Timon of Athens
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
TIMON OF ATHENS
An Athenian Senator tallies Timon’s debt to him and objects to Timon’s liberality in overpaying for inferior goods, insisting such extravagance cannot last. He sends his servant Caphis with very specific instructions for demanding repayment with interest. Eva Turner Clark points out the similarity between certain lines in the instruction to the servant with lines from a January 1576 letter from Oxford in Siena to Burghley (Clark 37-38). Oxford wrote:
you see I have no other remedies, I have no help but of mine own, and mine is made to serve me…. sell any portion of my land…. (qtd. in Clark 38, 40; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 118)
The Senator says, “I must serve my turn / Out of mine own…. Immediate are my needs” (II.i.20-25). And soon, Timon will instruct, “Let all my land be sold” (II.ii.145).
The Senator is anxious for repayment as soon as possible since “When every feather sticks in his own wing, / Lord Timon will be left a naked gull, / Which flashes now a phoenix” (II.i.30-32).
Flavius frets about Timon’s obliviousness and bemoans the bills from Timon’s creditors. “Never mind / Was to be so unwise, to be so kind” (II.ii.5-6). He resolves to make Timon face his situation. Servants of other collectors hover, and when Timon and Alcibiades return from their hunt the bill-collectors swarm, not allowing Timon to put them off or refer them to his steward this time. Timon asks Flavius,
How goes the world, that I am thus encount’red
With clamorous demands of debt, broken bonds,
And the detention of long since due debts,
Against my honor?
Flavius asks the collectors to desist until after dinner in order to give him a chance to explain the situation to Timon. Apemantus, a Fool on an errand for a prostitute, and other servants including Caphis exchange banter and insults. Apemantus calls the collectors “bawds between gold and want” (II.ii.60). The Fool defines “whoremaster”:
A fool in good clothes, and something like thee. ‘Tis a spirit; sometime ‘t appears like a lord, sometime like a lawyer, sometime like a philosopher, with two stones [testicles] moe than ‘s artificial one [his “philosopher’s stone”]. He is very often like a knight; and, generally, in all shapes that man goes up and down in from fourscore to thirteen, this spirit walks in. (II.ii.108-114)
“Thou art not altogether a fool” (II.ii.115), remarks one servant.
Timon and Flavius come along, Timon claiming ignorance but Flavius insisting, “You would not hear me” (II.ii.127). Timon is momentarily accusatory, but eventually the situation sinks into his consciousness now. Flavius recalls being dismissed when he “Prompted you in the ebb of your estate / And your great flow of debts” (II.ii.141-142). [See an early portion in A New Leaf (1970) for a somewhat parallel scene in which a financial advisor must try to explain to the Walter Matthau character that he’s broke.]
All Timon is worth will barely pay half his debts. Timon says, “Let all my land be sold” (II.ii.145) — similar to Oxford’s command to Burghley in January 1576), but “‘Tis all engag’d, some forfeited and gone” (II.ii.146). Timon reassures himself with the notion that “No villainous bounty yet hath pass’d my heart; / Unwisely, not ignobly, have I given” (II.ii.173-174). Flavius expects the worst, but Timon assures him: “I am wealthy in my friends” (II.ii.184), who no doubt will help him out now. He sends servants to Lucius, Lucullus, and Sempronius for financial aid. [The varying amounts of “talents,” here and elsewhere, including up to a thousand (II.ii.199) — which would mean millions of dollars — may indicate that Shakespeare was unclear on the value of a “talent” (Asimov 138).] Timon also sends Flavius to the senators, but Flavius has already been and failed with them:
They answer, in a joint and corporate voice,
That now they are at fall, want treasure, cannot
Do what they would, are sorry; you are honorable,
But yet they could have wish’d — they know not —
Something hath been amiss — a noble nature
May catch a wrench — would all were well — ’tis pity —
And so, intending other serious matters,
After distasteful looks, and these hard fractions,
With certain half-caps and cold-moving nods,
They froze me into silence.
Timon figures that ingratitude in senators is natural, and expects better from Ventidius who has recently inherited from his late father. Another servant is sent to Ventidius for the money Timon had given him for bail some time ago.