The Monstrous Bulk of This Ingratitude

Timon of Athens, Act V: Scenes 1-4

Flattery comes full circle.

I’m trying to decipher what Shakespeare means by having the Poet and Painter appear again to resume their obsequiousness and obtain their share of Timon’s newfound gold.

TIMON: Good honest men! Thou draw’st a counterfeit

Best in all Athens. Thou’rt indeed the best;

Thou counterfeit’st most lively.

PAINTER: So so, my lord.

TIMON: E’en so, sir, as I say. [To Poet] And for thy fiction,

Why, thy verse swells with stuff so fine and smooth

That thou art even natural in thine art.

It recalls the play within a play within Hamlet, when Hamlet counsels the actors to “hold a mirror up to nature” and not overdramatize their acting.

Socrates famously mistrusts art — plays included — for this reason. It mimes life. It blusters, it treasons, it scolds, it seduces — but all in the name of entertainment. Only philosophy delves below the surface of things (instead of slide down them, as Bono sings).

The whole trouble that Timon has uncovered is that people don’t say what they mean or mean what they say. Their words ring hollow. All he hears now are lies.

He exposes falsity this time by providing the artists what they’re really after: gold.

Then, in a cunning twist, the Senators of Athens come out to woo Timon back into the city. They’ve had a change of heart, they claim. The people feel remorse for what they’ve done and wish to make amends.

SECOND SENATOR: Ay, even such heaps and sums of love and wealth

As shall to thee blot out what wrongs were theirs

And write in thee the figures of their love,

Ever to read them thine.

Sounds great. But Timon answers sarcastically:

TIMON: You witch me in it;

Surprise me to the very brink of tears.

Lend me a fool’s heart and a woman’s eyes,

And I’ll besweep these comforts, worthy Senators.

He’s not buying what they’re selling for a second. And in the next scene, we find out he was right to do so.

The Senators were only sucking up to halt Alcibiades’s approach at the city gates. He’s come for revenge, and they falsely assume that restoring Timon will assuage his anger. A chess move, really. A bluff. But it proves yet again that some men will say or do anything to achieve their personal interests. Right, Mr. Edwards?

Meanwhile, Timon has been working on an epitaph to stand as a lasting curse upon Athens. We never know if he’s dead for sure, but a sentry sent out by Alcibiades to find Timon, finds his tomb instead.

Now I’m wondering how exactly Timon buried himself, and who carved out the gravestone. For the sentry takes a rubbing of the Latin text to show Alcibiades, who even now has reached the ramparts of Athens.

Here the fulsomeness of groveling and toadiness reach their fitting apex as the Senators stand upon the city walls and attempt to flatter their way out of sure death. They try and convince Alcibiades to listen to reason (now, of course, after they themselves did not) and only hold those accountable with whom he has a quarrel.

No need to fight. No need to fuss. Just promise you’ll satisfy your grievance only and we’ll open up the gates.

And Alcibiades agrees. Whether he means it or not, we cannot know. But at this crucial moment when the gates are opened to his waiting horde, Alcibiades receives word that Timon is dead.

This is significant, because along with their bartering and wringing of hands, the Athenian Senators lied that they had brought Timon back from the margins.

Whoops.

SECOND SENATOR: So did we woo

Transformed Timon to our city’s love

By humbled message and by promised means.

It’s a gambit that fails. The gates have already swung open to Alcibiades when he discovers that Timon is actually dead.

All bets are now off as Alcibiades stalks into Athens, declaiming:

ALCIBIADES: Bring me into your city,

And I will use the olive with my sword,

Make war breed peace, make peace stint war, make each

Prescribe to other, as each other’s leech.

Let our drums strike.

It’s a pity the play ends here, because now the great action sequence begins.

The final couplet harbingers doom in the very ickiness of the concluding rhyme: each/leech. Blech. But that’s not how the whole thing closes — oh, no.

Here might have come a stop. But no — unrhymed, standing alone, stuck out like a sore thumb, a thumb about to be jabbed far up somebody’s ass:

LET OUR DRUMS STRIKE.

Spoken in the same terse, foreboding manner as the damning words of the First Senator to him awhile ago as he pleabargained for the release of a friend and got banished for it.

As the Monty Python gang would say… “Run away!”

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