Tragedy and Comedy in Timon of Athens

by David P. Gontar (April 2013)

I.  Introduction: Tragedy Meets Comedy

In The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus, after enduring a series of unspeakable losses, including the sacrifice of a hand, and the beheading of two sons whom that manual sacrifice was meant to protect and liberate, Titus in his boundless melancholy begins to laugh. As he sees the pair of heads and his detached hand brought in on a platter, he reacts as though he'd heard a clever joke. His brother Marcus objects.


Why dost thou laugh? It fits not with this hour.

But the explanation is plain. The soul of Titus has reached the absolute extremity of grief.


Why,  I have not another tear to shed. (III, i, 264)

As so often happens in Shakespeare, tragedy passes into its opposite. And it is in that moment that authentic action and redemption appear as possibilities. Where this is insufficiently noticed, we miss an important dimension of the action.

A parallel development occurs in that neglected masterpiece, The Life of Timon of Athens. Timon, a Greek  plutocrat seeking to curry favor with his fellows by impersonating a universal benefactor, has squandered his estate through improvident – indeed reckless – giving. This practice is supported by serial borrowing, so that as catastrophe nears, Timon's bills far exceed his dwindling assets. Approaching for aid those he has befriended, he is spurned and rebuffed, and so undergoes the bleakest and most humiliating of insolvencies, losing everything. His genial and generous personality shrivels and blows away, leaving an unmitigated hatred of mankind, as butterfly might revert to caterpillar. His curses on Athens ringing in the air, Timon retreats to the desolate wooded coastline, where, exposed to the elements, he subsists on water and wild tubers. One day as he pokes at the cruel earth, he finds a huge cache of buried gold coins. It is too late, of course, for these, and so he too laughs at the irony. 

                                       What is here?
Gold?  Yellow, glittering, precious gold?
No, gods, I am no idle votarist:
Roots, you clear heavens. Thus much of this will make
Black white, foul fair, wrong right,
Base noble, old young, coward valiant.
Ha, you gods! Why this, what, this, you gods? Why,
This will lug your priests and servants from your sides,
Pluck stout men's pillows from below their heads.
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless th' accursed,
Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves,
And give them title, knee and approbation
With senators on the bench. This is it
That makes the wappered widow wed again.
She whom the spittle house and ulcerous sores
Would cast the gorge at, this embalms and spices
To th' April day again. Come, damnèd earth,
Thou common whore of mankind, that puts odds
Among the rout of nations; I will make thee
Do thy right nature. 
(IV, iii, 25-44)  

At the tragic perigee we find, like buried gold, the jest, the irony: the coveted riches arrive not in time to rescue Timon from despair. Falling into an excoriating pessimism that makes the philosophical cynicism of his day seem contrived and shallow, Timon perishes, broken and alone, yet as utterly transformed as Lear on the heath. As Oedipus's search for the villain who brought the curse on Thebes ends with the awful revelation of his own fault, a recognition which, though fatal, allows him to achieve a final instant of personal integrity through acceptance of responsibility, so Timon's inextinguishable anguish carries with it the ultimate purgation of his soul. He dies in laughter. 

II.  Reading Timon

The risk, of course, is that some will not get the joke, in fact, not perceive it at all. When that happens, character and drama are misapprehended and improperly evaluated. Though the humor be embedded in the script and on the very lips of the hero, there is something in the grim puritanical soul which will not allow itself the luxury and insight of amusement. A curiously literal perspective through which tragedy is tragedy and comedy is comedy (and never the twain shall meet) keeps many from appreciating the play (and life itself) in all its depth and tantalizing ambiguity.

An example of the failure to come to terms with the comic dimension of tragedy can be found in the edition of the complete works put out by the Royal Shakespeare Company (Bate, Rasmussen, 2007). In their preface to Timon the editors make no secret of their dislike of the play. It is and “will always remain one of Shakespeare's least known, least loved and least performed plays.” (B&R, 1746) One can almost hear in this a Parthian shot, and with good reason. The reader will of course ask “why?” What makes this play so bad? After all, “for intellectual muscle, the second half of the play is as powerful as anything in Shakespeare.” (B&R, 1746) So puissant, yet so unloved. What makes it so?

