September 26, 2012

Timon of Athens

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Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.

Shakespeare’s psychological insight in this play interests me more than some obvious parallels with what goes on in our political and religious discourse so I am going to stick to that and leave the cheap shots to someone else.   In the fourth act, Timon says “I am Misanthropos, and hate mankind.” (IV, iii)  This statement by definition also means that he hates himself.  At this point in the play, Timon is living in a cave and eating roots.

Here’s what got him to this bestial state:  When we first meet Timon he is a charming, personable, and generous lord who gets a rush out of being a benefactor to anyone who needs money.  He gives money to his friends and patronizes painters, poets, merchants and jewelers.  He entertains lavishly and his life is full of people.

In the second act, his own creditors come calling and Timon finally pays attention to his steward who has tried to tell him for years that he cannot give away his wealth in the careless way he likes to do.   Timon responds, “I am wealthy in my friends!”  He will ask them for help.

He sends out various servants to his “friends” whom he has supported and bailed out of trouble. The ensuing scenes read like a parable of Jesus except they are funny, which Jesus’ parables might actually have been before The Religious got a hold of them.  First of all, the servants take empty boxes which they expect Timon’s friends to fill with money but Timon’s friends at first all imagine the boxes contains gifts for them. When they realize that Timon is asking them for help, they fall all over themselves to make excuses.

The first friend says, “La, la, la, la. . .Many a time I have dined with him and come again to supper to purpose. . . him spend less. . . this is no time to lend money, especially upon bare friendship without security.”

The second friend smacks his head and says if Timon had only asked two hours earlier he would have some money for him but he has just invested it.

The third friend is outraged that he wasn’t asked first of all and if that’s all that Timon thinks of him he can find someone else to beg from.

Timon is shocked and infuriated at this.  When he calms down he invites all his friends to a feast.  They are a little wary but convince themselves that he has somehow recovered his fortune and the gravy train is about to pull into the station again.  However, the dinner turns out to be bowls of water with stones in them.  While Timon berates his guests he throws their “dinner” at them and drives them out of the house.  He goes off to live in a cave and snarl at everyone who comes to visit.  Then he dies.

This is a stripped down version of things.  There are a few men who love Timon and don’t desert him though he does abandon them.  There’s a cynical philosopher who doesn’t quite rise to the wisdom of a fool, but who has some funny lines.  The only women are a couple of bawds, which is a word I needed to get familiar with when I began reading these plays.

Timon did not become a misanthrope as a result of his friends’ rejection of him.  He already was one and for much the same reason that Coriolanus was.  Neither man allows himself to feel human because neither man allows himself to be vulnerable.  To be vulnerable means one is an ordinary human being who needs other ordinary human beings.  When we’re the rich guy on top or the one who has “more self-awareness” or who thinks she is in a position to label others as “dysfunctional,” or “sinful,” it can be a long, long fall from the pinnacle to mere humanity where we’re all in this together and we all are dysfunctional, sinful and lack self-awareness.

The outrage when one falls from the pedestal is not so much that one isn’t getting what he asked for, but that he feels exposed in his humanness, his vulnerability and his need for forgiveness.  .  . just like everyone else.  It’s not as though everyone around Timon didn’t already know he was a human being, but in the game of superiority, you only have to fool one person.  Timon’s tragedy is that he died without this awareness.

Here are lines I liked:

*Tis not enough to help the feeble up,

But to support him after. (I, i)


Why this is the world’s soul and just of the same piece

Is every flatterers’ spirit. Who can call him

His friend that dips in the same dish? (III, ii)


*Nothing emboldens sin so much as mercy. (III, v)


*We have seen better days. (IV, ii)


*Life’s uncertain voyage. (V, i)




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