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Timon of Athens /

A Modern Perspective: Timon of Athens

By Coppélia Kahn

Timon of Athens is a curious play.1 Many scholars have regarded it as unfinished, or at least unpolished, and some think Shakespeare wrote it in collaboration with Thomas Middleton, even though it shares themes and images with Shakespeare’s King Lear. There is no contemporary mention of it, and we don’t know if it was performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Until the last twenty years or so, few scholars gave it much attention, and it was seldom performed. Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, it doesn’t fit neatly into a single generic category: some critics argue that its vituperative hero’s harsh assessment of human nature brings it closer to satire than to tragedy. Its structure, moreover, is strikingly bipolar: Timon’s lavish, frenetic displays of generosity and declarations of altruistic love in the first three acts stand in mordant contrast to his hatred of all humankind and withdrawal from society in the final two. Most mysterious of all, perhaps, is the hero’s character: should we see him as a wastrel who perversely brings on his own ruin, or as a noble idealist whose downfall accords him insight into fundamental human failings?

Recently, though, important changes in literary criticism have opened new windows onto Timon. Intense interest in early modern social practices and behaviors as the matrix rather than merely the context or background of literary production has enabled critics to posit a certain logic underlying Timon’s obsessive generosity and subsequent misanthropy, a logic both social and emotional. In addition, Shakespeare criticism has rejected the narrow, time-bound standards by which it formerly judged certain works to be “bad” Shakespeare or even not Shakespeare at all. Finally, the play’s perspective on the power of money to configure—perhaps to determine—human relations resonates with a twenty-first-century sense of capitalism and credit finance as global forces that can create or destroy social stability. In this era of junk bonds, leveraged buyouts, and credit card debt, Timon has something to say to us.

The play begins as those who seek Timon’s favor gather for an opulent banquet at his house. The Poet, describing the work he will offer to Timon, presents the play’s central fable in a vision that describes Timon’s rise and, in effect, predicts his fall (1.1.51–110). The goddess Fortune, a colossal, maternal presence, is portrayed as if from an infant’s or child’s perspective, a “sovereign lady” looming above the mass of men who “labor . . . / To propagate their states” on her bosom. She singles out one man for her favors while “translat[ing] his rivals” to “slaves and servants”; he then takes her place, her worshippers now becoming his dependents, who “through him / Drink the free air.” In the play’s early scenes, Timon’s bounty is similarly grandiose and magical: he acts as though his wealth cannot be depleted, needs no replenishment, and has no limits. In the final movement of the Poet’s description, however, “Fortune in her shift and change of mood / Spurns down her late beloved,” while his dependents rise above him, “[t]he foot above the head.” Similarly, Timon will experience the loss of his fortune (about which his steward Flavius often warns him) and of the friends he wins through lavish gifts and hospitality (whose hypocrisy the Cynic philosopher Apemantus frequently points out) as a sudden, brutal, and unmerited betrayal that transforms his world.

Upon his entrance, Timon frees a debtor from prison and confers on a servingman a fortune and the bride he seeks, as easily as Fortune wafts her hand. As Flavius remarks, “Who is not Timon’s?” (2.2.186): all flock to him, hang on him, fix their hopes on his generosity. But his openhandedness has another side, revealed when he rejects any attempt to reciprocate his gifts, declaring that “there’s none / Can truly say he gives if he receives” (1.2.11–12). Timon will brook no competitors in philanthropy: he demands that he stay on top, the phoenix of generosity in Athens, his lavishness holding all comers in awe. Thus he treats gifts not as a medium of exchange but rather as tokens in a competition for prestige, as though he is engaged in a perpetual potlatch. Yet at the same time, he thinks of his gifts as creating “true friendship” (1.2.19) that makes donor and recipient “brothers” who command each other’s fortunes (1.2.107–8). At his banquet, he delivers a long paean to friendship (1.2.90–110) in which he explains its quasi-fraternal bonds first as based on mutual help (“I shall have much help from you. How had you been my friends else?”), then on mutual need (“what need we have any friends if we should ne’er have need of ’em?”). He concludes with the idea that friends “were the most needless creatures living, should we ne’er have use for ’em.” This modulation from “help” to “need” to “use” suggests an increasingly prominent element of self-interest at odds with the frankly sentimental tone of the speech, which Timon finishes in tears.