Well, we are told, there is no love in it. It is all about avarice and “the desire for money.” (B&R, 1744) “No character in the play is struck by the dart of love.” Evidently, for the editors of the RSC edition, to be successful, a stage drama must include a romantic story line; without it, there must be reliance on a poor substitute, in this case money. Timon of Athens represents nothing but a gritty lesson about the consequences of “worshipping money.” Instead of tender exchanges of passion between the sexes, there are nothing but nests of viperous loan sharks and their hapless victims locked in unseemly financial struggles. 

Lacking amorous intrigues and titillating dalliances, Timon of Athens features nothing more personal than a focus on “the master-servant relationship, as opposed to parent-child or man-woman.” (B&R, 1744) But are these two sets of relationships the only ones that make the theatrical world go round? Parent/child and man/woman? What about woman/woman, as in the relationship between Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It  or man/man as we see it between Marcus and Aufidius in Coriolanus? Does the unacceptable narrowness reside in Shakespeare's Timon – or in the shrunken critical taxonomy of Bates and Rasmussen? After all, nearly the entire first half of The Merchant of Venice focuses on the tensions of male characters caught in money conflicts. Isn't “money” the heart of the matter there? The love quarrel of Portia and Bassanio tacked on at the end could be excised and still preserve the significance of the play. Yet Merchant is hailed as one of the most popular in the canon.

In its rush to put the hatchet to Timon the RSC forgets that we are dealing with Shakespeare, after all. The principal responsibility of the editor is to give to audiences and readers the keys that will unlock drama and prompt appreciation. Informing the student that this is his “least known, least loved and least performed” play is hardly an inducement to read. The natural reaction to that news is to go do something else. 

III.  Exegesis

Very well, let's think. Is the play about “money” or the “master-servant relationship”? The short answer is, neither. The principal theme of Timon of Athens is friendship – and its foibles. The Greek term is philia, a species of love, though the RCS editors can discover love in none of the scenes. Friendship is set in the commercial intercourse of ancient Athens, in which the affective associations of businessmen blossomed in the course of trade. So important were those friendships that they were taken up and transmogrified by the Athenian philosophers, including Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and later by the Stoics and the Cynics. The ideal love in that cultural milieu was not the “man-woman” relationship at all, but the love of friends of the same sex for one another, whether of a sensual or a “platonic” nature. And though the RSC editors don't mention it, Shakespeare's Timon of Athens is one of the two greatest modern reprises of Plato's Symposium, the other being the In Vino Veritas of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. It's that sort of background which is essential to supply if anyone is going to have an incentive to jump in and grapple with the text. 

While Socrates, Plato and Aristotle praised philia as the royal road to virtue (arete) and sought to express its essence in words, in the later stages of Greek thought the noble friendships so admired by these three (and made a cardinal value by Epicurus), were condemned by the Stoics and the Cynics as sources of unhappiness. For like any other worldly good, friendship is fragile and easily lost. Stoicism and Cynicism were attempts to jettison friendship as an ethical ideal and replace it with either a purification of the spirit (Stoicism) or a principled return to nature (Cynicism), more durable modes of tranquility and fulfillment. Doing so would shield the soul from the trauma which must accompany the loss of any important friendship. 

The most apparent problem with Lord Timon is not his alleged “love of money” but his failure to have any real friendships. Those he believes to be his friends are merely hangers-on whose attentions are functions of his bounty. The protagonist fancies that just as he comes to the rescue of the impecunious citizens of his social class, so would they, in his time of need, step in to save him. This form of amatory insurance is perhaps the single biggest reason for Timon's exuberance in the first half of the play. The cynical philosopher Apemantus attempts in his gruff way to alert Timon to the reality of his situation,  that he is being exploited by his cohorts who attend his lavish dinner parties, and that these fellows are in fact really dining on Timon himself, devouring his substance without the slightest thought of reciprocity. It is this fatal blindness to the actual selfishness of men which is the flaw which brings about his undoing. To claim, then, that the play is repugnant in its emphasis on “money” is to err on the most significant point. As in The Merchant of Venice with its Duke and ducats, the true issue is the skewed relations of men with one another (e.g., the troubled friendship of Antonio and Bassanio), so in Timon of Athens its hero is not undone by the love of money, but by his failure to find and cultivate genuine bonds with others. When the day of reckoning is at hand, Timon is shocked to learn that his “friends” will not lift a finger to help him. Instead of cultivating a guarded realpolitik about human nature, Timon gives himself over to an almost hysterical prodigality, and when he collapses his mood becomes so embittered that it is akin to madness. 

