Monday, May 6, 2013

Michael5000 vs. Shakespeare: Timon of Athens (New Cambridge, 2001)

A version of this post was published on my now-defunct blog "Renaissance Man" on February 7 and 14, 2010.

The Play: Timon of Athens (Very possibly 1607 or 1608)
The Edition: The New Cambridge Shakespeare, Edited by Karl Klein, 2001.

The Plot: These were notes on the action written scene by scene as I read the play.  There are plenty of spoilers.  If you are a college student looking for a shortcut around the bothersome learning process, these will be great, because they are unpolished enough that your professor won't be able to tell that you copped them from the internet.


Scene 1: I am quite frankly confused by the opening of the play, a dialog between a Poet and a Painter among a few other artisans. I have no doubt that their conversation must constitute Important Commentary about what is to come, but it is difficult going for this lay reader. I'm not 100% sure what they're talking about, even after extensive recourse to the footnotes.

The reading gets much easier when Timon shows up. He is a person of some wealth or authority, and immediately begins a virtuoso show of being a good guy. He gives money to a guy who's been imprisoned for debt, makes a problematic marriage arrangement go away by throwing money at it, and implies to the artisans we met at the beginning that he will buy their wares.

Then Apemantus shows up. He is a big grouch, and in this scene mostly goes around insulting everybody.  Alcibiades, a military captain, shows up, and Apemantus insults him too.

Scene 2: A big banquet is held! Various lords all tell Timon how great he is, but Apemantus has snuck in and continues being a jackass. Timon lets him stay, but he has to sit at a table by himself. From this perch, he keeps up a running commentary about how Timon is just a big naive oaf, who is being used by the untrustworthy flatterers around him.

Some dancing girls come in and provide entertainment. Afterwards, Timon gives away a valuable jewel, and then receives some gifts -- horses and hounds -- but makes clear that he intends to give as well as he gets. Everything seems grand until Flavius, Timon's steward, frets in an aside that He command us to provide, and give great gifts, And all out of an empty coffer. It appears that Timon might have a bit of a cash-flow problem in the works; maybe Apemantus knows something we don't.


Scene 1: Uh-oh. A Senator notes that Timon is deeply leveraged in high risk mortgage-based securities, and... wait, no. But he notes that Timon is determined to outgift everyone in Athens; If I want gold, steal but a beggar's dog And give it Timon, why, the dog coins gold. This behavior is disturbing to the Senator because Timon owes him money, and he instructs his servant to go call in this debt.

Scene 2: The Senator's servant shows up at Timon's house, to find that two other servants of high-ranking Athenians are there on the same errand. They badger Timon as he's trying to go to dinner with some friends, but Flavius gets them to at least wait until after dinner. While they wait, Apemantus wanders by with a "Fool," and there is some verbal sparring.

In what you might expect to be a scene 3, Flavius finally gets Timon to hear what he's been trying to tell him for month: he's broke. Flavius gets great speeches as he protests that he's been as good as a steward as possible under the circumstances, and that Timon has just refused to listen to him.

"Don't be so glum," Timon eventually says (not an actual quote). "I've been very generous to all my friends, now I'm sure they'll be generous to me." He dispatches various servants out to ask for loans. Flavius is skeptical; he has already tried to get loans from these guys, and was stonewalled. Timon begins to worry.


Scene 1: One of Timon's servants calls on Lucullus, who is initially excited by the prospect of a gift. When he realizes that Timon needs to loan money, he tells the servant that this is out of the question, and Timon should have known better than to get in debt in the first place. He offers the servant a tip to pretend that he never saw him, but the servant is loyal and throws the money back at him.

Scene 2: Lucius is chatting with some strangers about how shamefully Timon has been treated when, inconveniently, another of Timon's servants comes up to ask for a loan. Oh, there's no way I could do that, he says. I'm totally strapped! The strangers remark on Lucius' bad behavior, and say that they would never treat a friend so shabbily, if they were ever in such a position.

