“Plague All”: Timon of Athens

“Plague All”: Timon of Athens January 25, 2005

In style and form, Timon of Athens more resembles a medieval morality play than a Shakespearean tragedy. Timon is mentioned briefly in Plutarch?s life of Marc Antony and was the subject of a drama by Lucian, and by Shakespeare?s time was already a proverbial misanthrope. Shakespeare?s depiction of him is stark, moving, as Marjorie Garber puts it, from extreme philanthropy to extreme misanthropy.

Even the staging is stark, a ?procession of sculpted figures?E(AD Nuttall). The play begins with the stage direction ?Enter Poet, Painter, Jeweler, Merchant, and Mercer, at several doors,?Ethus populating the stage not with particular characters but with character types. The plot of the play too is drawn in bright cartoonish colors. Timon is fabulously generous at the beginning, and afterwards is fabulously embittered; Timon the gift-giver transforms in an instant into Timon the misanthrope, with none of the subtle shading and nuance that we usually expect from Shakespeare. Were it a medieval morality play, it could be a depiction of the evils of ingratitude and betrayal, as the divinely generous Timon finds himself surrounded by treacherous Judases. Below, we shall have to question whether this is in fact what Shakespeare is after.

As many commentators point out, the parallels with Lear are striking. Both give generously, but with thick strings attached, expecting love in return. Both are incensed and maddened when their generosity is met with ingratitude (or, in Lear?s case, apparent ingratitude). Both generalize their bitterness, leaving the social world for the isolation of the wilderness, where they manically shriek at humanity in general (e.g., Timon , 4.1.1-40). The key difference is that Timon has no glimmer of redemption, no Cordelia with whom he might dream of slipping away to be one of God?s spies, no ties of natural affection or blood that would soften the blows of ingratitude. Timon?s only relations within Athens are mercenary relations, and once poor he becomes the prototypical asocial man.

Several of the issues that arise from the play will be noted here. First, the play raises the philosophical question of identity. Second, the economic metaphors of the play are of interest, and raise the trendy postmodern, Maussian, Durkheimian, Derridean, and Milbankian question of ?The Gift.?EThird, the moral trajectory of the play will be examined. On this last point, we will specifically examine whether Shakespeare is in fact telling a morality tale of the evils of ingratitude or something more subtle and complex. In the course of the last, we will see briefly how Shakespeare, as usual, gives a Christian gloss to a classical play.

The structure of the play, mentioned above, itself raises the question of the identity of the leading character: Is the hateful Timon of the second half of the play the same as the generous Timon of the first? What Frances Dolan (on whom I rely for much of this analysis) calls Timon?s ?lurch?Efrom generosity to bitterness turns entirely on his reception from his friends, those who had received of his largesse and to whom he turns when in need of assistance for his own debts. He is Timon the generous only so long as he is integrated into a network of ?friends,?Ewhose friendship is grounded in mutual exchange. This parasitism is clearly a fragile basis for friendship, but it is also a fragile basis for Timon?s identity. He becomes something other than himself when he is removed from that network. Even his final words on his epitaph do not solve the riddle of the divided Timon, for he both warns readers ?seek not my name?Eand in the next breath informs them that ?Here lie I, Timon?E(5.4.71-72).

The play thus suggests a kind of ?social self?Ethat finds integration by integration into a community. More explicitly, the play raises the question of the relationship between character and fortune, the question that Martha Nussbaum has explored under the heading of ?moral luck.?EWhen Flavius brings two senators to visit Timon?s cave, the first senator remarks that men change with their fortune:

At all times alike
Men are not still the same. ?Twas time and griefs
That framed him thus. Time, with his fairer hand
Offering the fortunes of his former days,
The former man may make him (5.1.120-124).

The first senator is something of an Athenian Marxist: Timon?s misanthropy is thus a product of his economic and social circumstances; if time were again to show favor, he would become the man he had been. The larger point is stated in the first sentence: There is no persisting stillness, no ?same?Ethat runs through various ?times.?ETimes make the man, and the only hope, perhaps, is the restoration of a former time and condition.

Misanthropy is not the only way to respond to grief and misfortune. Earlier, the first senator, in rejecting Alcibiades?Epleas for a condemned solider, offered stoic advice:

He?s truly valiant that can wisely suffer
The worst that man can breathe, and make his wrongs
His outsides, to wear them like his raiment, carelessly,
And ne?er prefer his injuries to his heart,
To bring it into danger (3.5.31-35).

