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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Timon of Athens–Charity Begins and Stops at Home

Timon of Athens has a big debt problem.  He is underwater, overspent, and his credit not surprisingly is bad. The irony of the situation is that he has gone into debt to buy his friends gifts, and when he has run out of money because of this largesse, and when he turns to these very friends for a loan, they abandon him.  Not only do they abandon him, but they call in their debts.  Worst of all, they do not even think of selling the valuable gifts to loan him or give him money.  Why was he so generous, especially to his wealthy friends? Did he not understand that there is no contractual obligation in gift-giving, only an unwritten social code? And how did he so overestimate the generosity of others, especially when he had Apemantus the Cynic to advise him?

The plot of the play is simple – Timon gives gifts generously, goes into debt, asks for credit, is turned down, becomes a disillusioned and misanthropic hermit, and dies.  There are no complicated historical twists and turns, no gender-bending love stories, no tragic plots and subplots.  There is neither beautiful lyric poetry, nor sharp wit and ripostes; no strong women (in fact this is the only play where women, except for two prostitutes who exist only to transmit disease), no complex men – just Timon who is more front and center than any other of Shakespeare’s main characters.

Yet, the play is intriguing because Shakespeare, as in his Tragedies, leaves more questions unanswered than answered.  First, the question of the nature or origin of Timon’s largesse.  Because he is a noble of the first rank, it is fairly certain that he is not trying to curry favor either with his superiors or inferiors.  He gives to his noble friends who have no designs on him or his position.  He is not acting in the spirit of Christian giving – alms to the poor – and faithful to the Catholic doctrine of good works.  There is no reason to believe that he is giving because of the Protestant doctrine of faith (i.e., his works are a result of his being saved, not a means to that end).  He is not giving as a form of social security – giving now to assure credit when times get tough; nor is he applying some moral test to see how reliable his friends are, or on a higher level to plumb human nature and determine if there is some modicum of goodness in man. 

The most likely explanation is that he gives because he likes the thanks and attention he receives; and because of this vanity he is unaware that the adulation he receives is simply venal flattery – toadying, sycophantic behavior on the part of the recipients so that they can receive more gifts. 

So Timon is not a very sympathetic character.  He is vain, with little understanding of human nature.  His total isolation from reality is such, that when he finds that his friends refuse to loan/give him money, he changes overnight from generous benefactor to ugly misanthrope.  To quote Uncle Guido, “He shoulda known better”. Are we supposed to identify with this ‘tragic’ character, brought down by this tragic flaw of ignorance?  Hardly.  Are we supposed to resonate with the argument that all men are either flatterers or charlatans?  Again, hardly, because Shakespeare himself has more than eloquently described the chicanery and duplicity of the court.  A.D. Nuttall observes:

Nineteenth-century critics tended to see Timon as a noble spirit vilely used by others.  Earlier critics saw him as less than admirable, a fool or extravagant show-off.  Ethically, his generous actions ask for a generous response.  On the practical level his near-hysterical giving virtually invites abuse from the recipient.  There is the low idiom: “He asked for it”.

The Merchant of Venice addresses the central philosophical theme of Timon, if there is one.  Shylock is the post-modern man, beyond gentility and gentlemen’s agreements and into contracts. You don’t lend money unless you have collateral.  A man’s word doesn’t count.   It is the new world where vanity is the refuge of fools.  Shylock knows better, but gets his comeuppance when he agrees under pressure to convert to Christianity which for him, is a step backwards into social illusion.

