Part I. Greek 5. The Life of Timon Of Athens

Shakespeare wrote a narrative poem and three plays set in the legendary days of Greek history. He wrote only one play that was based- in a very tenuous way-in the days of Greece's greatest glory, the fifth century b.c.

This century was the Golden Age of Athens, when she beat off giant Persia and built a naval empire, when she had great leaders like Themis-tocles, Aristides, and Pericles; great dramatists like Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes; great sculptors like Phidias; great scientists like Anaxagoras; great philosophers like Socrates and Plato.

But Shakespeare chose to mark the time by writing a play, Timon of Athens, that is generally considered one of his least satisfactory. Many critics consider it to be an unfinished play, one that Shakespeare returned to on and off, never patching it to his liking, and eventually abandoning it.

... the Lord Timon.. .

The play opens in the house of a rich man. A Poet, a Painter, a Jeweler, and a Merchant all enter. They are given no names but are identified only by their professions. The Jeweler has a jewel and the Merchant says:

O pray let's see't. For the Lord Timon, sir?

- Act I, scene i, line 13

The Lord Timon is the owner of the house; the center toward which all these and others are tending.

Timon is, apparently, a historical character who lived in Athens during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.-eight centuries after the Trojan War), so that we may set the opening of the play in the last quarter of the fifth century b.c.

Timon's fame to his contemporaries and near successors, such as Aristophanes and Plato, lay entirely in the fact that he was a misanthrope. In fact, he was referred to as "Timon Misanthropes" ("Timon the ManHater"). He lived by himself, professed to hate mankind and to detest human society. To the sociable Greeks, to whom conversation and social intercourse were the breath of life, there was something monstrous in this. Plutarch, in his "Life of Mark Antony," describes how, at a low point in his career, Antony decided for a while to imitate Timon and withdraw from human society. Shakespeare may have come across this while working on his play Antony and Cleopatra (see page I-370) and conceived the idea of writing a play centered on the condition of misanthropy. And, indeed, Timon of Athens seems to have been written immediately after Antony and Cleopatra, in 1606 or 1607.

The senators of Athens ...

Additional men enter and the Poet identifies them, saying:

The senators of Athens, happy men!

- Act I, scene i, line 40

Throughout the play Shakespeare treats Athens, with whose social and political life he is unacquainted, as though it were Rome, a city with which he was much more at home. Athens had no senators or anything quite equivalent to the well-known legislators of Rome. Yet Shakespeare, throughout the play, has the rulers of Athens act like the stern, irascible, grasping Roman aristocrats, rather than like the gay, impulsive, weathercock democrats they really were.

Indeed, so anxious does Shakespeare appear to be to deal with Rome rather than with Athens, that almost every character in the play has a Roman name. This is quite out of the question in reality, of course. No Roman name was ever heard of in Athens of Timon's time. Rome itself had never been heard of. If Rome had forced itself on the attention of any Athenian of the time, it would have seemed only a barbarian Italian village of utterly no account.

Feigned Fortune.. .

But Timon is not yet Misanthropes. He is, at the beginning of the play, an extremely wealthy man of almost unbelievable benevolence. He seeks for excuses to give money away and every man there is trying to get his share.

Yet the Poet, at least, is not entirely fooled by the superficial appearance of wealth and happiness that surrounds Timon. He speaks of his poetry to the Painter, and describes its content by saying:

Sir, I have upon a high and pleasant hill

Feigned Fortune to be throned.

- Act I, scene i, lines 63-64

The goddess of fortune (Fortuna to the Romans and Tyche to the Greeks) became popular in the period that followed Greece's Golden Age. Alexander the Great had come and gone like lightning across the skies, bringing Greece vast conquests and vast derangements. The individual Greek cities came to be helpless in the grip of generals and armies; culture decayed as materialism grew and the rich grew richer while the poor grew poorer.

Fortune was a deity of chance and was just right for the age following Alexander the Great; an age which saw the passing of youth and confidence, and in which good and evil seemed to be handed out at random and without any consideration of desert.

The Poet explains that Fortune beckons benignly and Timon mounts the hill, carrying with him all those he befriends. But Fortune is fickle and Timon may be kicked down the hill by her. In that case, none of the friends he took up the hill with him will follow him down.

Shakespeare is, in this way, preparing the audience for the consideration of what it was that made Timon a misanthrope.