As for love, it is most exemplified in this unique play not in heterosexual liaisons, but in the sensibility and loyalty of the steward Flavius, who keeps Timon's accounts and strives (like Apemantus) to warn him of the dangers he is entering into by habitual borrowing to keep his philanthropic ship afloat. Though the bond is not romantic, it is heartfelt and authentic. We see it plainly in the first act (“I bleed inwardly for my lord,” I, ii, 204), and again in the play's terrible final moments when Flavius visits Timon in his cave in the wilderness.  Here is Flavius's mid-play soliloquy.

                                                  Good fellows all,
The latest of my wealth I'll share amongst you.
Wherever we shall meet, for Timon's sake
Let's yet be fellows. Let's shake our heads and say,
As 'twere a knell unto our master's fortunes,
'We have seen better days'.
Let us take some.
Nay, put out your hands. Not one word more.
Thus part we rich in sorrow, parting poor.
O, the fierce wretchedness that glory brings us!
Who would not wish to be from wealth exempt,
Since riches point to misery and contempt?
Who would be so mocked with glory, or to live
But in a dream of friendship,
To have his pomp and all what state compounds
But only painted like his varnished friends?
Poor honest lord, brought low by his own heart,
Undone by goodness! Strange, unusual blood
When man's worst sin is he does too much good!
Who then dares to be half so kind again?
For bounty, that makes gods, does still mar men.
My dearest lord, blessed to be most accursed,
Rich only to be wretched, thy great fortunes
Are made thy chief afflictions. Alas, kind lord!
He's flung in rage from this ingrateful seat
Of monstrous friends;
Nor has he with him to supply his life,
Or that which can command it.
I'll follow and enquire him out.
I'll ever serve his mind with my best will.
Whilst I have gold I'll be his steward still.
(IV, ii, 23-51)

These intentions of love and devotion bring Flavius in the second half of the play to Timon's hovel, where members of his former entourage come, either to exploit him, or lure him back to civilization. Flavius enters in Act IV, Sc. iii, and descries his poor master:

O you gods!
Is yon despised and ruinous man my lord,
Full of decay and failing? O monument
And wonder of good deeds evilly bestowed!
What an alteration of honour has desp'rate want made!
What viler thing upon the earth than friends,
Who can bring the noblest minds to basest ends!
How rarely does it meet with this time's guise,
When man was wished to love his enemies!
Grant I may ever love and woo
Those that would mischief me than those that do!
He's caught me in his eye. I will present
My honest grief unto him, and as my lord
Still serve him with my life. — My dearest master.
(IV, iii, 460-473)

Timon, now a confirmed Über-cynic, distrusts. Isn't Flavius after something?

But tell me true —
For I must ever doubt, though ne'er so sure —
Is not thy kindness subtle, covetous,
A usuring kindness, and, as rich men deal gifts,
Expecting in return twenty to one?
(IV, iii, 507-511)

The answer is loyalty itself.

No, my most worthy master, in whose breast
Doubt and suspect, alas, are placed too late.
You should have feared false times when you did feast.
Suspect still comes where an estate is least.
That which I show, heaven knows, is merely love,
Duty and zeal to your unmatchèd mind,
Care of your food and living; and, believe it,
My most honored lord,
For any benefit that points to me,
Either in hope or present, I'd exchange
For this one wish:  that you had power and wealth
To requite me by making rich yourself.”
(IV, iii, 512-523)

So much for the love deemed missing in the play by Bate and Rasmussen.

