Shakespeare’s Rich Satire: Timon of Athens
As I finish reading Timon of Athens, I find myself in conundrum. Every list I’ve read includes the play among Shakespeare’s tragedies. But it didn’t feel tragic, because I never felt Timon was a real person. He felt more like a character created to embody the play’s message, overplaying his flip from naively generous patron and friend to cynic and humankind hater. I felt no sorrow at his death as it seemed an inevitable conclusion to the play’s theme and his role in it. From where I read it, Timon of Athens (both the play and the character) is satirical, comic, sarcastic, cynical, ironical and surprisingly entertaining. (Can I include all those attributes in one sentence?)
As the play begins, Timon of Athens, with his generous nature, is friend to everyone: the needy, the indebted, the powerful, the artistic. One exception to his love of mankind is the cynical and humankind hating philosopher Apemantus. In Timon’s excessive generosity, he unthinkingly spends his prosperity on others, till nothing is left. But the men he has treated so well forget his kindnesses and turn on him, demanding payment for money he owes. The generous-hearted Timon transforms at light speed into just another form of Apemantus, condemning all men (still including Apemantus) and exiling himself to the woods to live alone.
There the irony: Timon no-longer-of-Athens finds gold, enough to reestablish himself at the top of Athenian society. But he rejects the gold and society and is happy to rid himself of his new-found wealth by tossing it at or to anyone who passes nearby—army general and mistresses, thieves, poet and painter.
But Athens is under threat from attack, and it turns to Timon for succor because the attacking general is loyal to Timon. Timon rejects the city’s pleas vilely, and it falls.
Shakespeare wrote the words that capture the theme of Timon of Athens for me and put in the mouth of the poet who visits the self-exiled Timon offering—in hopes of a share of the gold—to write a poem that “must be a personating of ” [Timon]. It will be “satire against the softness of prosperity, with a discovery of the infinite flatteries that follow youth and opulency.”
It’s the gnat principle. Gnats of the sort found in Virginia, swarm around any human head they can find (animals, too). Wealth and influence likewise attracts other men and women. In hope of benefiting from that wealth and influence, they swarm like gnats about whoever possesses it. As with Timon, when the wealth, influence or prominence fail, the swarms of humans disappear.
What can I do for my fellow seems much harder to think and act on, than the opposite: what can I gain from my fellow.
Quotes I like (for various reasons) from Timon of Athens:
Poet: When we for recompense have prais’d the vile, it stains the glory in that happy verse which aptly sings the good.
Poet: His large fortune, upon his good and gracious nature hanging, subdues and properties to his love and tenderance all sorts of hearts
Poet: All those which were his fellows but of late,—Some better than his value,—on the moment follow his strides, his lobbies fill with tendance, rain sacrificial whisperings in his ear, make sacred even his stirrup, and through him drink the free air.
Poet: When Fortune, in her shift and change of mood, spurns down her late belov’d, all his dependents, which labour’d after him to the mountain’s top, even on their knees and hands, let him slip down, not one accompanying his declining foot.
Apemantus: He that loves to be flattered is worthy o’ the flatterer.
1st Lord: What time o’ day is’t, Apemantus? Apemantus: Time to be honest.
Timon: There’s none can truly say he gives if he receives
Apemantus: It grieves me to see so many dip their meat in one man’s blood; and all the madness is, he cheers them up too. I wonder men dare trust themselves with men: Methinks they should invite them without knives; good for their meat and safer for their lives.
Apemantus: The fellow that sits next him now, parts bread with him, pledges the breadth of him in a divided draught, is the readiest man to kill him: ‘t has been prov’d.
Timon: What need we have any friends if we should ne’er have need of ’em? They were the most needless creatures living, should we ne’er have use for ’em; and would most resemble sweet instruments hung up in cases, that keep their sounds to themselves.
Timon: We are born to do benefits: and what better or properer can we call our own than the riches of our friends?
Apemantus: Like madness is the glory of this life.
Apemantus: I, should fear those that dance before me now would one day stamp upon me: ‘t has been done; men shut their doors against a setting sun.
Timon: Methinks I could deal kingdoms to my friends, and ne’er be weary.
Apemantus: I’ll nothing, for if I should be bribed too, there would be none left to rail upon thee; and then thou wouldst sin the faster. Thou givest so long, Timon, I fear me thou wilt give away thyself in paper shortly: what need these feasts, pomps, and vain glories?
Flavius: When the means are gone that buy this praise the breath is gone whereof this praise is made: Feast-won, fast-lost
Timon: Unwisely, not ignobly, have I given.
1 Stranger: O See the monstrousness of man when he looks out in an ungrateful shape!
2nd Servant of Varro: Who can speak broader than he that has no house to put his head in? Such may rail against great buildings.
1st Senator: He’s truly valiant that can wisely suffer the worst that man can breathe; and make his wrongs his outsides,—to wear them like his raiment carelessly; and ne’er prefer his injuries to his heart, to bring it into danger.
1st Senator: You cannot make gross sins look clear: to revenge is no valour, but to bear.
2nd Senator: He has a sin that often drowns him, and takes his valour prisoner: If there were no foes, that were enough to overcome him.
4th Lord: One day he gives us diamonds, next day stones.
Timon: Lust and liberty creep in the minds and marrows of our youth, that ‘gainst the stream of virtue they may strive and drown themselves in rot!
Flavius: We have seen better days.
Flavius: Who would not wish to be from wealth exempt since riches point to misery and contempt?
Flavius: Bounty, that makes gods, does still mar men.
Timon: Gold? Yellow glittering, precious gold? …Will make black, white; foul, fair; wrong, right; base, noble; old, young; coward, valiant. …[Gold] 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 accurs’d; make the hoar leprosy ador’d; 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.
Phrynia and Timandra: Believe ‘t, that we’ll do anything for gold.
Apemantus: Seek to thrive by that which has undone thee: hinge they knee, and let his very breath whom thou ‘lt observe blow off thy cap; praise his most vicious strain and call it excellent
Timon: I am sick of this false world; and will love naught but even the mere necessities upon ‘t.
1st Thief: We cannot live on grass, on berries, water, as beasts and birds and fishes. Timon: Nor on the beasts themselves, the birds, and fishes; you must eat men. Yet thanks I must you con, that you are thieves profess’d; that you work not in holier shapes; for there is boundless theft in limited professions.
Timon: The sun’s a thief, and with his great attraction robs the vast sea: the moon’s an arrant thief, and her pale fire she snatches from the sun: the sea’s a thief, whose liquid surge resolves the moon into salt tears: the earth’s a thief, that feeds and breeds by a composture stolen from general excrement; each thing’s a thief
Timon: Many so arrive at second masters upon their first lord’s neck.
1st Senator: Crimes, like lands, are not inherited.
Up Next: Coriolanus