Plutarch says only that "... for the unthankfulness of those he had done good unto and whom he took to be his friends, he was angry with all men and would trust no man."

Another similar treatment of Timon at much greater length was by a Greek writer, Lucian, born in Syria about a.d. 120. He had written twenty-six Dialogues of the Gods, in which he poked satirical fun at conventional religion, but so pleasantly that even the pious must have found it difficult to take offense.

His best essay is considered to be "Timon," in which he uses the theme of a man who has become misanthropic through the ingratitude of others to poke fun at Jupiter and at Wealth. He expands on the hint in Plutarch and makes Timon out to have been, originally, a fantastically generous man who beggared himself for his friends and then found none who would help him.

Shakespeare adopted this notion, but removed all the fun and humor in Lucian's dialogue and replaced it with savagery.

... a dog

Timon himself now enters, and moves among all those present with affability and generosity, giving to all who ask, denying no one. He accepts their rather sickening sycophancy with good humor, but accepts it.

There is only one sour note and that is when the philosopher Apemantus enters. He is churlish and his every speech is a curt insult The Painter strikes back with:

Y'are a dog.

- Act I, scene i, line 202

This is not a mere insult, but, in a way, a statement of fact, if a slightly anachronistic one.

About 400 b.c. a philosopher named Antisthenes taught that virtue was more important than riches or comfort and that, indeed, poverty was welcome, for wealth and luxury were corrupting. One of his pupils was Diogenes, who lived near Corinth about 350 b.c. and who carried Antisthenes' teachings to an extreme.

Diogenes lived in the greatest possible destitution to show that people needed no belongings to be virtuous. He loudly derided all the polite social customs of the day, denouncing them as hypocrisy.

Diogenes and those who followed him made ordinary men uncomfortable. These grating philosophers seemed to bark and snarl at all that made life pleasant. They were called kynikos ("doglike") because of their snarling, and this became "cynic" in English.

Diogenes accepted the name and became "Diogenes the Cynic." Apemantus is pictured in this play as a Cynic a century before the term became fashionable, and when the Painter calls him a dog, he is really dismissing him as a Cynic.

Apemantus' insults extend even to Timon. When the Poet tries to defend Timon, Apemantus considers it mere flattery and says, crushingly:

He that loves to be flattered

is worthy o'th'flatterer.

- Act I, scene i, lines 229-30

This is the first clear statement that Timon, despite appearances, is not entirely to be admired. He is extremely generous, but is it in order to do good, or in order to be flattered and fawned upon? There is something so public, ostentatious, and indiscriminate in his benevolences that they grow suspect.

'Tis Alcibiades...

A messenger comes in with the announcement of new visitors;

Tis Alcibiades and some twenty horse,

- Act I, scene i, line 246

Alcibiades is the only character in the play who has an important role in Athenian history. He was an Athenian general of noble birth, handsome and brilliant, who in the end turned traitor and did Athens infinite harm.

He is brought into the play because Plutarch uses him as an occasion for an example of Timon's misanthropy. The one man Timon made much of was Alcibiades, and when asked why that was, Timon answered, harshly, "I do it because I know that one day he shall do great mischief unto the Athenians."

This is rather better and more specific insight than individuals are likely to have, and in all probability the story is apocryphal and was invented long after Alcibiades had demonstrated the harm he did Athens.

... Plutus, the god of gold

Timon is giving a feast that night as he is wont to do. In fact, one Lord who means to partake of it says of him:

He pours it out. Plutus,

the god of gold, Is but his steward ...

- Act I, scene i, lines 283-84

Plutus is related, by name and origin, to Pluto, the king of the underworld, and represents the wealth of the soil, both mineral and vegetable (see page I-115).

The later Greeks considered Plutus to be a son of Fortune, who had been blinded by Jupiter so that he gives his gifts indiscriminately. In Lu-cian's dialogue, Wealth is also pictured as blind and as giving his gifts to anyone he happens to bump into. Thus, once again, Timon's wealth is associated with chance and its slippery nature made plain.

What's more, Timon will give, but won't receive. He says as much to Ventidius, one of his guests at the feast. Ventidius tries to thank him for favors received, but Timon says:

You mistake my love;

I gave it freely ever, and there's none

Can truly say he gives, if he receives.

