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Timon of Athens by William Shakespeare
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Nov 08, 10

bookshelves: shakespeare, plays
Recommended for: misanthropes like me
Read from November 07 to 08, 2010, read count: 1

ALCIBIADES

What is thy name? Is man so hateful to thee,
That art thyself a man?

TIMON

I am Misanthropos, and hate mankind.
For thy part, I do wish thou wert a dog,
That I might love thee something.


Flawed, overwritten, garbled, yet still profound. Melville loved this play and it's not hard to see why: it deals with an eternal human problem--whom to trust? Just as Hamlet deals with the mystery of death, Macbeth the mystery of conscience, Othello the mystery of evil, King Lear the mystery of suffering, Timon deals with the mystery of social life, and even of human nature ("There's nothing level in our cursed natures, But direct villany."). Timon asks the forbidden question (Hamlet asks it too)--is life worth living?

How to be a misanthrope: give away all your money assuming that everyone adores you. As Socrates put it:

"Misanthropy develops when without art one puts complete trust in somebody thinking the man absolutely true and sound and reliable and then a little later discovers him to be bad and unreliable...and when it happens to someone often...he ends up...hating everyone." (The Phaedo) Shakespeare seems to laugh at Timon Misanthropos, and everything must not be read as though Shakespeare sympathizes with his tragic hero. Misanthropy seems to be born of pride.


Timon's servant Flavius sums up the problem this way:

FLAVIUS

[Aside] What will this come to?
He commands us to provide, and give great gifts,
And all out of an empty coffer:
Nor will he know his purse, or yield me this,
To show him what a beggar his heart is,
Being of no power to make his wishes good:
His promises fly so beyond his state
That what he speaks is all in debt; he owes
For every word: he is so kind that he now
Pays interest for 't; his land's put to their books.
Well, would I were gently put out of office
Before I were forced out!
Happier is he that has no friend to feed
Than such that do e'en enemies exceed.
I bleed inwardly for my lord.

Apemantus, the cynic philosopher who had warned Timon that his friends were just using him for his generosity, comments thus:

I wonder men dare trust themselves with men:
Methinks they should invite them without knives;
Good for their meat, and safer for their lives.
There's much example for't; the fellow that sits
next him now, parts bread with him, pledges the
breath of him in a divided draught, is the readiest
man to kill him: 't has been proved. If I were a
huge man, I should fear to drink at meals;
Lest they should spy my windpipe's dangerous notes:
Great men should drink with harness on their throats.

The play is about friendship, ingratitude, usury, flattery (a theme throughout Shakespeare's canon), and Fortune (another; in fact, the sudden cataclysmic fall from grace reminds me of Philip Roth's short novels' conceits).

So, we know the problem. Here's the aftermath:

the bounty of this lord!
How many prodigal bits have slaves and peasants
This night englutted! Who is not Timon's?
What heart, head, sword, force, means, but is
Lord Timon's?
Great Timon, noble, worthy, royal Timon!
Ah, when the means are gone that buy this praise,
The breath is gone whereof this praise is made:
Feast-won, fast-lost; one cloud of winter showers,
These flies are couch'd.

As Timon says fatally,

TIMON

And, in some sort, these wants of mine are crown'd,
That I account them blessings; for by these
Shall I try friends: you shall perceive how you
Mistake my fortunes; I am wealthy in my friends.

Oh no, you're not. How do his friends reply to Timon's sudden loss of wealth?

FLAVIUS

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 honourable,--
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.


Put another way:

Second Servant

As we do turn our backs
From our companion thrown into his grave,
So his familiars to his buried fortunes
Slink all away, leave their false vows with him,
Like empty purses pick'd; and his poor self,
A dedicated beggar to the air,
With his disease of all-shunn'd poverty,
Walks, like contempt, alone.

Timon loses all his money, all his friends, all his honor. He's lost everything. He declares war on mankind.

Servant

Excellent! Your lordship's a goodly villain. The
devil knew not what he did when he made man
politic; he crossed himself by 't: and I cannot
think but, in the end, the villainies of man will
set him clear. How fairly this lord strives to
appear foul! takes virtuous copies to be wicked,
like those that under hot ardent zeal would set
whole realms on fire: Of such a nature is his
politic love.
This was my lord's best hope; now all are fled,
Save only the gods: now his friends are dead,
Doors, that were ne'er acquainted with their wards
Many a bounteous year must be employ'd
Now to guard sure their master.
And this is all a liberal course allows;
Who cannot keep his wealth must keep his house.

Timon invites his "friends" over and harangues them.


