by Stuart Sherman
Once upon a time there was a man who thought that he loved everyone and that everyone loved him...
Timon of Athens works in some ways like a fairy tale, wherein we know that the situation announced by once upon a time will soon change. Shakespeare grants his Timon one act of delicious illusion, followed by four of increasingly toxic disillusion, as his fortunes fail and his friends desert him.
Timon's first speaker is a Poet whose latest work foretells the play's whole plot:
When Fortune in her shift and change of mood
Spurns down her late beloved, all his dependants,
Which labored after him to the mountain's top
Even on their knees and hands, let him slip down,
Not one accompanying his declining foot.
But the Poet himself, hot to sell his output to the munificent Timon, is just such a crawling, conniving "dependant," who at Timon's fall will slither away as fast as all the rest. And when Timon, in his fresh-found misanthropy, leaves the city, lodges in a cave, and stumbles on a hoard of gold, the Poet like all the rest will scuttle back to him, hoping to reap new benefits.
No such luck. Shakespeare was of course a poet too; his portrayal of his alter ego is one measure of his (and Timon's) determination, in this darkest of tragedies, to take no prisoners—to leave no human state or enterprise unscathed, unscorned. For scorn becomes Timon's specialty, and this too is something he has in common with the playwright who here shapes him. We like to think of Shakespeare as lyrical ("my gentle Shakespeare," his friend and rival poet Ben Jonson famously dubbed him). But he was hypnotically good at rage. Think of Hamlet's contempt for the fools who beset him; Shylock's barbed taunts in the courtroom; Lear's denunciations in the storm and at the shore. Timon, from the echo chamber of his cave, becomes one of their number—at times the most vindictive, and the most articulate. His toxicity can mesmerize.
In the alchemy of Timon's venom, gold serves as principal catalyst. Through much of the play, Shakespeare tracks what money does to minds. For Timon at first it is the medium by which he transmits that limitless love which (as he avers to a cherished friend) "I gave...freely ever." By play's end, he seeks to deploy it differently, channeling it through prostitutes, politicians, poets, and others, in hopes of poisoning the whole world. "Nothing can come of nothing," King Lear warned Cordelia. Timon tells worse news still. Nothing can come of everything, as long as everything is construed as cash. Timon's "everything" was nothing from the start.
By its design, Timon echoes the late medieval morality plays that Shakespeare and many in his audience may have recollected from their childhoods, in which a baffled Everyman (as the protagonist is named in the genre's most famous instance) is accosted by various figures of virtue and vice, each trying to sway him towards their own ways of thought and life. Timon, incessantly accosted though ultimately unswayable, is in some respects an Everyman in extremis. Most mortals might admit to dwelling in a messy mix of benevolence and resentment, love and rancor. But Timon separates these feelings so sharply, and pushes them both to such extremes, that he ends up making each look like a different mode of madness: in retrospect, his munificence can seem as mysterious, compulsive, even appalling as his rage. "The middle of humanity thou never knewest," remarks his caustic companion Apemantus, "but the extremity of both ends."
The play's title, for all its seeming plainness, makes the same point more compactly. For Timon is never really of Athens; he's either above it (as benefactor) or outside it (as scourge). And yet in Elizabethan memory as in ours, Athens marked the pivot-point where of changed meaning. Athenian democracy reworked what it might mean for large numbers to live and thrive within "the middle of humanity" rather than outside or above it. But for human beings, radically susceptible to extremes of both love and rancor, the Athenian of can be desperately difficult to put into practice. Shakespeare's play at its most powerful can make its two titular nouns seem to disappear, leaving only the problematic preposition in the middle. Of is not just Timon's problem. It's ours too.
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