs none.
Pray sit, more welcome are ye to my fortunes
Than my fortunes to me.
Apemantus, “ever angry” (I.ii.29 var.) — angry at E.Ver? — declares all present flatterers and hypocrites. Timon hopes to cheer him up or win him over: “prithee let my meat make thee silent” (I.ii.37). Apemantus anachronistically evokes Christian imagery:
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 sees ’em not! It grieves me to see so many dip their meat in one man’s blood, and all the madness is, he cheers them up too…. the fellow that sits next him, now parts bread with him, pledges the breath of him in a divided draught, is the readiest man to kill him…. (I.ii.38-49)
After Apemantus’ delightfully nasty saying of grace (I.ii.62-71) follow public announcements of gratitude and friendship. Timon grows sentimental: “I have often wish’d myself poorer, that I might come nearer to you” (I.ii.100-101). He is momentarily choked up and teary.
A servant announces guests: first, a costumed Cupid, who introduces a masque in which women dressed as Amazons with lutes dance and play. Lords dance with the ladies, and Apemantus sneers. Timon remarks:
You have done our pleasures much grace, fair ladies,
Set a fair fashion on our entertainment,
Which was not half so beautiful and kind;
You have added worth unto ‘t and lustre,
And entertain’d me with mine own device.
This seems to imply that Timon himself designed the entertainment: another Oxfordian indication (Farina 181).
Timon’s steward Flavius explains in an aside that Timon is breaking himself financially with his profligate generosity. But “There is no crossing him in ‘s humor / Else I should tell him well” (I.ii.160-161). Timon gives an expensive jewel to a lord, while Flavius frets about Timon’s “empty coffer” (I.ii.193) and loss of lands (I.ii.200). Apemantus, who refuses Timon’s offers of gifts, predicts the worst, since the entire spectacle amounts to “Serving of becks [bowing] and jutting-out of bums!” (I.ii.231). He says to Timon, “thou wilt give away thyself in paper shortly” (I.ii.241-242). But Apemantus despairs, since Timon is “To counsel deaf, but not to flattery” (I.ii.250).
Unfortunately for the effectiveness of this play, “Timon is not so much a man as a figure representing Munificence, an abstraction” (Van Doren 250). However, the issue itself may have some relevance to the contemporary world, with the play’s “luxury-loving lords living on credit, influence, loans, and gifts” (Garber 634).