The Golden Boys of Athens
‘So much I love his heart. But I perceive
Men must learn now with pity to dispense;
For policy sits above conscience’
Timon of Athens, Act III; Scene II
This article contains major spoilers of a play roughly four centuries old.
Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens was most likely written in collaboration with lesser-known playwright Thomas Middleton. Although more commonly categorised as a Shakespearean tragedy, it also numbers among the Bard’s historical plays, due to being set in ancient Athens. Its story is built around a brief digression found in Plutarch’s brilliant Life of Antony, which, intriguingly, also provides the plot to another tragedy by Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra.
What makes Timon of Athens stand out from the rest of Shakespeare, in my opinion, is the fact that it is a proper, full-length play based on a relatively obscure titbit of historiography. This tasked, or forced, the author(s) to mostly re-imagine, to recreate the ‘life and times’ of the Athenian Timon, rather than to adapt a set story.
Of the plays I’ve read during my twenty-four years on this Earth, Timon of Athens is by far my favourite.
Still, I freely admit that it is not without its flaws and weaknesses, of which it is often criticised: perhaps the chief one being that Timon, as a protagonist, is wholly unlikeable. He starts out as this extravagant-to-the-point-of-idiocy lord of Athens, who frequently hosts banquets for the multitude and gives away wondrous gifts, ranging from jewellery and horses to cold hard Athenian cash.
As expected of a tragedy, the play soon moves on to depict his funds suddenly running dry, his debtors all deciding to strike at once, and his former ‘friends’ abandoning him during this hour of need.
Timon then realises that he is utterly broke, as well as hounded by debtors. How does he take the news?
He, in an astonishingly quick turn of events, resolves to become an enemy of humanity, a misanthrope. And not just any misanthrope; just as he was a first-rate benefactor of Athens, he now opts to emerge as the opposite: a first-rate critic of humankind. Accordingly, he moves from the city to a cave, going from fancy banquets to nibbling on plant roots, advising those who dare visit him to bugger off, to avoid other people, or to harm Athens in one way or another.
Upon picking up Timon of Athens, the reader will immediately reach the conclusion that were Timon to simply manage his finances better, most of the events therein could be averted: as literature students well know, these sort of fatal character flaws are typically found in the protagonist of a tragedy. Also: Timon fits the Aristotelian concept of tragedy presenting the kind of action that arouses pity in the viewer; naturally, idiocy fulfils this requirement.
But surely Timon’s errors can be defended in some way?
Well, not really.
To begin with, Timon cannot be excused for being too busy to notice his dire situation. He has a friend/steward in Flavius, who dutifully keeps reminding him about the estate’s financial plight; but Timon refuses to pay attention to his steward, ultimately causing his downfall. When Flavius finally gets his message through Timon’s thick skull, he has the nerve to lash out at the poor servant.
Thus, the protagonist of this play, Timon, is an irredeemable big spender entirely detached from reality.
It really is the commonplace quality of what sets the events of Timon of Athens in motion that, in my mind, elevates it above the rest of Shakespeare. No love triangles, magic potions or feuding families are found in this play—but simple ignorance and its ruinous consequences.
Likewise, absent are the things one might expect from a play set in the Ancient: offerings to gods, prophecies, divine intervention, and so forth. It is purely societal stature that dictates the daily life of the Athenians in Timon of Athens.
A notion the reader should note is that absolutely no backstory of Timon is given in the play; the origins of his ‘wealth’, whether genuine or merely borrowed, are pure speculation. Shakespeare had no source on the nature of Timon’s means—neither does the reader.
Perhaps an unexpected side product of this play, which, I remind you, is concocted from a very short digression in a history book, is a gritty, very ‘real’ story set in the Ancient world. It preaches the message that, across time, human nature changes slowly, if at all. Yet, funnily enough, the play is not ‘real’ in the sense of the historical; it is derived chiefly from the imaginations of Shakespeare (and Middleton).