TIMON : Lend to each man enough, that
one need not lend to another; for, were your
godheads to borrow of men, men would forsake the
gods. Make the meat be beloved more than the man
that gives it. Let no assembly of twenty be without
a score of villains: if there sit twelve women at
the table, let a dozen of them be--as they are. The
rest of your fees, O gods--the senators of Athens,
together with the common lag of people--what is
amiss in them, you gods, make suitable for
destruction. For these my present friends, as they
are to me nothing, so in nothing bless them, and to
nothing are they welcome.

As for human nature, it doesn't look so good. Timon concludes at one point that all people are not worth knowing; at other points, he concludes (along with St. Paul) that cupiditas is the root of all evil:

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.

At other times, he concludes that life is not worth living because friendship and love are impossible (at least for him: "each thing's a thief," he says). But when Flavius visits him, he realizes that the man to whom he had given least is the one who'd loved him most:

One honest man--mistake me not--but one;
No more, I pray,--and he's a steward.
How fain would I have hated all mankind!
And thou redeem'st thyself: but all, save thee,
I fell with curses.
Methinks thou art more honest now than wise;
For, by oppressing and betraying me,
Thou mightst have sooner got another service:
For many so arrive at second masters,
Upon their first lord's neck. But tell me true--
For I must ever doubt, though ne'er so sure--
Is not thy kindness subtle, covetous,
If not a usuring kindness, and, as rich men deal gifts,
Expecting in return twenty for one?

Thus, through one good man, all mankind looks a little brighter. But isn't it unfair that he has to be a servant while all the leaders are ungrateful, foolish, proud, etc.?

Timon declares war on all other men, however. He meets Alcibiades--a man banished from Athens against his will (whilst Timon banished himself from society freely rather than beg in vain) and encourages him in his war against Athens, saying that he shouldn't even spare babies.

TIMON

Well, sir, I will; therefore, I will, sir; thus:
If Alcibiades kill my countrymen,
Let Alcibiades know this of Timon,
That Timon cares not. But if be sack fair Athens,
And take our goodly aged men by the beards,
Giving our holy virgins to the stain
Of contumelious, beastly, mad-brain'd war,
Then let him know, and tell him Timon speaks it,
In pity of our aged and our youth,
I cannot choose but tell him, that I care not,
And let him take't at worst; for their knives care not,
While you have throats to answer: for myself,
There's not a whittle in the unruly camp
But I do prize it at my love before
The reverend'st throat in Athens. So I leave you
To the protection of the prosperous gods,
As thieves to keepers.

He meets several whores and encourages them to destroy the world with disease and broken relationships:

TIMON

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.

He tells Flavius to help him destroy humanity (the wickedest of all species):

TIMON

Look thee, 'tis so! Thou singly honest man,
Here, take: the gods out of my misery
Have sent thee treasure. Go, live rich and happy;
But thus condition'd: thou shalt build from men;
Hate all, curse all, show charity to none,
But let the famish'd flesh slide from the bone,
Ere thou relieve the beggar; give to dogs
What thou deny'st to men; let prisons swallow 'em,
Debts wither 'em to nothing; be men like
blasted woods,
And may diseases lick up their false bloods!
And so farewell and thrive.


So it seems that misanthropy is inextricably tied to immoralism. How could someone so extroverted become so introverted?

APEMANTUS

The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the
extremity of both ends: when thou wast in thy gilt
and thy perfume, they mocked thee for too much
curiosity; in thy rags thou knowest none, but art
despised for the contrary. There's a medlar for
thee, eat it.

But it seems you can't hate humanity and not hate everything else:

APEMANTUS

What things in the world canst thou nearest compare
to thy flatterers?

TIMON

Women nearest; but men, men are the things
themselves. What wouldst thou do with the world,
Apemantus, if it lay in thy power?

APEMANTUS

Give it the beasts, to be rid of the men.

TIMON

Wouldst thou have thyself fall in the confusion of
men, and remain a beast with the beasts?

APEMANTUS

Ay, Timon.

TIMON

A beastly ambition, which the gods grant thee t'
attain to! If thou wert the lion, the fox would
beguile thee; if thou wert the lamb, the fox would
eat three: if thou wert the fox, the lion would
suspect thee, when peradventure thou wert accused by
the ass: if thou wert the ass, thy dulness would
torment thee, and still thou livedst but as a
breakfast to the wolf: if thou wert the wolf, thy
greediness would afflict thee, and oft thou shouldst
hazard thy life for thy dinner: wert thou the
unicorn, pride and wrath would confound thee and
make thine own self the conquest of thy fury: wert
thou a bear, thou wouldst be killed by the horse:
wert thou a horse, thou wouldst be seized by the
leopard: wert thou a leopard, thou wert german to
the lion and the spots of thy kindred were jurors on
thy life: all thy safety were remotion and thy
defence absence. What beast couldst thou be, that
were not subject to a beast? and what a beast art
thou already, that seest not thy loss in
transformation!