Alcibiades responds ?like a captain,?Ecalling this Stoic resignation womanish, asinine, criminal (3.5.45-51). If this is true, that ?women are more valiant that stay at home,?Eand ?the ass more captain than the lion,?Eand the ?fellow loaden with irons wiser than the judge.?EWisdom, he strongly believes, is not found in bearing suffering like a cloak. Wisdom acts to remove the cause of suffering (which is what Alcibiades eventually does).

Timon does neither of these. He is incapable of keeping his bad fortune on the outside; it cuts him to the heart, because he is nothing but what he is through his network of dependants and patrons. But he is equally incapable of responding with vigor. He can do nothing but become a Cynic, like the philosopher Apemantus (Ape-man) ?Ea Cynic in both the philosophical and etymological senses. In this way, the play shows that misfortune not only divides Timon into two Timons, but also shows a degeneration to bestiality (as one would predict from Aristotle) when he leaves the polis for a cave. (Fittingly, ?dog?Eimagery runs throughout the play; e.g., ?I am Misanthropos and hate mankind/ For thy part, I do wish thou wert a dog, that I might love thee something,?E4.3.54-56.)

As Dolan points out, monetary imagery is common in the play, but the imagery is not merely artful dressing. It points to one of the play?s central concerns, the role of money and wealth in civic life and human relationships. Timon doles out gifts and cash at the beginning of the play, and quickly discovers gold near his cave outside the city. As soon as the news of his treasure gets around, visitors come looking for a handout. At one level, the play is depicting the truth of the Proverb: ?The poor is hated even by his neighbor, but those who love the rich are many?E(Proverbs 14:20). The unsentimentality of this is striking for a generation raised on the strains of ?Can?t Buy Me Love.?EIn fact, it can, and it did for Timon.

At the same time, Timon the Misanthrope rants with great power (as does Lear) against the corrupting power of money. He tells the women who come to his cave in the company of Alcibiades that he has ?enough to make a whore foreswear her trade, and to make whores, a bawd?E(4.3.134-135). When they respond that they would do ?anything for gold,?ETimon, in grotesque sexual imagery, describes the corruption effects of gold; it is a form of syphilis:

Consumptions sow
In hollow bones of man; strike their sharp shins,
And mar men?s spurring. Crack the lawyer?s voice,
That he may never more false title plead
Nor sounds his quillet shrilly. Hoar the flamen,
That scolds against the quality of flesh
And not believes himself. Down with the nose ?E
Down with it flat; take the bridge quite away ?E
Of him that, his particular to foresee,
Smells from the general weal. Make curled-pate ruffians bald
And let the unscarred braggarts of the war
Derive some pain from you. Plague all,
That your activity may defeat and quell
The source of all erection. There?s more gold.
Do you damn others, and let this damn you.
And ditches grave you all (4.3.152-166).

One of the curious features of the play is that the apparently free generosity depicted at the beginning of the play is actually underwritten by loans. Lucius has loaned money to Timon, which, as Dolan points out, he gives back in the form of gifts. Not only are the gift-economy and the exchange-economy mingled, but the flow of money is oddly circuitous; Timon?s generosity is already at others?Eexpense, it appears.

The play directly raises questions concerning the ethics of gift-giving, anticipating the obsessive discussions of recent years. The nub of the problem is captured by John Milbank?s question, ?Can a Gift Be Given??EIf a gift is something given without expectation of return (as Jesus appears to say, and Kant definitely did say), then it appears that true gifts are impossible. For all gifts are given with some expectation of return, even if the return is only the return of gratitude; even gratuitous gifts seek gratitude. Timon?s gifts certainly do; otherwise, he would not be so shocked by the ingratitude of his friends when they refuse to return gifts. His generosity is, in his own words to his steward, ?a usuring kindness.?E

The problem is actually more complex than this. For the very generosity that Timon lavishes has the effect of ?pauperizing the recipient?E(Nuttall), of turning the recipients into permanent dependents who cannot or will not respond to the obligations placed on them by Timon?s gifts. As Nuttall puts it, ?His actions asked for gratitude, but meanwhile there is the low idiom: he asked for it. The effect of our two levels taken together is that such giving is not, as it purports to be, non-reciprocal, but is on the contrary always reciprocal. Ethically it entails an obligation, practically it invites non-fulfillment of that obligation.?EGenerosity is thus not truly altruistic; and generosity actually does damage to those who receive it.

