1/ First, let’s get the who’s who questions out of the way.
The main character is Lord Timon (of Athens). Flavius is his steward. Timon’s servants are Flaminius, Servilius, and Lucilius.
Timon’s false friends are called Lucius, Lucullus, Sempronius, and Ventidius. Also surrounding him, when he’s rich, are the poet, the painter, the jeweller, and the merchant.
The servants to usurers are called Caphis, Philotus, Titus, Hortensius, servant to Varro, servant to Lucius, and servant to Isidore.
Apemantus is noted in the list as “a churlish philosopher”. He is a cynic.
Alcibiades is an Athenian captain who is later banished.
And some other characters.
The entire plot of Timon of Athens can be summed up in this speech:
“FLAVIUS […] 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, do still mar men….”
(Act 4 scene 2)
Tony Tanner is perfectly right to ask how truly kind Timon is and how much good he does. Timon spends money on hunting and luxuries and feasts, and gives away gifts to other men of high rank, not the poor. Is that kind?
“The main point about Timon’s munificence is that it is as reckless, indiscriminate, and all-embracing, as his later invectives and denunciations are to be.” (Introduction)
2/ I’m under the impression that, compared to other Shakespeare plays, the Greek and Roman plays tend to be heavy in ideas and not particularly cheerful. The exception is of course Antony and Cleopatra, which is rich and opulent, and I have to reread Julius Caesar, but I think there are also lots of ideas and debates in it. But Troilus and Cressida, Coriolanus, and now Timon of Athens are particularly heavy in ideas, bleak, cheerless, bitter, without much humour. Troilus and Cressida and Coriolanus are hard to fully embrace though both are great plays—what about Timon of Athens?
Regarding language, there are many good lines and good speeches.
“FLAVIUS [Aside] What will this come to?
He commends us to provide, and give great gifts,
And all out of an empty coffer;
Nor will he know his purse, or yield me this,
To show him what a beggar his heart is,
Being of no power to make his wishes good.
His promises fly so beyond his state
That what he speaks is all in debt; he owes for ev’ry word…”
(Act 1 scene 2)
When Timon’s money runs out:
“FLAVIUS Heavens, have I said, the bounty of this lord!
How many prodigal bits have slaves and peasants
This night englutted! Who is not Timon’s?
What heart, head, sword, force, means, but is Lord Timon’s?
Great Timon, noble, worthy, royal Timon!
Ah, when the means are gone that buy this praise,
The breath is gone whereof the praise is made.
Feast-won, fast-lost; one cloud of winter show’rs,
These flies are couched.”
(Act 2 scene 2)
Timon thinks he can rely on his friends, Flavius knows better:
“FLAVIUS I would I could not think it; that thought is bounty’s foe.
Being free itself, it thinks all others so.”
Timon of Athens is quotable.
“FLAMINIUS May these add to the number that may scald thee.
Let molten coin be thy damnation,
Thou disease of a friend, and not himself.
Has friendship such a faint and milky heart
It turns in less than two nights?...”
(Act 3 scene 1)
“FIRST STRANGER Why this is the world’s soul, and just of the same piece
Is every flatterer’s sport. Who can call him his friend
That dips in the same dish? […]
O see the monstrousness of man
When he looks out in an ungrateful shape—
He does deny him, in respect of his,
What charitable men afford to beggars.”
(Act 3 scene 2)
The richest, most colourful language in the play is when the characters are cursing, especially Timon.
“TIMON O blessed breeding sun, draw from the earth
Rotten humidity; below thy sister’s orb
Infect the air. Twinned brothers of one womb,
Whose procreation, residence, and birth,
Scarce is dividend—touch them with several fortunes
The greater scorns the lesser. Not nature,
To whom all sores lay siege, can bear great fortune
But by contempt of nature. […]
The learned pate
Ducks to the golden fool. All’s obliquy;
There’s nothing level in our cursed natures
But direct villainty. Therefore be abhorred
All feasts, societies, and throngs of men.
His semblable, yea himself, Timon disdains;
Destruction fang mankind…”
(Act 4 scene 3)
(obliquy means obliquity, moral crookedness)
It feels as though Shakespeare enjoyed so much writing Thersites’s and Lear’s curses that he picked the story of Timon the misanthrope and wrote a play of curses (I’m assuming that it’s written after King Lear). Timon of Athens may be paired with King Lear: both men put trust in the wrong places, both men are abandoned and forced to live like beasts, both men are full of hatred and curses for humankind. But if Lear keeps the Fool, accepts Kent (in disguise), and later accepts Cordelia, Timon rejects everyone, even his loyal steward Flavius.
One of the main differences between the two plays is that the characters in King Lear, even if they are easily categorised as good or bad, are all striking and distinct, whereas those in Timon of Athens are quite blurry and the play itself feels under-developed and unfinished. Even so, there are many interesting things in the play.
3/ Whereas Coriolanus has a single plot all throughout, Timon of Athens has a bit of a subplot—the story of Alcibiades’s banishment from Athens, because he tries to plead for a friend and provokes the senators. The scene has an interesting debate about crime, the law, and valour.
“FIRST SENATOR […] He’s truly valiant that can wisely suffer
The worst that man can breathe,
And make his wrongs his outsides,
To wear them like his raiment, carelessly,
And ne’er prefer his injuries to his heart,
To bring it into danger.
