Such Summer Birds Are Men

Timon of Athens, Act III: Scenes 1-6

I’m still reeling from the third act.

Though Timon of Athens doesn’t come up too often on lists of Shakespeare’s “must reads,” it gives me chills to report that the passage I have just finished contains some of the strongest and most pointed language I have ever encountered in my life.

Sure, you kinda expect breathtaking moments like that from Shakespeare. Because, you know, we’re only talking about the man considered to be the greatest playwrite of all time — if not the greatest writer ever.

Nevertheless, these are the revelatory moments for which a person takes on a project like this, crunching every word the man wrote (if, you know… um, whatever).  You never can tell when something in the woefully neglected “incidental” works will turn out to be profound.  I just didn’t plan on it happening in titles like Timon and The Winter’s Tale — which I guess proves the point.

It’s all Shakespeare. I get that. But where was the requirement — or suggestion —  in high school and college to behold the thunderous diatribe that Timon unleashes on his backstabbing creditors?

TIMON: May you a better feast never behold,

You knot of mouth-friends! Smoke and lukewarm water

Is your perfection. This is Timon’s last;

Who, stuck and spangled with your flatteries,

Washes it off and sprinkles in your faces.

[Throws the water in their faces.]

Your reeking villainy. Live loathed and long,

Most smiling, smooth, detested parasites,

Courteous destroyers , affable wolves, meek bears,

You fools of fortune, trencher-friends, time’s-flies,

Cap-and-knee slaves, vapors, and minute-jacks!

[I should memorize this in case CitiBank calls.]

I realize it’s not a fair comparison, but the scene that leapt into my head while reading this was the famous money-changer explosion in the New Testament, where Jesus recoils at the profanation occurring inside the temple — and goes off.

Now I know that the reading so far has seemed rather up in the air regarding Timon. He was profligate with his money, sure; but if over-generous, he always seemed to squander it for the sake of his friends or in kindness or to a good cause. He may be a bad manager of his personal finances, all would agree. But nobody can claim he’s a bad guy. If anything, he’s too good for his own good.

Let’s recap:

He wasn’t hoarding his wealth. He wasn’t lending it out at interest. He wasn’t gambling it away or whoring and drinking it into dissolution. He wasn’t investing it, either, for that matter. But he was circulating it, to put it mildly. This is one character who will not be visited by Marley or the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. (Though Scrooge may want a word or two with him.)

But Act Three did wake me up to the fact that Timon’s sins are small compared to the wretched hive of scum and villainy that Athens turns out to be.

How do we know this? It all becomes clear in the third-act subplot.

Holy Aristotelian Unities, Batman! Shakespeare is writing like a Hollywood A-lister, here, interjecting a CUT TO secondary story about Alcibiades’s banishment for defending a friend unjustly accused of murder.

Alcibiades runs against a stone wall no matter what argument he gives. Exasperated, he throws up his hands and says:

ALCIBIADES: In vain? His service done

At Lacedaemon and Byzantium

Were a sufficient briber for his life.

In other words, at least factor in that the man has nobly served his country. Balance the good with the bad and give him a fair shake.

Nope.

The First Senator’s words are so cold, so terse, so immoveable in this scene that you feel terribly on Alcibiades’s behalf. He’s doing all he can to restore some sense of justice.

But the answers he receives tell you everything:

You breathe in vain.

He dies.

We banish thee forever.

He shall be executed presently.

That’s it. Ipso facto nada in the line of human compassion coming from the Senators for either Alcibiades or the man he’s trying to save.

And here’s what’s so important about this within this play and beyond: when people put the letter of legality above the circumstances of human life… the state, its courts and its citizens become monstrous and mechanical self-interested survivalists as likely to turn the Messiah over for execution as the Pharisees once did.

Mind over heart. Pocketbook over flesh and blood. Friends becoming indistinguishable from flatterers because hey, it’s all about who’s on top at the end of the day. And the moment you’re not up, you’re down.

I knew that Timon was in a pickle, one that had a great deal to do with his own negligence. But I had no idea — none in a million years — that this would be his reaction.

Timon may be well on his way to becoming the oft-mentioned misanthrope in reference to this play. But I suggest that this third act be delved for a deeper sense of what Shakespeare might have intended for the work as a whole.

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One Response to “Such Summer Birds Are Men”

  1. Linda OReilly Says:

    Wow, Tigger dear, stellar analysis.
    Downright profound.

    All-humbled-out,
    Linda

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