- Act I, scene ii, lines 9-11

In this respect, though, Timon seems to aspire to be a god, since surely only a god can always give, never receive. Furthermore, Timon would deprive others of the act of giving, which he apparently considers the supreme pleasure. Would he reserve the supreme pleasure exclusively for himself?

It is almost as though Timon were divorcing himself from mankind through the unique act of giving without receiving. He will not condescend to be human and in that respect he (so to speak) hates mankind. Perhaps Shakespeare meant to show (if he could have polished the play into final form) that a man does not become a misanthrope unless he has been one all along. Perhaps he meant to show that Timon did not pass from benevolence to misanthropy but merely changed from one form of misanthropy to another.

A thousand talents. ..

The banquet ends in a general donation to everyone by Timon, so that cynical Apemantus guesses that Timon will be going bankrupt soon. The guess is correct and even conservative, for though Timon doesn't know it (scorning, like a god, to inquire into the status of his wealth) he is already deep in debt.

His creditors (whom his steward has long been holding off) will be restrained no longer, and not long after the banquet Timon is told the situation. All astonished, he finds out that all his land is sold, all his cash is spent, all his assets gone. Yet he will not accept the reproaches of his steward but is cheerfully confident he can borrow from his many adoring friends.

He sends his servants to various people who are in debt to him for past favors and tells them to ask, casually, for large sums. The steward, Flavius, he sends to the senators so that the city treasury may reward him for money he had in the past given it. He tells Flavius:

Bid 'em send o'th'instant

A thousand talents to me.

- Act II, scene ii, lines 208-9

A talent was a huge sum of money. It is equal to nearly sixty pounds of silver, and by modern standards it is equivalent to about two thousand dollars. What Timon was so cavalierly asking for "o'th'instant" was two million dollars. The city of Athens could not possibly have made available that sum of money to a private person "o'th'instant."

The ridiculous size of the sum requested is sometimes taken as an indication that Shakespeare did not know how much a talent was worth, and either hadn't done the necessary research by the time he abandoned the play, or, if he had, never got around to changing the figures throughout.

What is even more likely to be a mistake appears a little later, as scene after scene passes in which Timon's servants vainly try to borrow money from those whom earlier the once rich man had so loaded with benefits. Thus, Lucius, one of those so benefited, says, incredulously, to one of the pleading servants:

/ know his lordship is but merry with me.

He cannot want fifty five hundred talents.

- Act III, scene ii, lines 40-41

He cannot indeed. That would be some 160 tons of silver. A private person of Timon's time simply could not have had so much wealth to hand out on the moment. Perhaps Shakespeare was dithering between fifty talents and five hundred talents, wondering if the latter was too great, and, having written in both, never got around to erasing one or the other by the time he had abandoned the play.

It is tempting to despise those whom Timon had so benefited and who were now so lost to gratitude. But let us be reasonable. Timon had forced the benefits on his friends, eager to demonstrate godlike generosity. Should those friends now deliver their money to someone who had displayed such abysmal lack of understanding of personal finance? Whatever they gave him would surely be lost forever and at once.

Naturally, Timon did not look at it that way at all. His pretensions to superhuman wealth and benevolence had been punctured and he found himself in a towering rage of frustration and humiliation as a result.

At Lacedaemon...

Meanwhile, Alcibiades is having an argument of his own with the Athenian Senate. Some soldier is under sentence of death for murder and Alcibiades is pleading for a reversal of the sentence on the grounds that death came as a result of an honorable duel fought in anger that had come about because the man under sentence had been bitterly offended.

Who the soldier is, what the occasion, why the Senate is so harsh or Alcibiades so insistent are not explained. Shakespeare had inserted the scene, perhaps the best in the play, but had never gotten around to supplying the mortar that would connect it properly to what had gone before. It seems clear, though, that Shakespeare is setting up a subplot to show another facet of the "ingratitude" theme. Alcibiades says of the soldier:

His service done

At Lacedaemon and Byzantium

Were a sufficient briber for his life.

- Act III, scene v, lines 60-62

This vaguely suits the Peloponnesian War, which was going on in the lifetime of Timon and Alcibiades. Athens was fighting a coalition led by the city of Sparta, of which an alternate (and, in some respects, more nearly official) name was Lacedaemon.

