My rating: 4 of 5 stars
[For Shakespeare’s birth/death day. Also a good day to revisit my essay on Shakespeare’s detractors and what they miss about the meaning and worth of his nihilism.]
When I was reading this—a late quasi-tragedy of about the same period as Coriolanus—I was thinking that it was nobody’s favorite Shakespeare play. According to scholars, about a third to a half of it is the work of someone else, probably Thomas Middleton, and the first three acts depart from the relative realism of characterization that the best of the histories, comedies, and tragedies have led one to expect.
Timon of Athens seems like a moral allegory or satire: the title character, a wealthy former soldier who once defended Athens from its enemies, stands for Profligacy and Naïveté as he endless feasts his false friends until his money runs out. Then his “friends” desert him—all but his faithful steward, Flavius, and the other loyal servants—and will not help him with money despite the extravagant gifts he has lavished on them. Finally, he takes to the wilds, resolving to abjure all wealth and all humanity; he becomes a fanatical misanthrope. Ironically, while digging for roots—the only food he will allow himself in his new asceticism—he finds gold, which brings a host of sycophants back to beg at his feet. But he is unmoved in his misanthropy and dies, with only a rude grave by the sea for his monument. While all this is going on, one of his friends, Athens’s golden boy Alcibiades, has been unjustly banished from the city and returns with an army to lay it waste. In the last scene, upon hearing of Timon’s death, Alcibiades and the Athenian senators come to terms, and the young warrior enters the city as a reformer rather than a destroyer.
In the first three acts, as I noted, there is little psychological depth or hinted background to the characters; Timon seems to turn from one allegorical figure into another, and we learn nothing about him—there is no sense of family background, erotic desire, even particular attachments: he loves life and everything in it, and then he hates life and everything in it. He is contrasted in this by his acquaitance Apemantus, an ideological rather than circumstantial misanthrope, a scabrously satirical philosopher of the Stoic or Cynical type. He tries to warn Timon that his friends are false, but there is no sense that he would recognize true friendship if he saw it.
The aesthetic glory of the play comes in the second half, almost certainly written by Shakespeare, wherein Timon delivers himself of ferociously eloquent tirades against money (because it is a universal leveler, destroying all values), against humanity (because it is powerless against the influence of money), against sex and women (because they produce humanity) and against all nature (because even among the animals hierarchy and dominance are the rule). His curses are somewhat like Lear’s, but worse because they are without pity, without even self-pity really (which is fitting, because Shakespeare has not equipped Timon with a self). Here is a sample of his fury, as he finds and refuses the gold in the earth:
Gold? yellow, glittering, precious gold? No, gods,
I am no idle votarist: roots, you clear heavens!
Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair,
Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant.
Ha, you gods! why this? what this, you gods? Why, this
Will lug your priests and servants from your sides,
Pluck stout men’s pillows from below their heads:
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed,
Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves
And give them title, knee and approbation
With senators on the bench: this is it
That makes the wappen’d widow wed again;
She, whom the spital-house and ulcerous sores
Would cast the gorge at, this embalms and spices
To the April day again. Come, damned earth,
Thou common whore of mankind, that put’st odds
Among the route of nations, I will make thee
Do thy right nature.
Gold, in other words, is the universal destroyer of real values because it interposes its false value between things and people of different worth and merit. Thus, it corrupts religion, politics, and, above all, love. Prostitution—the trading of the metaphysically invaluable for contingently social and worldly valuables—becomes Timon’s symbol for the way the world works under the reign of money. This explains his later ravings against women and sex, especially to Alcibiades’s mistresses, whom he counsels to sell sex and bequeath venereal disease to all:
Be a whore still: they love thee not that use thee;
Give them diseases, leaving with thee their lust.
Make use of thy salt hours: season the slaves
For tubs and baths; bring down rose-cheeked youth
To the tub-fast and the diet.