In Shakespeare’s time, use was a virtual synonym for usury, widely practiced but also widely condemned as unethical. Thus Timon’s paean evokes two conflicting registers of social exchange coexisting at the same cultural moment. Timon first describes an ethos of nobly disinterested friendship, represented for the Renaissance in the writings of Cicero and Seneca and characterized by informal reciprocity among peers. Then the speech slides toward the discourse of usury, profit-oriented and based on legal contracts that turned friends into creditors and debtors with fixed obligations who were liable to penalties for forfeit. Cicero’s De Amicitia explicitly states that in friendship, we “indeed make no usury of our pleasures . . . because all the fruit thereof resteth in very love [it]self.”2 In fact, friendship and usury are in conflict from the very first scene, where a lord describes gifts to Timon as money lent at interest, repaid with profit when Timon reciprocates with gifts of larger value: “No gift to him / But breeds the giver a return exceeding / All use of quittance” (1.1.313–15). Later, a senator, preparing to call in his loans to Timon because the senator sees the great man’s credit beginning to fail, refers to the gifts he made Timon as investments: “If I want gold, steal but a beggar’s dog / And give it Timon, why, the dog coins gold” (2.1.5–6). Timon’s friends, then, are making “use” of him all along as a sort of investment banker, while he, captive to a fantasy of magical bounty—endless supply, endless outgo—that removes him from the realm of need, remains oblivious to their practices. As the churlish Apemantus aptly remarks at the opening banquet, “[W]hat a number of men eats Timon, and he sees ’em not!” (1.2.40–41).

What we see as a conflict between altruistic friendship and making loans for profit might have been understood in Shakespeare’s day in the somewhat (but not completely) different terms of royal patronage. The Tudor dynasty, beginning with Elizabeth’s grandfather Henry VII, centralized power in the sovereign, but had no paid bureaucracy to run the state and no standing army to defend it. Like her forebears, Elizabeth used gifts to entice talented nobles and gentry into serving her government, and James followed the same custom. By handing out titles that conferred prestige on the holder, paid offices ranging from embassies to clerkships, landed estates, lucrative financial favors such as monopolies and leases, and presents such as money or jewels, the monarch created a governing class to do his or her bidding, while confirming the loyalties of that class. There were costs, however, on both sides. Those seeking such favors had to attend the sovereign at court and maintain a costly, ostentatious style of life that usually entailed going into debt; on their side, Elizabeth and James had to support the expensive “magnificence”—a combination of display and hospitality—traditionally expected of monarchs while keeping up the flow of gifts to courtiers on which the social order depended. In the process, Elizabeth and James also went into debt—ironically, like Timon, often to the same courtiers to whom they had dispensed patronage. As in Shakespeare’s play, this system was predicated on a fiction: that the giver, whether monarch or courtier, gave “freely,” expecting no return. (We might compare such practices to today’s ongoing controversy in the United States about the implicit connections between large donations to presidential campaigns and invitations to White House social events, or positions bestowed by successful candidates on campaign supporters.)

Though Elizabeth maintained her court in the style expected of her, she was notoriously sparing in patronage. James, in contrast, resembled Timon in his compulsive need to give freely without regard to the actual contents of his treasury. Between 1603 and 1625, he gave the peerage alone more than one million pounds in lands and rents, while keeping a far more lavish court than Elizabeth had; as a result, he went deeply into debt. Numerous letters and contemporary accounts document not only the magnitude of his gifts but also, Timon-like, his failure to heed frequent warnings of the consequences. When Parliament debated whether to grant James a yearly subsidy of £200,000 to resolve his financial crisis, one member urged the House of Commons not “to draw a silver stream out of the country into the royal cistern.” This metaphor resembles Flavius’s imagery of “drunken spilth” and riotous flow. Because Shakespeare wrote Timon of Athens during the period in which the king’s finances became an urgent public issue known to a fairly wide audience (1605–10), it is possible that Shakespeare’s portrait of a man who literally gives away his fortune was inspired or at least influenced by the improvident James.3 Yet the play’s relevance to its times need not depend on seeing Timon’s bounty as resembling James’s, for lending money at interest was then a widespread and well-established practice despite religious prohibitions. Not just the wealthy and well-born but also ordinary people who had saved a little money might loan it at interest to friends and neighbors in order to eke out a slender income, and it is easy to imagine a confusion between friendship and usury resembling that which is dramatized in the play. Timon gave as a friend and expects to borrow as a friend, but when his money finally gives out, his “friends” treat him like any debtor—bound not by ties of love but by the conditions of a legal contract—and he is ruined.