IV.  Philosophical and Religious Meaning

Their failure to observe the Platonic background of the play is compounded by their bizarre neglect of the Biblical theme, for Timon of Athens is equally and obviously a restatement of the Book of Job.  It will be recalled that the latter opens with a comical conceit: a wager between God and Satan – who seem to be on remarkably chummy terms – as to whether the man Job is really pious and virtuous, or a sanctimonious fraud. God permits Satan to go forth and inflict on unsuspecting  Job a series of ever-increasing depredations and calamities to test his faith. If Job curses his Maker, the Devil wins, if not, score one for the good guys. Suffering unprecedented catastrophes, and reduced to dust and ashes, Job maintains his spiritual integrity, though his ever-solicitous spouse urges him to “curse God and die.” (Job, 2:9) He is then visited by successive acquaintances who reason with him and debate the meaning of his fall. In much the same way, after his absenting from social and political felicity, Timon, no-longer-of-Athens, is forced in the midst of his travail to entertain a series of Athenian intruders who seem to do everything in their power to rankle him still further. Shakespeare's genius, then, in this “unloved” play, is to knit together Plato's Hellenic masterpiece, Symposium, and the pinnacle of Hebrew insight, the Book of Job, into one single drama. At the conclusion of the Book of Job, God loses his patience with Job's kvetching, and decides to pull rank. To the long-suffering man of sorrows, God appears as from “a whirlwind” to challenge the right of a mere mortal to question his treatment at the hands of the Most High. (Job, 38:1 et seq.) “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?” And it seems more than a mere coincidence, does it not, that in the midst of Timon's travails, as he bickers with his tormentor Apemantus, he expressly alludes to the “whirlwind” he prays would waft the latter back to Athens? (IV, iii, 290) Shakespeare's Timon of Athens is thus not an inconsequential work, but rather an astonishing template of western civilization, one which looks beyond classical literature and scripture to a troubling and prophetic vision of ages to come. In the Book of Job, a still caring if befuddled and casuistic deity restores to the mortal He created and permitted to be tortured by his partner the devil nearly all that had been destroyed, so that, as the curtain falls, Job is in possession once again of fields and fortune. Except for his slaughtered sons and daughters, all losses are restored and sorrows end.  But Shakespeare, writing on the cusp of the modern age and in the harsh light of cynical philosophy, can extend to Timon no cheap hope or fairy-tale replenishment, and “Misanthropus” perishes with cries of execration on his lips. Thus Shakespeare is our contemporary, our spiritual pioneer, always one step beyond. As Walter Kaufmann observed, he is the precursor of Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre, one who leaps out of the bosom of the middle ages into the wasteland of the future, the modern age of doubt and causeless suffering. Timon of Athens should be properly situated as the forerunner of theatre of the absurd, of Samuel Beckett and those who wait in comic fretfulness for a “Godot” who never arrives. It sounds unflinchingly the note of meaninglessness from which we flee in all our bourgeois nostrums and media-driven fantasies. And in that respect it is not surprising that we find Mssrs. Bate and Rasmussen leaving Timon in the gutter. The vision of human existence in Timon of Athens and Waiting for Godot is not one of human power, nobility and resilience, but despair, impotence – and, in the end, self recognition, and laughter. Hyperbolical Timon even prays that the gods “quell the source of all erection,” (IV, iii, 163-164) while in Beckett's masterpiece Gogo and Didi look enviously at the prospect of hanging themselves as it will give them one final erection. With the denial of that biological function would come the cessation of specious happiness and the extinction of a bastard race.

V.  An Economic Interlude

Adopting an economic standpoint reinforces our comprehension of Timon's temperament and outlook. In terms of wealth management, the modus operandi of Timon is the direct opposite of Shylock's. The latter makes a living lending money at usurious interest; we may infer that to his kinsmen far less or none is charged, thus prospering the Jewish community in Venice. While we are given no information as to how Timon amassed his original fortune, if it was not inherited it probably arose through borrowing funds to buy lands which resulted in increased crops and yields. The mention of Athenian senators letting out coin “upon large interest” (III, vi, 106; see also, III, iv, 53) implies that to build that estate he had to accept soaring measures of debt. Timon far outstrips in naïvté the Venetian merchant Antonio, who merely lends monies gratis. Not only does Timon not charge for a loan, in the final stages of his enterprise he is just as likely to give cash away as he is to lend it. At times he refuses re-payment. (I, ii, 8-12) Further, he has acquired luxurious tastes, and cultivates the habit of showering his friends with choice gifts. Contrary to the maxim of Polonious, this is all fueled, of course, by ever extended borrowing, borrowing which is needed not only to maintain his lavish lifestyle, give presents to his companions and operate his businesses, but also to make payments on prior loans and interest. Thus the first half of the play, which reflects the ethos of Plato's Symposium, also registers the New Testament's Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32) (the clue word “prodigal” occurring at II, ii, 162). 

