Timon of Athens
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
TIMON OF ATHENS
Timon’s servant Flaminius visits Lucullus, who suspects that an expensive gift is being delivered: “A gift, I warrant. Why, this hits right; I dreamt of a silver basin and ew’r to-night” (III.i.5-7). The otherwise arbitrary dream-symbol of good fortune provides another image for the water theme — and may be another authorship hint, Oxford through heredity having been Officer of the Ewrie and having received such a New Year’s gift from Elizabeth in 1579 (Ogburn and Ogburn 119).
But the box Flaminius carries is for Lucullus to fill, and Flaminius explains Timon’s hope for financial aid. Lucullus hypocritically clucks that Timon has spent so extravagantly on feasts, which supposedly Lucullus had warned Timon about — while he was at those feasts. “Every man has his fault, and honesty is his” (III.i.27-28). Over a glass of wine, Lucullus flatters Flaminius, noting that he cannot lend money “upon bare friendship without security” (III.i.42-43). In a slimy “I never got that e-mail” move, he bribes Flaminius to report to Timon that he, Lucullus, could not be located: “Here’s three solidares [coins] for thee; good boy, wink at me, and say thou saw’st me not” (III.i.43-44). Flaminius throws the money back at him and curses him: “Let molten coin be thy damnation” (III.i.52) — a Dantean punishment in hell.
Lucius, upon hearing of the request for financial aid made of Lucullus, doesn’t want to believe reports that Timon is in trouble. He insists that if asked, he would have helped out Timon. Timon’s servant Servilius enters, and Lucius also expects an expensive gift — “he’s ever sending,” he coos (III.ii.32) — but Servilius brings Timon’s request for a loan. “He cannot want fifty five hundred talents” (III.ii.38). (This would have amounted to truckloads of silver, again suggesting that Shakespeare was confused by the value of a “talent,” though some amend the line to “He cannot want fifty — five hundred [!] talents,” indicating that Lucius does a double-take in surprise.) Lucius says he just lent out all his money and was, in fact, about to ask Timon for a loan — funny world, isn’t it! But give him my best!
Some “Strangers” cluck about how indebted Lucius truly is to Timon, and one insists that he doesn’t even know Timon but if he had enjoyed his benevolence as these others have, “I would have put my wealth into donation, / And the best half should have return’d to him” (III.ii.83-84). Lovely, but a lot of good that does.
Sempronius tells Timon’s servant that he should have first tried the others: Lucius, Lucullus, Ventidius maybe. The servant says the others were asked: “They have all been touch’d and found base metal” (III.iii.6). So Sempronius acts offended that he wasn’t called on first:
his occasions might have wooed me first;
For, in my conscience, I was the first man
That e’er received gift from him;
And does he think so backwardly of me now,
That I’ll requite it last? No!
Spurious reasoning, of course, but Sempronius tries to cloak his cheesiness in adamant indignation: “Who bates my honor shall not know my coin” (III.iv.26). The servant afterwards reveals to us that Timon is out of prospects: “This was my lord’s best hope, now all are fled” (III.iii.35).
The three ingratitude scenes may echo Peter’s triple denial of Christ (Garber 640), but the scenes are indeed “perfunctory” (Van Doren 249), placing even more emphasis not on the middle but on the two extremes of the play and of Timon.
The servants of creditors mill about Timon’s house. Lucius’ servant laments that “a prodigal course / Is like the sun’s, but not like his recoverable” (III.iv.12-13). The servant Hortensius remarks, “I know my lord hath spent of Timon’s wealth, / And now ingratitude makes it worse than stealth” (III.iv.26-27). Flavius tries to get by hidden in a cloak, but they recognize him. He tells them Timon is broke and they’re wasting their time. Servilius joins the melee and tells them that Timon is “out of health” (III.iv.72). Lucius’ servant retorts,
if it be so far beyond his health,
Methinks he should the sooner pay his debts,
And make a clear way to the gods.