However, the speech makes it sound as though there was fighting at Lacedaemon, and that wasn't so. The city of Sparta, protected by its unparalleled army, was unapproachable throughout the sixth and fifth centuries b.c. It was not until Sparta suffered a shattering defeat at the hands of Thebes, thirty years after the Peloponnesian War, that the city became vulnerable.

Nor were there important battles at Byzantium (the later Constantinople and the still later Istanbul), though it occupied a strategic position at the straits between the Aegean Sea and the Black Sea, not very far from where Troy had once been situated.

We banish thee...

When Alcibiades continues to plead the soldier's cause, the First Senator, austere and obdurate in Roman rather than Athenian manner, finally says:

Do you dare our anger?

'Tis in few words, but spacious in effect:

We banish thee for ever.

- Act III, scene v, lines 95-97

In actual history, Alcibiades was indeed banished from Athens, but not for so personal and trivial a cause. In 415 b.c. he had urged that Athens end the long war with Sparta by a very daring move, nothing less than an invasion of Sicily and the capture of its chief city, Syracuse, which had been supporting the Spartan cause financially.

A victory in Sicily would have transferred Syracuse's navy and wealth to the Athenian side, given Athens a secure base in the west, and broken the morale of the Spartan coalition. It was a desperate gamble, but under Alcibiades it might just possibly have succeeded.

The Athenians, however, voted another general, Nicias, as co-com-mander, and this was a terrible mistake. Nicias was an "appeaser," anxious to make a deal with Sparta, and couldn't possibly be expected to supply vigorous leadership-especially since he was a most incompetent general in any case.

To make matters worse, just before the expedition was to set sail, certain religious statues in the city were blasphemously mutilated, and suspicion fell upon Alcibiades, who was a known agnostic.

To be sure, Alcibiades would scarcely have been so insane as to have chosen this time to play the scofier in so ostentatious a manner. Although the mystery of who mutilated the statues has never been solved, most historians feel it must have been Alcibiades' enemies who did it, and that Alcibiades was framed.

At first, proceedings against Alcibiades were ordered suspended till the Sicilian expedition was over, but then after the fleet got under way, the Athenians changed their mind and recalled Alcibiades. Alcibiades was certain that he couldn't possibly escape conviction and so he went voluntarily into exile.

The Sicilian expedition, be it noted, came to utter grief without him. A huge Athenian force, both men and ships, was utterly destroyed and Athens never truly recovered. She was never again, after the Sicilian expedition, what she had been before it. Because it was Alcibiades who had urged it on, he had brought great harm to Athens (as Timon, according to Plutarch, had foreseen) and was yet to do more.

... hated be of Timon...

Back we go to Timon's house, where Timon has called back his friends for another banquet. All the men who had just refused to lend Timon money are now back at their old places. They don't know how Timon has managed to recover, but if he is conducting feasts, they intend to be at the trough.

They are as servile as ever and Timon appears as affable as ever, but when it is time to eat of the covered dishes, Timon reveals them to be full of water and nothing more. Timon throws the water in their faces, curses them, and drives them away, crying out:

Burn house, sink Athens, henceforth hated be

Of Timon man and all humanity.

- Act III, scene vi, lines 105-6

There is the transition. Timon goes from universal benevolence to universal malevolence. In both roles, he has held himself far removed from ordinary mankind, but in the latter he at least requires no wealth.

Timon leaves his home and the city. He finds himself a cave outside Athens and spends his time in cursing. He digs and finds gold (a device borrowed from Lucian's dialogue), but that does not soften his hardened heart or soothe his poisoned soul.

This fell whore...

Now a parade of people comes seeking Timon in the cave. (After all, he is rich again.) The first, by accident rather than by design, for Timon's wealth is not yet known, is Alcibiades, who is marching against Athens at the head of a rebel army and who at first fails to recognize Timon.

Alcibiades is accompanied by two prostitutes whom Timon does not fail to condemn. He says to Alcibiades concerning one of them:

This fell whore of thine

Hath in her more destruction than thy sword,

For all her cherubin look.

- Act IV, scene iii, lines 62-64

The "fell whore" in question is Phrynia, whose name is inspired by a famous Athenian courtesan named Phryne who flourished in the time of Alexander the Great, a century after Alcibiades. She grew immensely rich from her earnings, for she had as her customers the most distinguished men of the time and she charged healthy fees. The most famous story told of her is that once when she was brought before a court, accused of profaning certain religious rites, she exposed her breasts to the judges and was acquitted on the spot.

