Archive for the Timon of Athens Category

The Monstrous Bulk of This Ingratitude

Posted in Timon of Athens with tags , , , on 2010/02/05 by Mattermind

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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Each Thing’s a Thief

Posted in Timon of Athens with tags , , , on 2010/02/04 by Mattermind

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.

Such Summer Birds Are Men

Posted in Timon of Athens with tags , , , on 2010/02/03 by Mattermind

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.

The World Is But a Word

Posted in Timon of Athens with tags , , , on 2010/02/02 by Mattermind

Timon of Athens, Act II: Scenes 1-2

The chickens come home to roost on Timon’s doorstep: creditors, debt collectors, credit card companies, you name it — all sniffing the overreach in Timon’s finances and descending like vultures to grab some flesh while it’s left to be had on the soon-to-be roadkill.

Till now, Timon has chosen to remain oblivious to his finances. The owner of extensive lands (which he claims extend to Sparta, a fitting zinger by Shakespeare because Spartans, you know, watch their money i.e. “spartan”), he has heretofore presumed that expenses would be covered by income and don’t bother him with learning to use Quicken.

He has no idea that his steward has had to sell most of said land or forfeit it as security for bad debt. In way, way over his head (his possessions at liquidation wouldn’t pay half the money currently owed), he only now comes to the realization of his woeful plight.

In varying stages of denial, Timon first asks why nobody had told him sooner. Doh! Then he assumes that his vast estate must surely have the resources (as previously mentioned) in land that can be tapped to make the little problem go away. Um, no. And stop calling him “Shirley.”

Very well, then. He’ll call in favors from those he has helped out in the past. To show just how off his financial rocker Timon is, Shakespeare has him even seeing this as a benefit because now he will be able to put his friends to a worthy test. Perhaps his family watched It’s a Wonderful Life too many times at Winter Solstice or something, for he believes that surely, surely [You did it again, you called him, “Shirley!”  Three times, no less.] the town he has been so good to will come through for him.

TIMON: And in some sort these wants of mine are crowned,

That I account them blessings; for by these

I shall try friends. You shall perceive how you

Mistake my fortunes; I am wealthy in my friends.

He bids his servants go forth to ring up a few ol’ chums and urge them to toss a few groshens into a hat. Oh, wait. A “talent” is how much? Sixty pounds in silver? Two thousand dollars each by Isaac Asimov’s reckoning? And Timon requests how many of them???

Let’s see: fifty from his good friends and — you have to be kidding — one thousand from the till the Senators keep watch over. Is the man out of his mind? That’s over two million dollars at 1970s (or thereabouts) prices! You don’t even have to factor in for inflation to realize that this poor guy is barking up the wrong tree.

(OUCH — that’s makes two teeth-gnashing cliches on my part. Fifty lashes with a wet noodle for me.)

Trouble is, Flavius has already anticipated this far ahead. And now he has the grim task of letting Timon know that this method has already been tried; he used the lord’s signet ring to hit the Senators up for cash.

The resuts? “Um, err, we’d love to help you out there, but, um, now’s not a good time for us, and, uh…”

Right. Of course.

Not to worry, Timon says. Senators are an undependable lot, and old, and dishonorable when push comes to shove (three! three for me! help!). But rest assured that a friend in need — (nope, I won’t finish that, sorry.)

Let’s just say that Timon is about to find out that what it’s like living in Mike Tyson’s world. That is, if the two could switch places. [WARNING: BAD MOVIE IDEA. STEP AWAY FROM THE WORD PROCESSOR WITH YOUR HANDS UP.]

I’m not sure what exactly I mean here except that it’s too bad Mr. Tyson hadn’t been introduced to Mr. Shakespeare wayyyyy back in school.

Or something like that. Yeah.

Friendship’s Full of Dregs

Posted in Timon of Athens with tags , , , on 2010/02/01 by Mattermind

Timon of Athens, Act I: Scenes 1-2

If you do a Google search on “Shakespeare” sometime in early February, 2010, you’re likely to pull up a sad and tragic tale about a man whose life turned upside down after he won the lottery. His name — it’s true — was Abraham Shakespeare. His body was recently identified in the backyard of the woman’s boyfriend who “befriended” him after (of course, after) the fate’s dealt him a mega wildcard.

Nobody knows yet how it happened. But before he disappeared, Abraham was quoted as saying he would have been better off having stayed poor.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/8489582.stm

It happens to so many people that it’s become a cliché. Rock stars gone bankrupt. Boxers risen from the ghetto, only to return to them after their fighting days are through. Actors in hock after buying up a few too many Irish castles.

Is it the gullibility of the fool with newfound riches? Or the influx of sudden wealth which distorts friends and turns them into flatterers?

In a great line from Mofo, one of U2’s most brilliant, unheralded songs, Bono sings/laments:

Mother, you left and made me someone

Now I’m still a child… no one tells me no

Timon of Athens opens with a poet, a musician, a painter, a jeweler and a merchant waiting to enter Timon’s household. Each has brought the best of his wares to bestow upon the master of the house.

When we first meet Timon, he seems one helluva guy. He bails out acquaintances, hosts a swell feast, seems willing to give strangers the shirt off his back should they ask because , well… that’s just the way his posse rolls.

Everyone around him thinks he’s a swell fella, too. And why wouldn’t they? All you gotta do is say you admire the man’s horse, and he’ll give it to you right out from under him.

TIMON: I weight my friends’ affection with mine own…

Methinks I could deal kingdoms to my friends

And ne’er be weary.

There’s just one little-bitty, eenie-weenie, itsy-bitsy problem here. And you knew this was coming, right?

Flavius, the man who watches the purse-strings, tells us the ugly truth in an aside:

FLAVIUS: What will this come to?

He commands us to provide and give great gifts,

And all out of an empty coffer…

His promises fly so beyond his state

That what he speaks is all in debt; he owes

For every word…

Though Flavius can’t tell the man what’s what, a man named Apemantus can. He’s a roving, caustic philosopher cast yet again in the role of fool.  Or the anti-fool, really, because he is no fool. He is the lone soul besides Flavius who sees the hard reality behind what’s going on:

APEMANTUS: Immortal gods, I crave no pelf;

I pray for no man but myself;

Grant I may never prove so fond

To trust man on his oath or bond,

Or a harlot for her weeping,

Or a dog that seems a-sleeping,

Or a keeper with my freedom,

Or my friends, if I should need ’em.

Amen. So; fall to’t;

Rich men sin, and I eat root.

He’s the lone abstainer from the kegger Timon lavishes on the fraternity boys and sorority girls in his upscale neighborhood.

Timon and the merrymakers consider him churlish and misanthropic. But I have a feeling that e’re too long, the tables will turn.

And it’s gonna hurt bad.