Women are conspicuously absent from Timon’s reception rooms, except for the virtually wordless “Ladies as Amazons” who dance in the masque of the first act, and the only women Timon encounters in the wilderness are Alcibiades’ concubines (4.3). Athenian society seems to be purely homosocial; that is, it consists only of male social equals who imitate and emulate one another. But in another sense, the action as a whole is driven by a fantasy of woman: specifically, the fickle woman Fortune who arbitrarily rewards, then spurns, her suitors. At least that is Timon’s point of view. Thus the structures of desire in this play skirt the problematics of sexual desire and sexual difference. The one difference that matters is enjoying Fortune’s maternal—and material—bounty or being deprived of it: identification with the mother as opposed to alienation from her, both of which are projected onto the entire dramatic landscape. Timon acts out the difference between the two in an anti-banquet he stages after his ruin (3.6). At first he plays the bountiful host as always, welcoming his guests effusively. Once they are seated, however, he delivers a caustic grace, praying “For these my present friends, as they are to me nothing, so in nothing bless them, and to nothing are they welcome,” then with a flourish invites them to eat: “Uncover, dogs, and lap” (83–87). The elegant dishes hold nothing but stones and warm water, which he throws in their faces. Thus Fortune’s bounty is replaced by nothingness, and Timon abandons all-embracing love for totalizing hatred.

Yet no sooner has he stepped outside the city walls into the wilderness than he rhetorically re-creates Athenian society through a sequence of scathing apostrophes (4.1, 4.3). In this figure of speech, the speaker addresses a dead, absent, or inanimate being who is thereby animated and made present.4 Apostrophe in Timon dramatizes what one might call the central polarity of the play: altruistic fusion of the ego with the other as opposed to egocentric negation of the other. Timon’s first apostrophe calls on social types emblematic of Athenian society: on matrons, slaves and fools, bankrupts and bound servants (4.1.1–12); then on values, such as piety and fear or customs and laws, that Athens has flaunted (15–21); and finally on the plagues, fevers, lust, and liberty (21–30) that he hopes will destroy the city. He thus animates Athens only as a mode of obliterating it, just as he gave only to prevent others from reciprocating so that he might stand alone. As Karen Newman remarks, in these apostrophes “Timon’s impossible imperatives pre-empt the place of the you in the I/Thou structure of direct address and thereby enact what the lines demand—the annihilation of the you, the Athenians whom Timon so abhors.”5

Having verbally annihilated Athens, in a pastoral gesture Timon turns to the earth for primitive sustenance uncorrupted by humanity: he digs for roots. Ironically, he finds gold instead. Addressing the earth in a final apostrophe as “Thou common whore of mankind,” he vows to use the all-corrupting metal not to obliterate Athens but rather to turn it upside down, making “Black white, foul fair, wrong right,” in effect replicating the reversal he suffered at Fortune’s hands (4.3.1–49). For Timon, there is no escape from the core fantasy of an all-powerful woman whose bounty is equaled only by her treachery, a woman who can give, take away, and give again.

Timon’s exile is dramatized through a series of conversations with characters similarly excluded from or disappointed by society: the banished general Alcibiades and the Cynic philosopher Apemantus, followed by bandits who have heard rumors that Timon still has gold, and, finally, his faithful steward Flavius. Alcibiades remains a sketchy character, and the subplot centering on him, which might have helped articulate the play’s stark polarities, is too rough and undeveloped to serve that purpose. His brief appearance in the first act sets him apart from pleasure-seeking Athens as a soldier happier at a battle than a banquet. He reappears much later (3.5), pleading with senators to spare the life of an unnamed friend condemned to death for murder. First relying on strained and unconvincing arguments for leniency, he then turns to his own merits, urging the senators to spare his friend because he himself has served the state in war.