The play, considered as a whole, does not endorse Timon’s extremism. In fact, Apemantus tells Timon, “The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends.” Similarly, the senators at the end plead with Alcibiades to spare the city and its institutions, since they should not be simply collapsed onto the men and women who have corrupted them:
These walls of ours
Were not erected by their hands from whom
You have received your griefs; nor are they such
That these great towers, trophies and schools
For private faults in them.
The play illustrates extremes to advocate moderation; but as I read, I thought the quality and tone sufficiently uneven—some scenes are like low farce, some like high tragedy—and the characters so undeveloped as anything but cartoons that, again, I judged this no one’s favorite Shakespeare play.
While searching on the Internet, and on the Internet of Things (i.e., the excessive number of books in my apartment), I found I was wrong. The Romantics, including Schlegel and Hazlitt, particularly esteemed it, and it was likewise important to Marx and Melville—understandably, as the latter two had their own wars to wage against capitalism and the reign of true-value destroying universal equivalence it portended. In the twentieth century, the great Shakespeare critic G. Wilson Knight praised it in the most lavish possible terms in his Wheel of Fire; he saw it as a total poem in two parts, “the archetype and norm of all tragedy,” representing in their wholeness the extremes of universal love and universal hate, the former curdled into the latter by usury, which converts the infinite into the finite and is the symbol of life’s inadequacy before the eternal:
In no other play is a more forceful, a more irresistible, mastery of technique almost crude in its massive, architectural effects employed. But then no play is so massive, so rough-hewn into Atlantean shapes from the mountain rock of the poet’s mind or soul, as this of Timon. ‘I have in this rough work shap’d out a man . . .’ It is true. No technical scaffolding in Shakespeare has to stand so weighty and shattering a stress. For this play is Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, King Lear become self-conscious and universal; it includes and transcends them all; it is the recurrent and tormenting hate-theme of Shakespeare, developed, raised to an infinite power, presented in all its tyrannic strength and profundity, and killed. Three acts form the prologue. Our vision thus with infinite care and every possible device focused, we await the onrush of a passion which sums in its torrential energy all the lesser passions of those protagonists foregone. Timon is the totality of all, his love more rich and oceanic than all of theirs, all lift their lonely voices in his universal curse. Christ-like, he suffers that their pain may cease, and leaves the Shakespearian universe redeemed that Cleopatra may win her Antony in death, and Thaisa be restored to Pericles.
Knight, of course, was a contemporary of Pound and Eliot, of Lenin and Trotsky. Timon is not available to us in the same way. It is even curiously unreadable in twenty-first century America, where capital has been so completely identified in the cultural imagination with a democratic, multicultural, and feminist lifeworld that any advocacy of restraints on capital seem to herald a return to pre-modern arrangements, to priestcraft, slavery, and the subordination of women. (Just consider Timon’s nihilistic misogyny—and Hamlet’s and Lear’s. Consider the sulfurous death-camp odor of the word “usury.” Or consider how little the modern reader can credit the quite moving professions of devotion on the part of Timon’s servants [“Yet do our hearts wear Timon’s livery”]—we consider mutual love betwixt master and man one of the worst forms of false consciousness, even the essence of false consciousness.) I am writing this, by the way, in a Starbucks. Knight, who was not writing in a Starbucks, sums up the play’s political wisdom this way:
We are brought to the knowledge that humanity progresses by conflict alone, and that too much prosperity, though it make one Timon, yet kills a state.
I am too civilized to accept this very easily. But I do think about Melville’s love of Timon, and his own struggle for artistic recognition; Shakespeare, for his part, lampoons the worldly success of artists in this play in the persons of a corrupt Poet and Painter who will bend their art whichever way promises more wealth. Melville reached a point at which he would no longer compromise in that way, and he knew what it meant: “Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter,” he wrote to Hawthorne, just after writing, “It seems an inconsistency to assert unconditional democracy in all things, and yet confess a dislike to all mankind — in the mass. But not so. — But it’s an endless sermon, — no more of it.” We are still working out the details of that sermon, which would solve the endless problem of values. Shakespeare could not write it, not in this rather incomplete work anyway, but at his best he expresses it more valuably than anyone.