In other words, Timon should pay up and die.
Timon rages that his home is a prison now: “They have e’en put my breath from me, the slaves” (III.iv.103-104). But he tells Flavius to invite all his “friends” to another banquet. Flavius tells him there’s not enough left for a feast, but Timon assures him, “Be it not in thy care…. my cook and I’ll provide” (III.iv.115-117).
“The entire scene is a tissue of contradictions expressly contrived, one would suppose, to set us thinking of the relations of crime, law, war, and justice” (Goddard, II 176). It’s another ingratitude scene, but otherwise unconnected to the main plot (Asimov 139). Yet there’s much more in this scene. The reflections of de Vere’s financial woes and need to sell lands are obvious parallels in this play, but this scene provides another connection. The seemingly relevant incident is of the 17-year-old Oxford mortally wounding an under-cook “se defendendo,” which is thought to be the result of his discovering one of Cecil’s spies in his household (Ogburn 454-455). This scene seems to address this, and certainly very little else in the context of the play, where it merely serves to motivate Alcibiades’ military action against Athens later. Here in front of the Senate he pleads the case of an unnamed, condemned friend, hoping that “pity is the virtue of the law” (III.v.8):
He is a man (setting his fate aside)
Of comely virtues;
Nor did he soil the fact with cowardice
(An honor in him which buys out his fault),
But with a noble fury and fair spirit,
Seeing his reputation touch’d to death,
He did oppose his foe;
And with such sober and unnoted passion
He did behoove his anger, ere ’twas spent,
As if he had but prov’d an argument.
In other words, he killed a man. One senator objects to the euphemizing and adds, “To revenge is no valor, but to bear” (III.v.39), an assertion Alcibiades demolishes, further arguing justifiable homicide and self-defense. But the Senate is adamant and declares,
He’s a sworn rioter; he has a sin that often
Drowns him and takes his valor prisoner.
If there were no foes, that were enough
To overcome him. In that beastly fury
He has been known to commit outrages
And cherish factions. ‘Tis inferr’d to us,
His days are foul and his drink dangerous.
Alcibiades argues that if the fellow owes his life, why not let him die in war? The Senate gets fed up and banishes Alcibiades. “Banish me? / Banish your dotage, banish usury, / That makes the Senate ugly” (III.v.97-99). He regrets suffering the life of a poor soldier while senators grow wealthy on their fat usuries.
So there’s yet another self-advertisement for soldiery, plus confirmation of various aspects of public or court opinion of Oxford circulating, and even that obsession about reputation reputation reputation that Cassio spazzes out about in Othello and by which de Vere shows himself elsewhere to be obsessed. The accusations of Howard and Arundel also can be detected in the senators’ assessment of the unnamed man.
Lords gather at Timon’s house for the latest banquet, rationalizing that he cannot be as destitute as has been reported. When Timon appears, one lord schmoozes, “The swallow follows not summer more willing than we your lordship” (III.vi.29-30). “Nor more willingly leaves winter,” remarks Timon aside (III.vi.31). Timon dismisses as insignificant their expressed regrets for not sending the requested funds recently. He hurries them to their covered dishes, offering a bitter blessing that ends, “For these my present friends, as they are to me nothing, so in nothing bless them, and to nothing are they welcome” (III.vi.82-84). “Uncover, dogs, and lap!” (III.vi.85), Timon shouts. The dishes turn out to be lukewarm water as he curses them for the scum they are:
Live loath’d, and long,
Most smiling, smooth, detested parasites,
Courteous destroyers, affable wolves, meek bears,
You fools of fortune, trencher-friends, time’s flies,
Cap-and-knee slaves, vapors, and minute-jacks!
Of man and beast the infinite malady
Crust you quite o’er!
Timon splashes water in their faces and throws the dishes at them. He hopes his house will burn down and Athens will crumble; he will despise humankind from now on. A few guests rummage for their hats and coats and declare Timon insane.