Scene 3: This time it's Sempronius. He complains that Timon is coming to beg of HIM, of all people, when there are so many other people he could have asked. The servant tells him that all of those people have already been asked, and they all turned Timon down. Sempronius is now offended that Timon, whom he always thought was his friend, asked all of those other people before he turned to him. This offends him so much, in fact, that he can not in good conscience loan Timon the money.

Scene 4: A bunch of creditors slouch outside Timon's house. They see Flavius the steward leaving, but he's actually resigning his post -- Timon has nothing left to steward. Timon finally comes out, raging and raving a little, and hot words are exchanged. He runs off.

Somewhere -- back at Timon's house? in the street? -- Timon and Flavius run into each other. Timon accepts Flavius' loyalty, and instructs him to invite all of the no-good friends to one last feast. Flavius points out that there's nothing left to feast on, and Timon tells him not to worry about it, just invite them for the feast.

One half expects him to do a Titus at this point, but I bet he won't.

Scene 5: Out of the blue, we have Alcibiades at the Senate, where the Senators have just concurred on the death sentence for... whom? we're not really told, as far as I can tell. Alcibiades vigorously pleads on, um, the defendant's behalf, but the Senators are resolute. Alcie is angry to be dismissed, and sasses the Senators. In response, they banish him from Athens. They leave, and he vows to go gather his army and march on the city.

Scene 6: Timon's pals gather for his last feast, making hypocritical conversation about why they couldn't help him. He shows up, acts magnanimous, and calls them to the table. He says a Grace that is increasingly vindictive, then -- with the line Uncover, dogs, and lap -- reveals that the meal is actually dishes of warm water. He yells at the guests a little, splashing them with the water and chasing them out of the room. Then he curses the city and runs off. In a scene that could be played nicely as comedy, but probably isn't meant as such, the lords come back in and look for the hats and coats they left behind in the rush, and exchange thoughts to the effect of "whoa, that was weird."


Scene 1: Outside of town, Timon lays a forty-line curse on Athens.

Scene 2: Flavius the Steward commiserates with the rest of Timon's household -- they all thought he was a great boss -- and then they go their separate ways. Flavius heads off to see if he can find Timon.

Scene 3: Timon, embracing his new life-style, digs for roots to eat, but instead hits what turns out to be quite a bit of gold. Then Alcibiades shows up with his posse and a few girlfriends. Timon is horrid to all of them, in particular abusing the girlfriends as prostitutes -- clearly, he is feeling a hangover from years of purchasing the affection of his friends. He gives them a lot of money, because they are going to go kill Athenians. (Timon is, as far as I can tell, pretty much off his nut by this point.)

Apemantus happens by. He suggests that Timon could get back into the social game by flattering others, just as they flattered him. Timon is horrid to him too, and they bluster back and forth for a long while before Apemantus runs off.

Then some bandits come by, looking for Timon's gold. All but frothing at the mouth, now, he gives them gold to encourage them to go plunder and murder in Athens; H'as almost charmed me from my profession, by persuading me to it, remarks one of the bandits.

Flavius the Steward shows up next -- I love a parade -- and in a highly noble fashion offers to share his former master's life of poverty. Timon is slightly less horrid to him, offering him some money to go live rich and happy, but only on the condition that he agree to Hate all, curse all, show charity to none, But let the famished flash slide from the bone Ere thou relieve the beggar.


Scene 1: The parade continues -- scene divisions seem really arbitrary in this play -- and the painter and poet (remember them, from the trippy beginning?) show up, hearing rumors that Timon has gold again. They don't have any completed work to sell, but they hope to get an advance; however, Timon overhears them planning this, and mocks them before tossing them out on their ears.