King Lear addresses the issue of giving with far more insight and power than Timon.  Lear gives his kingdom away to his three daughters, but wants something in return – respect, love, honor; and when he doesn’t get it, he goes mad, and like Timon, flees to the heath.  Lear also ‘shoulda known better’, which is why I find him a less appealing character than many critics.  Not only did he not know his daughters, but he did not understand the inevitable greediness and acquisitiveness of human nature.  Lear is more appealing because he has a truly tragic end – he realizes the true love that Cordelia had for him and is ready to live out his life with her, when she dies. Nuttall observes the transformation of Lear and his new understanding of giving:

When Lear notes that even the poorest will have about them odd, gratuitous objects that are not valued solely for their efficacy in the practical business of survival, he counters one central drive of Merchant which is to suggest that grace is a luxury that only the rich can afford, something unavailable to the economic work-horses on whom Venice depends.  “No”, says Lear, “Such graces are the property of humanity, in whatever condition”:

……Take physic, pomp,

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,

Then mayst thou shake the superflux to them,

And show the heavens more just (III.iv)

Timon, on the other hand dies alone, buried alone by the ocean with a simple misanthropic epitaph that he himself wrote, and with no late revelation a la Lear.  As A.D. Nuttall writes: “Timon is Lear without any of the old king’s grandeur of language and, more important, without any family.  He has only friends, or perhaps I should say, “friends” (Shakespeare the Thinker)

There are many purely ‘philosophical’ passages in Timon.  Apemantus’ grace is the best known of his declamations:

Immortal gods, I crave no pelf.

I pray for no man but myself.

Grant I may never prove so fond

To trust man on his oath or bond.

Or a harlot for her weeping,

Or a dog that seems a-sleeping,

Or a keeper with my freedom,

Or my friends if I should need ‘em.

Amen.  so fall to ‘t.

Rich men sin, and I eat root. (I.ii)

Timon, once deceived by his friends, comes late to the realization that ‘money can’t buy me love’:

This yellow slave (gold)

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 wappened widow wed again;

She whom the spital house and ulcerous sores

Would cast the gore at….

…Come damned earth,

Thou common whore of mankind, that puts odds

Among the rout of nations, I will make thee

Do they right nature….

One of my favorite passages of the play is by Timon who has argued with Apemantus that the ‘natural’ world is just as corrupt and duplicitous as the human one:

“…If thou wert the lion, the fox would beguile thee.  If thou wert the lamb, the fox would eat thee.  If thou wert the fox, the lion would suspect thee when peradventure thou wert accused by the ass.  If thou wert the ass, thy dullness would torment thee, and still thou lived’st but as breakfast for the wolf…..

There is nothing particularly complex, insightful, or subtle about all this.  Money corrupts completely.  Men are venal, greedy, and selfish.  The rule of the world, both human and animal is trickery, deceit, illusion.  What saves the play is the wonderful vitriolic, vengeful curses of Timon.  He goes beyond Coriolanus in his vilification of his home city/country.  He is magnificent in his damnation:

…Matrons, turn incontinent!

Obedience fail in children! Slaves and fools,

Pluck the grave wrinkled Senate from the bench

And minister in their steads! To general filths

Convert o’ th’ instant, green virginity!

Do ‘t in your parents’ eyes! Bankrupts, hold fast!

Rather than render back, out with your knives

And cut your trusters’ throats! Bound servants, steal!

Large-handed robbers your grave masters are,

And pill by law.  Maid, to they master’s bed!

Thy mistress is o’ th’ brothel.  Son of sixteen

Pluck the lined crutch from they old limping sire;

With it beat out his brains! (IV.i)

There are really some great, spewing, angry passages from Timon, and another of my favorites is when he urges Alcibiades’ prostitutes to give venereal diseases to all the men of Athens:

Consumptions sow

In hollow bones of man; strike their sharp shins,

And mar men’s spurring ). Crack the lawyer’s voice….Hoar the flamen…Down with the nose -

Down with it flat, take the bridge quite away

Make curled-pate ruffians bald,….[NOTE: All Elizabethan sexual references to V.D.

And let the unscarred braggarts of the war

Derive some pain from you….

Timon is angry, vengeful, unrepentant, and still ignorant when he dies.  We feel no remorse or sorrow at his death.  He deserved it.

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