VI.  Philosophical Premises

What is Timon's problem? The keyword “root” running throughout the text implies obliquely that we may “delve [him] to the root,” or in colloquial terms, find out what makes him tick. (See, Cymbeline, I, i, 28) Can we identify his “tragic flaw”? The RSC editors contend that what ails Timon and his fellows is coarse possessive acquisitiveness, the “love of money.” But this is not supported in the script. If Timon treasured money above all he would have kept it, not thrown it away. In the first half of the play he either behaves like Aristotle's “great-souled man,” the public benefactor who lavishes his substance on others, or he just spends imprudently on himself.  If there had been a Las Vegas in ancient Greece, Shakespeare's Timon would have been one of the “whales,” for money for him is a game, not the ens realissimum. In the second half, he chooses to live in a desert, and when he finds buried gold, he treats it like trash. We never see him actually working, producing wealth by the sweat of his brow and application of business acumen. Nor are intelligent investments a part of his enterprise. Wealth for Timon arises magically, ex nihilo. There is no reason, then, to place a premium on it (i.e., love money) because the arrival of wealth in his hands is just part of the nature of things.

 Drawing on principles of economics and philosophy, we can set forth the unspoken tenets and characteristics which lead Timon to his doom. 

(1)  His implicit credo is incautiously optimistic: human beings are good-natured, as concerned with one another as they are with themselves.

(2)  In the context of “philia,” (the love of friends), he assumes that those who are treated most extravagantly will be the closest and most reliable, almost as though love and loyalty could be purchased. He is a rationalist who believes in a law of reciprocity as unshakable as the axioms of Newtonian physics: for each favor there is an equal and opposite favor. Prior to his fall, he could never see that his friends were actually parasites.

(3)  In Shakespearean language, Timon is an “unthrift,” one who spends freely and impulsively.

(4)  That prodigality is in turn based on a deeper conception as to the nature of life and reality. So long has Timon enjoys prosperity, he presumes the ground and substance of human society is abundance. The oikos is like a wellspring of plenty bubbling up into our coffers.  

Plato, to the nayward, taught that the fundamental economic actuality is not wealth but want, scarcity, need and poverty. These negatives goad humankind on to work, to war, and, in some cases, to prosperity. But even if fortunes accumulate, this alters not the nature of things, the negativity of which we ignore at our peril. It is true that Timon lives in an affluent city replete with mansions and temples of gleaming marble. But Athens did not become rich until it defeated its enemies (particularly the Persians) in war. Once its enemies were vanquished, left with no serious impediments in international trade, Athens quickly found itself with a far-flung hegemony and fabled assets. But Timon childishly assumes that wealth is the natural and automatic concomitant of civilized life. In this respect, his underlying metaphysics is a vestigial ontologism which can be traced all the way back to the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides, who viewed the world as a plenum and any form of non-being or difference as an illusion. By the time of Timon's Athens philosophers such as Democritus had broken with Parmenides' absolutism by introducing negativities into their thinking (such as the “void” of Democritus in which the “atoms” move).  And it is curious in that respect that Karl Marx, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Democritus, devised a doctrine he could call “dialectical materialism,” forgetting that the void can hardly be termed a material substance. Looking at Shakespeare's own metaphysics implicit in Timon of Athens and many other works, a more apt term to characterize it would be “dialectical nihilism.” Indeed, viewed in philosophical terms, we could express the whole tragedy of Timon as the story of a man who lives as a materialist and dies as a nihilist. (As to Shakespeare's nihilism, a curious reader might commence investigation by reading “The Tragedy of Existence: Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida,” by Joyce Carol Oates, which is reproduced on her homepage, and was published originally as two separate essays in Philological Quarterly, Spring, 1967, and Shakespeare Quarterly, Spring, 1966.)

