Each Thing’s a Thief

Timon of Athens, Act IV: Scenes 1-3

I wish I were reading this fourth act in grad school, because it lends itself to great discussion. Not content to dismiss poor Timon to his cave in a fit of laughable (or lamentable) madness, Shakespeare instead (ouch, I hate to use the following word, so please pardon) “problematizes” the very nature of misanthropy by presenting him a series of challenges to his worldview.

Like five temptations they come, to test Timon in his current loathing of humankind:

  • 1st: While digging for edible roots, he discovers a trove of gold instead. Though you would think this might cheer Timon up (“Hey, I can get all my old stuff back!”) he surprisingly views this discovery as merely a variation of the diseases that plague human life. More on this later.
  • 2nd: Alcibiades swings by on his way to kick Athens’s ass, bringing along two of his mistresses for the show. Alcibiades feels for Timon, though Timon feels nothing for him. The women are appalled by Timon’s state of wretchedness, but he merely tosses them gold and bids them do their whoring best to bring Athens low.
  • 3rd: Apemantus appears, and herein the most fascinating discussion of the lot. Shakespeare must love the irony of these two characters now facing each other at reverse ends of the spectrum. Or rather, Apemantus hasn’t moved whatsoever. It’s Timon whose circumstances have swung to the polar opposite side.
  • 4th: A small band of thieves appears in search of the rumored gold (doesn’t take long, does it?). There’s a great deal of unexpected humor here, as Timon gladly gives them what he has and bids them success in their future thievery. One of them says: “Has almost charmed me from my profession by persuading me to it,” a line I can hear Johnny Depp or one of the Pirates of the Caribbean delivering.
  • 5th: Finally, Flavius. Timon’s trusty steward shows up to tend to his decaying master. Loyal to a fault, Flavius finds himself having to justify even that with the ol’ man who’s clearly losing it. Timon bids him take the gold and make a merry life of it. But for his part, Timon no longer believes that money can buy happiness, but that the very premise of life is flawed.

Now we come to the part about the discussion I wish we could have. For all of these arguments and counterarguments beg for a corner table at Starbucks.

If I could pass out bluebooks, here is what I would offer you by way of essay questions:

Choose one of the following questions and answer in depth, citing the text wherever possible to reinforce either your opinion or that which you believe a close reading supports:

A) Timon seems to be most distraught by the dog-eat-dog quality underlying nature. Nature, as Tennyson described it, “Red in tooth and claw.” But Timon also claims to have lost all faith in human institutions as well: religion, commerce, love. Everything from piety to virginity is dubious. Why do you think Timon has allowed his own misery to extend out so far? Does this tell us more about Timon, or reveal more about us? Explain.

B) Epimantus presents to us one of the most curious riddles of the play. He challenges Timon to restore his situation by becoming the flatterer instead of the flatteree. But does he mean this, or is it just a test? Timon declines — but why? At one point Epimantus says, “I love thee better now than e’er I did,” yet it only provokes more of Timon’s cursing. Is Epimantus a self-aware, Socratic character, or merely hardened to his misery, unlike Timon, as Timon states? What is the nature of their relationship throughout the play and how does it change? Discuss.

C) Is Timon sympathetic, or merely a pathetic character? How would you have responded had he asked you for money? What grounds in the text gives you reason for doing so? Elaborate.

90 minutes, open book, open note. No secondary sources allowed.

Well, that’s the test I would give, anyway. And in case you’re wondering, I only ask because I’m asking myself the same things.

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2 Responses to “Each Thing’s a Thief”

  1. Linda OReilly Says:

    Perhaps Timon was so untouched by adversity or so naive that when the veil of illusion was lifted he shattered.
    Did he refuse to see misery around him? Did he believe it couldn’t happen to him?
    For Timon life as he knew it was gone–it was an earthquake of an experience for him and he had no firm ground so he trusted nothing.
    Epimantus knows that loss is part of living in the world–you have to learn to embrace it and move on.
    Now, with that knowledge Timon might have been capable of rebuilding himself with an eye toward reality.
    Epimantus seems to know that it’s much easier to love a fully realized person than one whose dearth of experience leaves him shallow of soul & spirit.
    Timon is pathetic before and after his losses. Before, because he didn’t know the range of human experience (or thought that it didn’t apply to him) and after, because bitterness prevented integration of that knowledge into a whole person.

    So sez I, like I know something…

    • That’s actually a really good point, which I had planned to address in a separate post after the play wrapped.

      I won’t go into too much detail here, hoping I get to that longer post. But essentially it involves a concept in cognitive psychology that, “The map is not the territory.”

      I once read the sad story about the composer Felix Mendelsson, who could never recover from the shattering news that his sister had died. It broke his certainty of a meaningful universe; he couldn’t make the pieces fit the same way afterward — and didn’t have the strength to build a new model.

      In short, I agree. I think Timon was such a good person that he assumed kindness would beget kindness, and the life would support him in his benevolence, so long as it was well intended. That the opposite occurred… and that those very people he once helped all, to a person, turned their backs… this was a revelation into the dark heart of mankind that simply ovewhelmed his previous innocence.

      Once lost, there was no turning back.

      Or so I tend to believe.

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