Archive for Misanthropy

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.