VII.  Cynicism v. Nihilism

We come now to the final charge made against Timon of Athens as a work of dramatic art by the RSC editors: the play is a failure because it has no “heroic counter-voice” to lend dramatic tension and interest. (Bate & Rasmussen, 1746) If only the character of Alcibiades had been “more fully developed,” they lament, we might have had a real play here. But without such an adversarial colloquy no play can rise to the level of satisfactory stagecraft. This aesthetic theory may well have merit, but in the case of Timon of Athens Shakespeare certainly does provide an heroic counter-voice: the cynical philosopher Apemantus. He has an important role to play at the beginning of the action and at the end, when, like Job's so-called “friends,” he shows up at Timon's barren sanctuary to chide him for appropriating his own philosophy and character. This leads to one of literature's most caustic altercations. As in Plato's Symposium, the celebratory feast of playwright Agathon is crashed by both Alcibiades and his teacher Socrates, so in Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, the feast of Lord Timon is invaded by the Cynic Apemantus, who refuses meat and wine and spends the whole dinner chewing on a carrot (or some such “root”) and mocking the extravagant folly of both his host and the other guests. As the theme of the Symposium is eros, so in Timon of Athens entertainment is provided by a masked Cupid who sings to the company. The outlook of Apemantus is neatly captured in his prayer before the meal: 

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 and bond,
Or a harlot for her weeping,
Or a dog that seems a-sleeping,
Or my friends if I should need 'em.
Amen. So fall to't.
Rich men sin, and I eat root.
(I, ii, 61-70)

The philosophy of Apemantus is a synthesis of several disparate themes: a simple naturalism is wedded to a frank but temperate egoism and a mild asceticism. Whether philosophy affords an example of precisely such a potpourri of principles is a good question for antiquarians to puzzle over. But as a foil to set off the profligacy of Timon it is quite perfect. Apemantus functions like a chorus chiming at regular intervals,  registering the excesses and follies of Timon and his companions. He makes himself unwelcome but is tolerated and departs intact, no poison hemlock for him. Thus, in the first half of the play, he is already an effective counter-voice, but not yet one of “heroic” proportions. It is only when he arrives at Timon's crude shelter in the wilderness that he becomes at once the classical antagonist and stand-in for the fans of Job. He has heard by the grapevine that Timon has adopted a personam that can only have been pilfered from himself. “I was directed hither. Men report thou dost affect my manners, and dost use them.” (IV, iii, 199-200) It is a transgression of ancient principles of intellectual property and an affront to his dignity. Further, Timon's crash-and-burn fall from grace is an illustration and confirmation of everything he has tried to teach people in general and Timon in particular. In other words, though he claims to be a wise man, he can't resist the temptation to show up and say, “I told you so.” Though he rationalizes his appearance at Timon's threshold as a campaign to “vex” Timon (IV, iii, 238) we know better. These two have been at each other's throats for a long time, and in their verbal jousting we hear the echos of philia gone awry. Their dialogue is reminiscent of the love/hate relationship of Marcus and Aufidius in Shakespeare's masterpiece Coriolanus.

Apemantus's diagnosis of Timon's condition is appropriate cynical: you've fallen from wealth and power and now all the good things you enjoyed are sour grapes.

This is in thee a nature but infected,
A poor unmanly melancholy, sprung
From change of fortune. Why this spade, this place,
This slave-like habit, and these looks of care?
The flatterers yet wear silk, drink wine, lie soft,
Hug their diseased perfumes, and have forgot
That Timon ever was. Shame not these woods
By putting on the cunning of a carper.
Be thou a flatterer now, and seek to thrive
By that which has undone thee. Hinge thy knee,
And let his very breath whom thou'lt observe
Blow off thy cap. Praise his most vicious strain,
And call it excellent. Thou wast told thus. 
Thou gav'st thine ears like tapsters that bade welcome
To knaves and all approachers. 'Tis most just
That thou turn rascal. Hadst thou thy wealth again,
Rascals should have it. Do not assume my likeness.
(IV, iii, 203-219)

This is the most excellent counter-voice, in spite of the fact that – or perhaps because – it so closely mirrors Timon's own discourse. Yet we can see that Apemantus is in error. He has not the intellectual equipment to take the measure of his adversary. He says if Timon were rich once more he'd revert to his old conduct, not knowing that Timon with his cache of gold is more affluent than ever. In the words and behavior of Timon,  Apemantus can recognize only reflections of his own philosophy, not ever comprehending the radical nihilism which Timon has embraced. And it is this incommensurability of Timon's speech on the one hand and that of Apemantus on the other that gives their bickering such a comic ambience. Speaking different languages, they are at cross purposes and yet cannot fathom how and why. Apemantus can only offer pop psychology to account for Timon's beastly transformation.

