Timon of Athens
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
TIMON OF ATHENS
The poet and painter have heard that Timon is rich and come slinking around, observed by Timon from his cave. They prepare to get back in Timon’s good graces with promises of excellent works:
Promising is the very air o’ th’ time;
It opens the eyes of expectation.
Performance is ever the duller for his act,
. . .
To promise is most courtly and fashionable….
The poet describes what he’ll promise to provide:
It must be a personating of himself;
A satire against the softness of prosperity,
With a discovery of the infinite flatteries
That follow youth and opulency.
Timon sarcastically flatters them, calling them “honest men” repeatedly with dripping sarcasm: Thou draw’st a counterfeit / Best in all Athens; th’ art indeed the best, / Thou counterfeit’st most lively” (V.i.80-82).Before long he is cursing them, throwing either gold or rocks at them, and chasing them away.
Flavius reluctantly brings two insistent senators to Timon, who greets them:
Speak and be hang’d.
For each true word, a blister, and each false
Be as a cantherizing to the root o’ th’ tongue
Consuming it with speaking!
The senators beg Timon to resume his military role, whatever that was, to help protect Athens from the Alcibiades threat, “Who, like a boar too savage, doth root up / His country’s peace” (V.i.165-166). Timon could have his former position and fortune restored, and his “good name” (V.i.162). Timon doesn’t care what happens to Athens, though.
Why, I was writing of my epitaph;
It will be seen to-morrow. My long sickness
Of health and living now begins to mend,
And nothing brings me all things.
The senators don’t leave, and Timon pretends to give fleeting hope to the senators that there is a solution to the coming misery — but it requires that anyone who wants to escape it come there and hang himself in a nearby tree (V.i.212).
Come not to me again, but 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; 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.
That’s the last we’ll hear from him alive. It’s interesting that towards the conclusion he calls for the end even of language.
Hopes for Timon’s help against Athens are dashed; in fact, Alcibiades made a similar futile request, as discovered by a senator’s messenger who spoke with an enemy messenger, since the two were old friends. “The enemy’s drum is heard, and fearful scouring / Doth choke the air with dust” (V.ii.15-16).
A soldier comes across Timon’s grave in the woods. He seems to read:
Timon is dead, who hath outstretch’d his span:
Some beast read this; there does not live a man.
Since he cannot read what is on the tomb, though, he makes a wax impression to bring to Alcibiades. (We don’t know how Timon may have been buried.)
Alcibiades announces to senators on the walls of Athens that their tyrannies are over. Two senators shilly-shally with whimpers that they tried to reconcile with Timon, that many of those responsible for the shabby treatment are now dead, that public institutions should not be destroyed, that maybe he could come and destroy just a tenth of the population, etc.: “crimes, like lands, / Are not inherited” (V.iv.37-38). Alcibiades agrees to punish only those who have treated himself and Timon so poorly:
Those enemies of Timon’s and mine own
Whom you yourselves shall set out for reproof
Fall, and no more….
The senators open the gates. So, unlike Timon and more humanly, Alcibiades “lets himself be placated and reconciled” (Asimov 145). [Historically, Alcibiades fell out with the Spartans and returned to Athens, but was exiled again the next year (Asimov 144).]
The soldier enters with the impressions of Timon’s inscription. One part denotes the grave of an anonymous man and curses all with disease; another portion denotes Timon’s grave, inviting curses so long as the reader pass by.
Here lies a wretched corse, 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.
This apparent textual problem has been taken as evidence of lack of revision; but Goddard thinks the contradictions are logical,
in perfect keeping with the mad state of the dying Timon, one half of whom is a self-lacerating egoist, the other a noble and anonymous soul. (Goddard, II 182)
Alcibiades privately mourns for a moment: “Dead / Is noble Timon, of whose memory / Hereafter more” (V.iv.79-81). He then enters the city, promising to bring peace and justice, olive and sword.
Timon of Athens sounds like an extreme embodiment of that scorn of humanity of which flashes are observable in Shakespeare’s works almost from the beginning, that contempt which in Hamlet and the ‘dark’ Comedies and some of the Sonnets become conspicuous … — that fierce indignation which ever and anon shows there was a Jonathan Swift buried in the gentle Shakespeare, ready to erupt. (Goddard, II 173)
In other words, revenge animated him, and, while revenge is not one of the finer impulses, it is a very human instinct to demand satisfaction for an injury done. It is clear, however, as the years went on and Oxford grew mentally and spiritually, that the strictly personal element faded into the background and he made use of the plays that he wrote later to show up disloyalty of subjects and dishonesty of politicians, for the benefit of his Queen and for the good of his beloved country. (Clark 33)
Indeed, true non-cute misanthropy (not the curmudgeonly kind found in the foils of Shirley Temple) really disturbs people. What if Mr. Wilson really wants Dennis the Menace dead? And one frequently finds the same worried reactions to this play that one does to the ending of Gulliver’s Travels. Get over your cheap selves, people; as a species you are not universally liked. Here: check this out.