The scene works mainly to establish a parallel between Timon and Alcibiades: both turn against Athens in the belief that, given over to the pursuit of profit and luxury, it has rewarded their conspicuous virtue only with meanness. Shakespeare seems to aim at a certain critique of Timon’s extremism, however, when Alcibiades, having brought Athens to its knees, relents. Whereas Timon refuses to allow even Flavius’s loyalty and love to soften his misanthropy, the general is persuaded by arguments that “All have not offended. . . . Crimes, like lands, / Are not inherited” (5.4.41–44). He agrees to punish only Timon’s enemies and his own, in contrast to Timon’s hatred of “the whole race of mankind, high and low” (4.1.40). Unfortunately, Alcibiades’ gesture comes too late and is too summary to compete in dramatic impact with the bite and swing of Timon’s unrelenting negativity.

Timon’s peppery dialogue with Apemantus also seems intended to deepen the rationale underlying the hero’s misanthropy. The Cynic philosopher, characteristically skeptical, at first charges “Thou dost affect my manners and dost use them” (4.3.225). He thinks Timon’s transformation amounts only to sour grapes (“Thou ’dst courtier be again / Wert thou not beggar” [274–75]) and lacks the coherence of his own comprehensive critique of society. Timon counters that he had the world as his “confectionary” and lost it in an instant, a much greater moral shock than Apemantus’s long-term alienation. “Why shouldst thou hate men? / They never flattered thee,” he asks (294, 304–6). This exchange degenerates, however, into a slinging match, which ends in rhetorical collapse (“A plague on thee! Thou art too bad to curse,” declares Apemantus [403]). Actually, from the moment Timon turned his back on Athens, he began to sound like Apemantus, anatomizing human greed and hypocrisy in scathing catalogues and often using the philosopher’s favorite epithet, “dog.”

In misanthropy as in what he called friendship, Timon has no intimate relations with others: he dies as solitary as he lived. And yet the curious circumstances of his death (he sets up his own tomb and apparently buries himself) suggest another dimension of his isolation. Timon is Shakespeare’s last narcissist: his predecessors are the young man of the sonnets and the hero of the early narrative poem Venus and Adonis. The young man of the sonnets, who prefers “traffic with [him]self alone,” would consume himself in single life (sonnet 4), becoming “the tomb of his self-love” (sonnet 3). Timon’s tomb, described four times and then shown onstage, is located “upon the very hem o’ th’ sea” (5.4.77). Its meaning and poetic appeal derive from its site, as Timon describes it, “Upon the beachèd verge of the salt flood, / Who once a day with his embossèd froth / The turbulent surge shall cover” (5.1.248–50). Here Shakespeare envisions for Timon a quasi-maternal embrace, as the ocean sweeps over him daily. The impersonal but rhythmically repeated caress of the sea recalls Venus perpetually embracing Adonis, who has been metamorphosed into a flower that she places in her bosom: “My throbbing heart shall rock thee day and night,” she says; “There shall not be one minute in an hour / Wherein I will not kiss my sweet love’s flow’r” (1186–88).

Timon parallels King Lear in its theme of ingratitude and in its hero’s rages against the hypocrisy and selfishness of mankind. However, Timon focuses not on the intensity and intimacy of family ties, as Lear does, but rather on the paradox of the narcissist, who withdraws from others to an imaginary realm of the self in search of the kind of boundless, constant love that he has failed to find in the world, a love that can exist only in the womb before the separation of self from world. Timon’s stony, solitary tomb suggests his emotional isolation, whether as paragon of generosity in Athens or misanthrope in the wilderness, while the sea foam washing over it daily evokes a fusion of self with other—like the fusion Timon sought through giving—that can be imaged in mother and child but never realized in life.

  1. Parts of this introduction have been adapted from my essay “ ‘Magic of bounty’: Timon of Athens, Jacobean Patronage, and Maternal Power,” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 34–57.
  2. M. Tullius Cicero, De Amicitia, trans. John Harington (1550), in John Harington of Stepney, Tudor Gentleman: His Life and Works, ed. Ruth Hughey (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971), pp. 164, 172.
  3. See David Bevington and David L. Smith, “James I and Timon of Athens,” Comparative Drama 33 (1999): 56–87.
  4. See Karen Newman, “Cultural Capital’s Gold Standard: Shakespeare and the Critical Apostrophe in Renaissance Studies,” in Discontinuities: New Essays on Renaissance Literature and Criticism, ed. Viviana Comensoli and Paul Stevens (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), pp. 96–113.
  5. Newman, “Cultural Capital’s Gold Standard,” p. 105.