... proud Athens on a heap

Alcibiades expresses sympathy for Timon, offers him money, and begins:

When I have laid proud Athens on a heap-

- Act IV, scene iii, line 102

The historical Alcibiades, when he fled Athens, went to Sparta, his city's bitter enemy, and there advised that enemy how best to conduct its war. For a period of time he virtually directed Sparta's armies, much more intelligently and effectively than Spartan generals had been able to do. In that sense, Alcibiades was marching against Athens.

But when, in the play, Alcibiades talks of destroying Athens, Timon interrupts to wish him all success in that task, together with the destruction of himself afterward. And before they go, he heaps bitter speeches on the courtesans as he gives them quantities of his own gold.

The middle of humanity. ..

Apemantus now comes in. The old and practiced Cynic can now bandy insults with the new-made Misanthropes. Shakespeare bases this on a tale of Plutarch's, intending to show how Timon, in his universal hatred, outdid the Cynics. He tells how Apemantus once, when dining with Timon, they two being all the company, commented on how pleasant it was to feast alone without hated mankind present, and Timon answered morosely, "It would be, if you were not present."

Thus, when in the play Apemantus offers to give Timon food, and mend his diet, Timon says:

First mend my company, take away thyself,

- Act IV, scene iii, line 284

But Apemantus is not fooled. He was not impressed by Timon playing god, and he is not impressed by Timon playing dog. (It is odd that in English, god and dog are the same letters in mirror image.) Apemantus says, cynically:

Art thou proud yet?

- Act IV, scene iii, line 278

He says even more sharply:

The middle of humanity thou never knewest,

but the extremity of both ends.

- Act IV, scene iii, lines 301-2

The rumor of Timon's gold spreads. Thieves come to relieve him of it, but he gives it to them with such malevolent glee at the harm it will do them that they leave most uneasily.

His old steward, Flavius, arrives weeping, and asks only to continue to serve Timon. Even Timon's withered heart is touched and he is forced to retreat one inch from his universal hatred. He says:

I do proclaim

One honest man.

Mistake me not, but one.

- Act IV, scene iii, lines 505-6

Here Timon seems to have faced mankind and found himself momentarily to be neither god nor dog, but "the middle of humanity." Had he found himself permanently back to that middle, the play might have been more satisfactory, but Shakespeare blunders onward through the thicket of unrelieved misanthropy.

... hang himself

The Poet and the Painter arrive to get their share of the gold by pretending selfless love of Timon, but Timon overhears their plotting and drives them away.

Then come Athenian Senators, pleading with Timon to take over the leadership of the city's forces in order to turn back Alcibiades, who is battering at the city's walls, but Timon states bitterly that he doesn't care what Alcibiades does to Athens. Shakespeare now makes use of still another anecdote in Plutarch.

He announces one favor he will do Athens. He has a tree that he is about to chop down, but he urges the Senators to announce to all Athenians who wish to take advantage of the offer to:

Come hither ere my tree hath felt the ax,

And hang himself.

- Act V, scene i, lines 212-13

Those enemies of Timon's. ..

Timon dies, unreconciled to the end, and Athens must surrender to Alcibiades.

This did not happen quite so in history.

Rather, Alcibiades finally fell out with the Spartans (the story is that he was a little too familiar with one of the Spartan queens and the Spartan King resented it) and returned to Athenian allegiance. They welcomed him back because the war was going more and more badly and they needed him. In 407 b.c. he made a triumphant return to Athens and in that sense, Athens might be viewed as having surrendered to him.

The Athenians, however, could never bring themselves to trust him, and the next year he was exiled again, this time permanently.

The play does not go that far. It ends with the reconciliation, as Alcibiades says:

Those enemies of Timon's and mine own

Whom you yourselves shall set out for reproof,

Fall, and no more.

- Act V, scene iv, lines 56-58

Alcibiades lets himself be placated and reconciled, where Timon did not, and it is plain that the former is displayed as the preferable course.

Timon is dead by then, but the epitaph he wrote for himself is brought in and Alcibiades reads it-Timon's final word (taken from Plutarch).

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.

- Act V, scene iv, lines 72-73

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