If thou didst put this sour cold habit on
To castigate thy pride. 'twere well; but thou
Dost it enforcedly. Thou'dst courtier be again
Wert thou not beggar. Willing misery
Outlives incertain pomp, is crowned before.
The one is filling still, never complete;
The other at high wish. Best state, contentless,
Hath a distracted and most wretched being,
Worse than the worst, content.
Thou shouldst desire to die, being miserable.
(IV, iii, 240-249)

That is a speech straight from the Book of Job, yet it fails utterly to touch the problematic that gnaws at the innards of Timon, who has “seen the spider” and is changed in the kernal of his very being. (See, The Winter's Tale, II, i, 40-47)

Apemantus can see in Timon only a poor and benighted reflection of himself; Timon is a mere student who failed to learn and apply the doctor's teachings. But though he styles himself a misanthrope, there is a vast difference between their respective positions. Apemantus is in fact little more than a temperamental curmudgeon, a grumpy grand-dad and professional party pooper, who decks his attitude out in the trappings of philosophy. His asceticism is a comfy minimalism which serves as a warning to his countrymen to avoid various forms of vanity, as we find in the Biblical book of Solomon, Ecclesiastes. Cleave to the least, prepare for the worst, and you will be the happiest of men. As a pragmatic nostrum, this kind of sermonizing may have value, but as a proffered insight into life and the nature of things, it is hollow. Timon, on the other hand, despite his rantings, displays the courage of his convictions. If his hate grows “to the whole race of mankind” (IV, i, 39-40), it should logically extend to himself. Timon takes this step; Apemantus does not.


All's obliquy;
There's nothing level in our cursed natures
But direct villainy. Therefore be abhorred
All feasts, societies, and throngs of men.
His semblable, yea, himself, Timon disdains.
Destruction fang mankind.
(IV, iii, 18-23)

When Alcibiades encounters Timon in the wasteland, he fails to recognize him at first. “What art thou there? Speak,” he demands. The reply is stark: “A beast, as thou art. The canker gnaw thy heart for showing me again the eyes of man.”  (IV, iii, 49-50) But a man which is a beast is worse than any beast, it's plain to see, and “tat tvam asi.” The real tragedy is the moment of dramatic discovery: self-accusation. It is this moment, and not Harold Bloom's mere “self-overhearing,” which renders us genuinely human. All of Shakespeare's tragic heroes come to terms with their quintessential unworthiness, and were there space herein we could easily make a complete catalogue. All come in one form or another to Hamlet's admission: “O, what a rogue and  peasant slave am I.” (II, ii, 552) To look honestly at ourselves means to look at our faults as well as our virtues, and acknowledge how much damage those faults occasion in a world in which all misbehave in the same manner. The cynicism of Apemantus contains no such insight. For cynicism, there is a remedy: live like a dog and be a good man. For Timon and Shakespeare's other tragic heroes, the seeming good man turns out to be a cur. 

And yet a paradox lies just here. For if one truly hates oneself, one is perforce divided into the hating self and the hated. But to be consistent , the hating self must hate not only the hated self but the hating as well. This obviously creates an infinite regress which may be understood as a “mise en abyme” much discussed in critical theory. And what is immediately striking here is that the tragedy of self hatred, drawn to its logical, regressive conclusion, is funny. To hate myself I must have two aspects, the detestably ignoble and the noble which does the hating. But hatred is not a virtue, and if the hate is consistent the hater must be hated as well, by a hater sub-2, etc., etc., ad infinitum. And this is absurd, and comical. As Woody Allen once said, “I have only one regret, that I was not born someone else.” Here we find the “root” of Shakespeare's tragi-comical vision of “homo sapiens.” We come to recognize that while Apemantus accuses Timon of filching his intellectual identity, Timon is as much like Apemantus as Prince Hamlet is like Polonious.