And, for the metafictionally-inclined, there is some self-referential head-faking.

Poet

I am thinking what I shall say I have provided for
him: 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.

Elsewhere, Timon characterizes mimesis as "counterfeiting," connecting it to the thievery against which he rails. Shakespeare not only is, as always, completely objective and impossible to pin down, but he even questions whether his play can do justice to his subject or is worthwhile.

It's an entertaining play regardless. Some of Shakespeare's best insults are here:

First Senator

The senators of Athens greet thee, Timon.

TIMON

I thank them; and would send them back the plague,
Could I but catch it for them.


Or even better:



TIMON

When there is nothing living but thee, thou shalt be
welcome. I had rather be a beggar's dog than Apemantus.

APEMANTUS

Thou art the cap of all the fools alive.

TIMON

Would thou wert clean enough to spit upon!

APEMANTUS

A plague on thee! thou art too bad to curse.

TIMON

All villains that do stand by thee are pure.

APEMANTUS

There is no leprosy but what thou speak'st.

TIMON

If I name thee.
I'll beat thee, but I should infect my hands.

APEMANTUS

I would my tongue could rot them off!

TIMON

Away, thou issue of a mangy dog!
Choler does kill me that thou art alive;
I swound to see thee.

APEMANTUS

Would thou wouldst burst!

TIMON

Away,
Thou tedious rogue! I am sorry I shall lose
A stone by thee.

Throws a stone at him

APEMANTUS

Beast!

TIMON

Slave!

APEMANTUS

Toad!

TIMON

Rogue, rogue, rogue!
I am sick of this false world, and will love nought
But even the mere necessities upon 't.
Then, Timon, presently prepare thy grave;
Lie where the light foam the sea may beat
Thy grave-stone daily: make thine epitaph,
That death in me at others' lives may laugh.

To the gold
O thou sweet king-killer, and dear divorce
'Twixt natural son and sire! thou bright defiler
Of Hymen's purest bed! thou valiant Mars!
Thou ever young, fresh, loved and delicate wooer,
Whose blush doth thaw the consecrated snow
That lies on Dian's lap! thou visible god,
That solder'st close impossibilities,
And makest them kiss! that speak'st with
every tongue,
To every purpose! O thou touch of hearts!
Think, thy slave man rebels, and by thy virtue
Set them into confounding odds, that beasts
May have the world in empire!

APEMANTUS

Would 'twere so!
But not till I am dead. I'll say thou'st gold:
Thou wilt be throng'd to shortly.

TIMON

Throng'd to!

APEMANTUS

Ay.

TIMON

Thy back, I prithee.

APEMANTUS

Live, and love thy misery.

TIMON

Long live so, and so die.


The Athenians beg for mercy from Alcibiades and--in an awesome ending--only get mercy when Alcibiades is so moved by Timon's death that he vows not to slaughter everyone (as the dead Timon had begged him to do) but to rule peacefully. Timon satirizes the vanity of the world like the philosopher Apemantus and by Timon's banishment and suffering, Alcibiades's banishment ends.

TIMON

Your greatest want is, you want much of meat.
Why should you want? Behold, the earth hath roots;
Within this mile break forth a hundred springs;
The oaks bear mast, the briers scarlet hips;
The bounteous housewife, nature, on each bush
Lays her full mess before you. Want! why want?


The Athenians beg Alcibiades in terms that sound like they're talking to Timon:

First Senator

All have not offended;
For those that were, it is not square to take
On those that are, revenges: crimes, like lands,
Are not inherited. Then, dear countryman,
Bring in thy ranks, but leave without thy rage:
Spare thy Athenian cradle and those kin
Which in the bluster of thy wrath must fall
With those that have offended: like a shepherd,
Approach the fold and cull the infected forth,
But kill not all together.

Second Senator

What thou wilt,
Thou rather shalt enforce it with thy smile
Than hew to't with thy sword.

Timon's downfall at first appears to be Athens' downfall, yet it becomes Athens' salvation. What an ending; what a last few lines:

ALCIBIADES

[Reads the epitaph] '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.'
These well express in thee thy latter spirits:
Though thou abhorr'dst in us our human griefs,
Scorn'dst our brain's flow and those our
droplets which
From niggard nature fall, yet rich conceit
Taught thee to make vast Neptune weep for aye
On thy low grave, on faults forgiven. Dead
Is noble Timon: of whose memory
Hereafter more. Bring me into your city,
And I will use the olive with my sword,
Make war breed peace, make peace stint war, make each
Prescribe to other as each other's leech.
Let our drums strike.

Exeunt
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