Although Herman Melville famously lauded Timon’s characterisation, his character arc – which ranges from puerile to repugnant – certainly makes him seem like a lacklustre protagonist. Unlike Hamlet or old Lear, whose sins we can easily waive off on grounds of their surrounding worlds influencing their decisions, Timon hardly warrants sympathy from the reader’s part.
After all, he alone is to blame for his poor decisions.
Furthermore, he never shows any regret for his personal failures during his later bout of headstrong misanthropy. In a way, he becomes a creature, a beast, echoing Medieval (and later) opinions on a person’s failure to partake in society.
Something that defines Timon is that he is an absolute, as noted in the play itself. The authors flat-out state, through the voice of Apemantus, a philosopher character, that ‘The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends.’. This leads to Timon being difficult for the reader to sympathise with, because only few can relate to the ‘1 %’, and only few can relate to those destitute.
But let us stray away from Timon and his reclusive character.
In looking someone to sympathise with, readers might instead turn their heads towards Alcibiades, a brave and hot-headed captain. In the play, Alcibiades is more akin to the fleshed-out characters found in the rest of Shakespeare’s historical plays, those brimming with determination, the stern ones that trot about proudly, dressed in their crimson cloaks, especially prominent Roman characters such as the austere Coriolanus.
To say the least, the character of Alcibiades contrasts heavily with the peculiar Timon.
Incidentally, whilst this Alcibiades is a product of the Bard’s quill, we should note that a historical Alcibiades features, maybe unsurprisingly, as a subject of Plutarch’s Lives. Moreover, the work records the brief meeting of Alcibiades and the real-life Timon.
The historical character of Alcibiades is complex. Mostly, he was perceived as a prototype ‘great man’, a singularly talented individual, who had the complete package: the looks, the charisma, the skills, the drive, and the ancestry. Following the death of Pericles, during the Peloponnesian War, many contemporaries regarded Alcibiades as the foremost Athenian general; likewise, many feared that he would secretly aspire to become a tyrant.
Plutarch’s description of the guy encapsulates the above well: ‘[Alcibiades was] naturally a man of many strong passions, the mightiest of which were the love of rivalry and the love of preëminence’.
Yet the life of historical Alcibiades was, for the lack of a better term, unlucky. He moved around the Mediterranean after being forced out of Athens, and historians generally agree that he never got the opportunity to show his skills in warfare or politics completely.
Markedly different is the Alcibiades present in Timon of Athens. He is seen here as a man extremely proud of his personal prowess and reputation; much like Coriolanus, he challenges the senatorial body on his own, with similar results. The senators banish him for defending a soldier of his; Alcibiades notes that it is true that the soldier had murdered someone in cold blood, but argues that all men make mistakes and deserve a second chance.
Here, too, we can detect contrast with Timon: Alcibiades fights back at society, whilst Timon chooses to withdraw from it.
Moreover, Alcibiades’s boldness in placing everything on the line: his reputation, societal position in Athens, and future, over the sentence of a single soldier of his, says a lot about his character. He is the man, I think, we all strive to be.
Then, how does Alcibiades tie into Timon’s storyline? When not defending Athens, he is a ‘friend’ to Timon—a unique one in the sense that he is amusingly indifferent towards the man, both during his heyday and following solitude. Even the very end of the play, a potentially emotional moment, sees Alcibiades shrug off the news of Timon’s miserable death; instead he looks to the future and focuses on his own ambitions.
The problem with Alcibiades in Timon of Athens, in my opinion, is that he is simply too perfect. Despite of all Timon’s faults, having a side character take over his story is just too damn cruel: and in the process, he reduced an intricate historical figure into a stock figure.
One can only ponder what Shakespeare might’ve meant by this. Despite the poor reception of the play, I think there is an important thing the reader/viewer can learn from it: that the fortunes of human life, are, in all their capacity, often more mysterious than we can at first imagine.
Still, in Timon of Athens, you’ll find not one, but two men, true to themselves, as well as signs of the mightiest of Shakespeare’s sources.
Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens is available on Gutenberg here.