If wrongs be evils and enforce us kill,
What folly ’tis to hazard life for ill.
ALCIBIADES My lords, then, under favor, pardon me,
If I speak like a captain.
Why do fond men expose themselves to battle,
And not endure all threats? Sleep upon’t,
And let the foes quietly cut their throats
Without repugnancy? If there be
Such valor in their bearing, what make we
Abroad? Why then, women are more valiant
That stay at home, if bearing carry it,
And the ass more captain than the lion, the fellow
Loaden with irons wiser than the judge,
If wisdom be in suffering. O my lords,
As you are great, be pitifully good.
Who cannot condemn rashness in cold blood?
To kill, I grant, is sin’s extremest gust,
But in defense, by mercy, ’tis most just.
To be in anger is impiety;
But who is man that is not angry?
Weigh but the crime with this.”
(Act 3 scene 5)
The curious part—curious to me—is that Shakespeare doesn’t give the senators very strong arguments. Alcibiades’s defence of his friend’s hot-blooded crime is rather weak and unconvincing (at least to my modern ears), but the senator’s argument “He’s truly valiant that can wisely suffer/ The worst that man can breathe” is quite silly and Alcibiades can make a strong refutation of that argument.
Then the senators banish him, for no reason. Compare it to the case of Coriolanus—at least you can argue that Coriolanus may expose a threat to Rome, disdaining the public and wanting to get rid of the tribunes—what does Alcibiades do that deserves banishment?
The main purpose of the subplot is that Alcibiades is banished by Athens, and thus gets supported by Timon for invading Athens. But the debate is also interesting, because if you look at it again, Timon suffers the worst from people and does nothing. He rejects humanity and retreats to a cave; he doesn’t take revenge.
4/ I said Timon of Athens was lacking in humour, but some of the curses are rather funny.
“TIMON I am Misanthropos and hate mankind,
For thy part, I do wish thou wert a dog,
That I might love thee something.”
(Act 4 scene 3)
That he says to Alcibiades.
To Apemantus, he says:
“TIMON Away, thou issue of a mangy dog…”
That sounds better than “son of a bitch”.
One of the most interesting scenes in the play is the argument between Timon the misanthrope and Apemantus the cynic. Apemantus seeks him in the woods just to say “I told you so”, but Timon says Apemantus isn’t as good and above mankind as he thinks he is.
“TIMON […] I to bear this,
That never knew but better, in some burden.
Thy nature did commence in sufferance, time
Hath made thee hard in’t. Why shouldst thou hate men?
They never flattered thee. What hast thou given?
[…] If thou hadst not been born the worst of men,
Thou hadst been a knave and a flatterer.”
Timon has been driven to misanthropy because of naïveté and misplaced trust, but Apemantus has always been miserable and cynical. He has never known goodness; he has never given anyone anything; he sees nothing but filth and ugliness, like Thersites in Troilus and Cressida. Timon doesn’t embrace Apemantus just because of shared hatred for humankind.
And when Apemantus says he would give the world to the beasts and get rid of humankind, Timon has a long rant (which I’m too lazy to type here) saying that whatever beast Apemantus were, he would be eaten.
“TIMON […] All thy safety were remotion, and thy defense absence. What beast couldst thou be that were not subject to a beast? And what a beast art thou already, that seest not thy loss in transformation!”
And yet, if in this conversation and in the reunion with Flavius, Timon appears more sympathetic, many of his speeches in the final 2 acts are filled with genocidal rage. Timon swings from one extreme to another.
5/ Tony Tanner says about the play:
“It is composed of two starkly contrasting halves (the first half clearly more finished than the second). It is very static, the second half consisting of a series of interviews.”
I don’t particularly like the final act. There’s something unfinished, unpolished about it.
“Characterization is cursory, ‘penciled’, thin to the point of impersonality and abstraction. It seems more like an allegory or morality play (or even a folk tale—three false friends, loyal servant, etc.) than a fully developed drama.” (ibid.)
As I wrote above, the characters are not quite distinct. A few characters are types (senators, painter, poet), but the named characters may be confused for each other and can just be grouped together—except for Timon, Alcibiades, Apemantus, and Flavius.
Tony Tanner also says:
“The play has been seen as more of a bitter satire than a tragedy, and certainly there has been none of the dramatic conflict and sense of inexorable progress (or development and movement) that we experience in Shakespeare’s great tragedies (just compare Macbeth). Perhaps more to the point, there is no development in the ‘characters’, particularly of Timon. There is no halting but growing self-awareness, no bruising stumbling to an initially resisted self-knowledge. In his soliloquies, Timon exhibits none of the meditative inwardness and deepening self-exploration of Hamlet. When he stops giving, he starts cursing. Having postured and dispensed like a god, he turns to crawling and snarling like a beast.” (ibid.)
The thing is, Coriolanus also doesn’t have the inwardness and self-knowledge of Hamlet or Macbeth. He doesn’t really change either. But Coriolanus is multifaceted—in him are the contradictions of a brave and proud soldier, and a mama’s boy. Timon doesn’t really have many sides to his character, he just swings from one extreme to another. And then dies.