When You’re Down and Out
Timon of Athens
If you see Timon as a particularly odd individual who is extremely generous in the beginning of the play only to become extremely vicious when he loses his money and his friends shun him in his need, then this is, as Professor Harold Bloom sees it, “somewhere between satire and farce” (page 589). Some have thought it impossible to perform and indeed it seems that the play was never performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime. But as we know, Bloom refuses to see any of his (and our) beloved Bard’s works in any kind of socioeconomic or political context. This often clouds his perception of what is most interesting in a play, certainly in this case.
Timon is, to be sure, a fascinating character and it’s hard not to say, “Well, duh, if you give away all your wealth and borrow a lot of money and never actually make any new money, whaddya expect?” He didn’t expect bankruptcy (wrong word – no banks in those days but same principle) but that’s what he got.
An oddball? An exceptionally foolish man? Not at all, according to Katherine Eisaman Maus in the introduction to the Norton Edition. Timon is simply a representative of the aristocracy of Shakespeare’s time during which “the traditional aristocratic virtues of openhanded generosity and carelessness of expense were coming into acute conflict with the limited means upon which the great nobles could actually draw” (page 2265). She goes on to explain that while the bourgeois class grew in power and wealth and not only traded in more and more luxury goods but could afford to buy them for their personal use, the aristocracy had to increase the value of their gift-giving in order to retain their superior status. Timon wasn’t the only one giving away things, it’s just that the others more openly expected something other than love in return. Poor old aristocrats.
Hugh Grady, in his essay on Timon of Athens in A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works, the Tragedies, is even more explicit in showing how the Athenian society, in a clear parallel to Shakespeare’s London, “consist[s] of a hypocritical exterior of entertainment, friendship and (oddly female-less) domestic life actually organized to enrich a class of merchants and usurers and corrode ancient bonds of loyalty and service” (page 434). Grady goes on to cite Coppélia Kahn who shows that “Timon’s suppliers – and ultimately Timon himself – fantasize an endless fecundity” in the Marxist sense that money is “no longer simply money but capital; that is, money expended not for tangible commodities but for profits” (page 435). Timon isn’t seeking profit, he’s seeking the power over others of being the virtuous selfless gift-giver, putting them into a debt of obligation. But it is the Merchant, the Jeweler (members of the bourgeoisie), the other lords (his competitors within the aristocracy) the Poet and the Painter who end up with the financial profit.
This is getting complicated.
Timon is…upset by the demands of his creditors and the refusal of his friends to help him. In fact he goes stark raving mad. He really hates these people and calls them
Most smiling, smooth, detested parasites,
Courteous destroyers, affable wolves… (Act 3.7)
And that’s the mild stuff. It’s not enough to hate these individuals; he leaves Athens, becomes a hermit and hates the whole human race. But poor old Timon, digging for roots to eat he finds a bunch of gold coins. Ah, he just can’t get away from money that he hasn’t earned.
So money, the real main character in this play, makes a new entrance, in the form of some kind of mythical profit.
In one of Shakespeare’s more clear-sighted monologs, he has Timon expose money for what it is:
Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold?
…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 knit and break religions, bless th’accursed…
…This is it
That makes the wappered widow wed again…
…Come, damned earth,
Thou common whore of mankind, that puts odds
Among the rout of nations; I will make thee
Do thy right nature (Act 4.3).
Money. Lots of it can change bad things into good. We know that. Money pays our rent, buys our food, gives us status and self-confidence (maybe). This yellow slave. It does what we tell it to do. We use it to create gods to give us harmony (maybe) and power (definitely). It is our slave. And then suddenly we are its slave. We become its whore. We sell body and soul for it. And more of it. And more.
Timon’s outrage at finding the gold coins is so significant that Karl Marx himself wrote page after page of analysis in his Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts from 1844. He writes:
Shakespeare stresses especially two properties of money:
1. It is the visible divinity – the transformation of all human and natural properties into their contraries, the universal confounding and distorting of things: impossibilities are soldered together by it.
2. It is the common whore, the common procurer of people and nations.
Oh that word “whore”. It’s a nasty word used several times in the play itself and Marx isn’t the only one to make use of it in his analysis. It has often been noted that Timon of Athens is unusual in Shakespeare’s works because there are almost no women. Only the “ladies” presented in the directions as Amazons who come to entertain the banquet in Act 2.1 (interesting in itself) and Phrynia and Timandra (female form of “Timon”?) who accompany Alcibiades in his visit to Timon in Act 4.3. Timon insults them, as he does everyone. He tells them to use their diseased bodies to spread disease. And he gives them gold. When they reply, “Believe’t that we will do anything for gold (Act 4.3)”, we are not to see these two women as greedier, more immoral, than everyone else because they are “whores” but that, as Kay Stanton points out, “gold, rather than woman is called the ‘root’ of whoredom, so all who must live in the material conditions of a market economy are in some sense whores” (page 97).
Ouch. That hurts. But it’s hard to deny. We’re caught up in an economic system not to our liking and we do what we can and must do to get by. And even if we play by the rules we don’t all succeed.
Timon was playing by the rules of aristocratic generosity. His creditors were playing by the rules of dawning capitalism demanding the repayment of their loans to him. His friends? The rule of “I don’t have to because someone else will”? Or, “Not right now, it’s not a good time…later”?
This is a cynical hopeless play in which the choice is “Timon’s extravagant imprudence” or a “dog-eat-dog world of untrammeled self-interest.” In Marxist Shakespeares Scott Cutler Shershow writes further that “Shakespeare simply cannot imagine any realistic social model beyond these two alternatives, and since the play deplores both it has absolutely nowhere to go” (page 260).
Maybe not. But does it have to? We know what happens because we have four hundred years on Shakespeare. We know the aristocracy lost and the bourgeoisie won, what’s amazing is that Shakespeare so accurately describes this happening. Of course we say down with the aristocracy (as many of us more or less say down with the bourgeoisie today). In the historical perspective it was inevitable and desirable that the system of generosity based on non-production should give way to a market economy, just as it is necessary today for the market economy to give way to an economic system based on need, equality and ecological soundness. Sooner rather than later, if we are to survive.
But still, caught in this historical process, Timon doesn’t have a chance. It’s a fine line between love and hate. Or more accurately, when one’s entire essence is based on a lie that is exposed in the harsh glare of reality, hate can quickly, fiercely and completely replace love.
It does, so magnificently in Timon of Athens.
- The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition. 2008.
- Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare – the Invention of the Human. 1998.
- Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosphic Manuscripts of 1844. “The Power of Money”.
- Shershow, Scott Cutler. “Shakespeare Beyond Shakespeare” in Marxist Shakespeares. Jean E. Howard and Scott Cutler Shershow, editors. 2001.
- Stanton, Kay. “Use of the Word Whore in Shakespeare’s Canon” in A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare. Dympna Callaghan, editor. 2001.
- BBC, 1981. Directed by Jonathan Miller. Cast: Timon – Jonathan Pryce; Alcibiades – John Shrapnel; Apemantus – Norman Rodway; Flavius – John Welsh; Timandra – Diana Dors; Poet – John Fortune; Painter – John Bird. A competent production with competent actors. It’s a difficult play but this clarifies it and brings it alive.
Seen on stage: no.