VIII.  Conclusion: Comedy and Tragedy at the Barricades

Before bringing this discussion to an end, it should be pointed out that Timon of Athens includes low comedy as well as high.  Prostitutes Phrynia and Timandra, who alternate between cursing Timon and groveling before him to obtain gold, are picaresque characters who serve the same comic functions as so many of Shakespeare's lesser personages, including Dogberry, Doll Tearsheet, Miss Quickly, Saunder Simpcox, Pistol, the bawd and pander in Pericles, and many, many more. In what is arguably the most gut-wrenching scene of personal misery in all of Shakespeare, clowns Phrynia and Timandra serve as low foils to set off the existential malaise of Lord Timon. The middle ground is briefly occupied by the satirical portrait of the oligarch Sempronius, whom we see maligning Timon and his request for help, first on the grounds that he should have approached others before him, such as Lords Lucius and Lucullus. When he learns that in fact all the others have already been tapped, he feigns resentment that he was not thought of until last! (III, iii, 1-26) Peremptorily dismissing Timon's importunate manservant, Sempronius concludes with bit of mock rhetoric, “Who bates mine honour shall not know my coin.” (III, iii, 26) In the hands of the right director, this may be expected to amuse. 

It is quite possible to dismiss the lesser known works of Shakespeare as undeserving of attention. As they are 'substandard', there is no real reason to perform or study them with the care and assiduousness conferred on our favorites. Giving these orphaned plays and poems a condescending nod merely exacerbates our dilemma. Given the poverty of today's theatre and monitory literature, even a minor Shakespearean work such as Timon towers above its Lilliputian critics. Shakespeare is the worthy successor to Plato, whose Symposium first disclosed the dialectical relationship between tragedy and comedy. By restating that theme in the early modern era, Shakespeare transmits the ancient wisdom to us.  The irony is that we should turn our backs on the artist and thinker from whom we might derive the critical insights and learning we need so very badly. In our daily “tragedies” we lose touch with the comic perspective, and fall into maudlin self-pity. The fault is never ours. There is always someone else  to blame — and haul into court. Our lives become indistinguishable from the media melodramas in which we wallow. The floodgates of mediocrity are wide open now, and sweep the past away. There is no need of art when the psychiatrist's pharmakon is eager to step into the breach.

It is interesting to listen to the Royal Shakespeare Company sniffing that Shakespeare's Timon of Athens has an “incomplete” feel about it, insinuating that it is little more than glorified scrimshaw having no business in the First Folio. Yet, at the same time, like so many traditionalists, the RSC editors are convinced that it is the work of not one but two dramatists, Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton. Yes, it seems the material was so intractable that even with the help of another famous author, the world's supreme literary artist couldn't connect the dots. It's as if one argued that we should scrap the Venus de Milo and other classic sculptures on grounds of amputation. Then there are the canvases of Vincent van Gogh that suffer from a lack of pigment on account of the poverty of the genius who struggled to eat and buy paint. Inferior? Not worth a glance? Hardly. The BBC film production that brought Timon of Athens to life testifies to the enduring power of even the least of Shakespeare's works. 

In a discussion such as this, appropriate contextualization becomes key. Instead of contrasting Timon of Athens with perfectly rounded plays such as Othello or King Richard III, it might be more illuminating to see in Timon a fountainhead of modernism, the source for so much in Joyce, Sartre, Brecht, Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter and the entire theatre of the absurd that moved audiences in the twentieth century. In that setting, Shakespeare's play reemerges as a Himalayan peak whose very austerity and unsparing vision reflects timeless verities.

Of those truths, for us today at least the economic lesson should be considered. Lord Timon is a symbol of what befalls a nation which chooses the path of debt to reach the summit of prosperity, rather like digging oneself a deep hole to scale Olympus. Heedless of the teaching of Shakespeare in this 'inferior' work, the United Kingdom and its offspring, the United States of America, having raised themselves up on clouds of exponentially multiplying obligations, are now busy reaping the whirlwind. Just as it was too late for Timon to spend his discovered gold, it may be too late for the English speaking peoples to recover the wisdom of Shakespeare. And that, as Corporal Nym would say, “is the humor of it.” The joke's on us.



William Shakespeare, Complete Works. Jonathan Bate, Eric Rasmussen, eds  The Royal Shakespeare Company, Random House,  2007.  Reprinted by Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, Beijing, 2008

William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, 2d Edition, Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor, eds. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2005.


Joyce Carol Oates, The Tragedy of Existence: Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, accessible on webpage of Prof. Joyce Carol Oates

David P. Gontar's latest book is Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays.

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