Timon comes to this conclusion, seeking to invert the moral order with his chant of ?Black white, foul fair, wrong right?E(4.3.29). But this Nietzschean move has, as Nuttall explains, inherent limits: ?If Timon means only that those who seem loving are not really so, he has done nothing to the structure of ethics. If, on the other hand, he means that kindness itself is an evil (for example, because it fosters ingratitude), then indeed he attacks one of the pillars of ethics, but in doing so is forced to defer to one of the other central doctrines, that ingratitude is base.?E

And this raises questions about the overall moral structure of the plot, and of the question of the dual Timon.

Shakespeare was clearly concerned with the social and political importance of gratitude (see my recent First Things article on Coriolanus, ?The Politics of Gratitude?E. It is certainly not impossible that Timon is a similar meditation on ingratitude. Yet, some things count against such an interpretation. In Coriolanus, the ingratitude is mutual; Rome does not appreciate Coriolanus for sure, but neither does Coriolanus appreciate Rome (at least the citizens and tribunes). If Timon is a meditation on ingratitude, it appears to be one-sided in an unShakespearean way. Besides, as noted above, the play raises questions about Timon?s generosity from the beginning, questions that complicate the attempt to read it as a morality play with Athens as the villain.

As A.D. Nuttall points out in his fine monograph on the play, some of the early imagery suggests a different interpretation. Early on, the Poet, engaged in a competitive discussion of the merits of his poetry in comparison with the merits of the Painter?s paintings, employs some odd imagery:

You see this confluence, this great flood of visitors:
I have in this rough work shaped out a man
Whom this beneath world doth embrace and hug
With amplest entertainment. My free drift
Halts no particularly, but moves itself
In a wide sea of wax; no level malice
Infects one common in the course I hold,
But flies and eagle flight, bold and forth on,
Leaving no tract behind (1.1.42-50).

This difficult passage is of interest here because of the strange combination of the image of a ?wide sea of wax?Ewith the imagery of an eagle flying. Nuttall interestingly suggests that the combination evokes the story of Icarus, who flew towards the sun on wings fastened with wax, until the sun melted the wax and sent Icarus plummeting into the sea. Icarus, the icon of thwarted ambition, is evoked in a description that the poet certainly intends as a description of Timon (1.1.63-72).

Timon an Icarus? How can such a giving man be considered prideful? How can a man of divine generosity be considered ambitious? Perhaps the answer is precisely there, for the Poet describes Timon as the recipient of worship:

All those which were his fellows but of late
(Some better than his value) on the moment
Follow his strikes, his lobbies fill with tendance,
Rain sacrificial whisperings in his ear,
Make sacred even his stirrup, and through him
Drink the free air (1.1.78-83).

In need, Athenians turn in prayer to Timon. They offer sacrifice, and treat the stirrup where he places his feet as a holy thing. This is a man heading for a fall if there ever was one. And the Poet, despite his obvious flaws, sees it clearly: Once Fortune shifts her mood, however, once Timon is no longer a recipient of ?present grace,?Ethe worshipers who bear him up, who ?labored after him to the mountain?s top/ even on their knees and hands?Ewill let him ?slip down,/ Not one accompanying his declining foot?E(1.1.85-88). A pretended god who loses his worshipers plunges from sky to the sea. And Timon makes a pretense to deity by receiving the adoration of his clients, by assuming the infinity of his resources, by demanding generosity in return. Timon can be read as a betrayed Christ figure. But he is not. He is betrayed, but his betrayal saves no one, including himself. He is not even given the dignity of an on-stage death. He is Icarus; biblically, Adam.

If Shakespeare initially sets the trajectory for Timon?s history with an admittedly opaque allusion to the Icarus myth, in the middle of the play he highlights the theme of ingratitude with an inverted Eucharsitic scene. Just before he leaves the city for the wilderness, he offers a meal to his treacherous friends, a meal of stones. Prior to the beginning of the meal, he prays a long, rambling, odd prayer of thanksgiving, in which he warns the gods to beware of generosity ?lest your deities be despis?d?E in which he cautions that the gods should not allow men to have enough resources to lend to other men. The grace turns into a prayer for the universal corruption of mankind, along the lines of ?If there sit twelve women at the table, let a dozen of them be as they are,?Ewhich is to say, villains (3.6.69-81). If this anti-Eucharist, this last Supper before Timon?s exile to the tomb-like cave, manifests the social evils of ingratitude, the play might obliquely and conversely point to a true Eucharistic meal and Eucharistic prayer that binds all together in grace.

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