Now, Flavius comes back with a couple of Senators. With Alcibiades marching on the city, the Senators have come to implore Timon back to govern the city; however, they are likely thinking of the civil, benevolent Timon of yesterday, not the barking mad hermit he has quickly become. He abuses them for a while, and tells them that he hopes Alcibiades kills them all. Then he relents, and offers a "kindness," which is actually the best line in the play and an indicator of just how, shall we say, disappointed in his former society Timon has become.
I have a tree, which grows here in my close,
That mine own use invites me to cut down,
And shortly must I fell it: tell my friends,
Tell Athens, in the sequence of degree
From high to low throughout, that whoso please
To stop affliction, let him take his haste,
Come hither, ere my tree hath felt the axe,
And hang himself. I pray you, do my greeting.
Scene 2: A throwaway scene -- the two Senators from the last scene meet two other Senators, and tell them that Timon won't be any help.

Scene 3: A soldier discovers Timon's grave. (Grave? He died?  Who buried him?) He can't read the whole inscription on the monument (monument?), but takes a wax impression so that Alcibiades can read it with great gravitas in Scene 4.

Scene 4: Alcibiades prepares to sack Athens. But then there is a lengthy conversation with several Senators who... talk him out of it. No, really! They agree that the troops can enter the city, but have to stay in quarters, and the towns laws will all remain exactly the same. This surprising agreement having been reached, a messenger brings the wax pressing from Scene 3 in, and Alcibiades closes the play with a far-fetched speech about how Timon's fate clearly suggests that peace is good, but war is important too, or something.

Prognosis: Heavens, it isn't exactly Hamlet, is it. This is a play with some real problems:

  • Plot. Overly generous man is betrayed by his friends, goes nuts. Where's the drama?
  • Plausibility. He digs for roots and hits a cache of gold? Oh come on. It might be forgivable if it threw things into the realm of the allegorical, but I don't see that it does.
  • For the "Good Man Lain Low" plot to work... you've got to have a good man. Timon's clearly a nice guy, but he's also clearly an idiot. He spends the front third of the play digging himself an awfully deep hole, so it's hard to see the perversity of humankind when he falls into it.
  • Alcibiades. Why is he hanging out with Timon early on? Who is the friend about whom he is arguing with the Senators?
  • Apemantus. Who is he? What's he up to?
  • Pacing. The back third of the play is a long series of visits to a hermit in the woods, one after another, in which he is unpleasant and uncivil, peevish and a bit unhinged, to all. It's kind of hard to see how actors would make this long stretch interesting.  (Here in 2013, I've softened on this point.  I bet a good actor could have a field day with mad Timon.  But he'd have to be really damn good.)

There's an obvious parallel to King Lear in the plot of a man let down and laid low, and a Titus Andronicus aspect to Timon's angry madness. The weird opening might be compared to the opening of MacBeth, I suppose. Timon is nowhere as good as these plays, though. Which reminds me:

  • Opening. The opening scene is frankly weird, very difficult to read and pretty tangential to everything else that happens.
  • Ending. The ending is not satisfying, plausible, or a natural outgrowth of what has come before.

There is a short list of positives. The satire of how people avoid duties of charity hits home pretty nicely, and the feast of warm water is a nice touch. And, and... um... that bit about how the Athenians can use his tree to hang themselves, if they hurry, is a nice malicious touch. That's about it.

Apparently -- I haven't read much of the critical material yet ("yet"?  That hasn't changed in the last three years) -- there's a theory that this is an unfinished work, or a draft. There's no evidence that it was performed while the Big Guy was alive. Some people think it might have been a work in progress when he died, and others think maybe he gave up on it as being too much like King Lear. The idea that it's unfinished makes intuitive sense to me -- I feel like ~I~ could clean it up by cutting a few superfluous scenes and characters and dividing the scenes properly, and that Shakespeare certainly could have beefed it up with a subplot, an opening, a conclusion, and all those things that make for a good play. As it stands, it definitely deserves its ranking as among Shakespeare's most obscure work.

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