04 April 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/14

Timon of Athens denounces the commercial universe

We cannot live on grass, on berries, water,
As beasts and birds and fishes.

Nor on the beasts themselves, on birds and fishes;
You must eat men. Yet thanks I must you con
That you are thieves professed, that you work not
In holier shapes; for there is boundless theft
In limited professions. Rascal thieves,
Here's gold. Go, suck the subtle blood o' th' grape,
Till the high fever seethe your blood to froth,
And so 'scape hanging. Trust not the physician;
His antidotes are poison, and he slays
Moe than you rob. Take wealth and lives together,
Do, villain, do, since you protest to do't.
Like workmen, I'll example you with thievery:
The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea. The moon's an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun.
The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears. The earth's a thief,
That feeds and breeds by a composture stol'n
From gen'ral excrement. Each thing's a thief.
The laws, your curb and whip, in their rough power
Has unchecked theft. Love not yourselves; away,
Rob one another. There's more gold; cut throats,
All that you meet are thieves. To Athens go,
Break open shops; nothing can you steal
But thieves do lose it. Steal less for this I give you,
And gold confound you howsoe'er. Amen.

Has almost charmed me from my profession by persuading me to it.

William Shakespeare, Timon of Athens, Act IV, scene 3, ll 429 - 457

As we are approaching the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death on April 23, I've decided to do an all-Shakespeare month here at Poem of the Week, concentrating on some of his more obscure plays – which raises the question of what is actually "obscure" in the works of one of the world's most celebrated writers. For example, above is a selection from one of his least-known and least-performed plays, and right in the middle we have a phrase – pale fire – that Nabokov borrowed as the title of one of his most famous novels. If you read the collected volume of Shaw's writings on Shakespeare, you will see that though he speaks admiringly of The Winter's Tale he never had a chance to review a production of it; now it seems like one of the more popular plays, rivaling the ever-classic Tempest as the most highly regarded of the late romances. Even Titus Andronicus, once critically seen as a youthful aberration and abomination (assuming it was even by The Master, which many tried to deny), has come into its own in our time, appreciated by the same audiences that can appreciate the films of Quentin Tarantino.

There are theories about the play and its problematic state. Years ago, it was generally considered unfinished, making it into the First Folio only to fill up blank pages caused by temporary difficulties getting the rights to or a good text of other plays. The more popular current theory seems to be that the play is actually a collaboration, probably with Thomas Middleton (it's even included in the recent Oxford collection of The Collected Works of Thomas Middleton). An emphasis on collaboration among early modern playwrights is much more prominent than it used to be. Whatever your theory, the play has some obvious difficulties: there are plot strands that are not worked out; it's never clear whom Alcibiades is pleading for in Act III scene 5, pleading which leads to his banishment; or why, when he invades Athens seeking revenge, he claims to be acting on behalf of Timon, who has by then turned his back on the city; varying sums are given for the money Timon tries to borrow; there are two epitaphs for Timon at the end – these things make the play fascinating if you're fascinated by theater history, but difficult to stage for ordinary theaters.

It doesn't help that we are no longer as familiar with the basic story as the original audience would have been. The misanthropic Timon was well known, and is cited as a byword for that personality type in an earlier Shakespeare play, Love's Labor's Lost, when Berowne sneers at the loss of dignity love has caused among his fellows:

O me, with what strict patience I have sat,
To see a king transformèd to a gnat!
To see great Hercules whipping a gig,
And profound Solomon to tune a jig,
And Nestor play at push-pin with the boys,
And critic Timon laugh at idle toys!

Love's Labor's Lost, Act IV, scene 3, ll 164 - 169

(A gig is a top, which you make spin by whipping; push-pin was a children's game, critic means savagely critical, misanthropic.)

When the play opens, Timon is a rich and absurdly magnanimous host in Athens, lavishing expensive gifts and fancy meals on his already rich and powerful friends, despite his steward Flavius's attempts to warn him that his generosity has already eaten up all of his wealth and credit and when those go, so will his so-called friends (feast-won, fast-lost is his incisive summation, with fast meaning both quickly and to abstain from food). There is a corrosive philosopher/street-person named Apemantus who hangs around denouncing everyone (Thersites in Troilus and Cressida is another example of this type in Shakespeare). The crash comes and Timon discovers that his friends suddenly can't spare him either their time or money. Timon becomes as unmeasured in his rage as in his bounty, eventually retreating to a cave outside of town where he can avoid the hateful sight of humanity. Apemantus, who feels that his own behavior is motivated by philosophy, finds Timon a merely circumstantial hater, as extreme and unbalanced in his fury and disgust as in his bounty.

Digging for roots near his cave in the woods, Timon stumbles on a hidden cache of gold coins. Instead of springing back to his former ways, Timon is only confirmed in his contempt for humanity, as word gets out that he's rich again and he suddenly has visitors in the wilds. Some of those who spread the word are the bandits who come across him in the scene excerpted here. After they reject his counsel to live off what they can forage, Timon erupts with this lengthy curse, a view of a world devouring itself, an entire universe living off theft. He concludes his long rant with Amen, as he often does, suggesting a metaphysical finality and a religious-prophetic aura around his speech.

Some vocabulary notes: in the second line of Timon's speech, con means admit to, confess; limited professions are the higher-ranking, more restricted professions, such as doctor or lawyer; like workmen, I'll example you with thievery means I'll give you practical examples of your profession, as one shows workmen what one wants done; composture is compost; the laws, . . . in their rough power, / Has unchecked theft suggests both that the laws have failed to check (stop) theft and also that they have given themselves unlimited power of theft.

The reference to the limited professions is crucial to Timon's speech; his loathing, like his lavishness, was all spent on the leaders of society, what today we might call the 1%, the powerful and connected and those who live off them (like the sycophantic Poet and the obsequious Painter who come in for some especially cutting satire). Timon's rage is fueled by a society based on profit and exploitation, in which all social relations are commodities and personal interest is paramount – this is the world of unchecked capitalism, and Timon cannot see beyond the limited class of successful capitalists. Some might see models of mutual cooperation and sacrifice in the complex interactions among sun, moon, and sea, and renewal in the way earth is continually enriched with decaying matter; Timon sees only theft and self-advantage, a thieving world that feeds off others, ultimately devouring itself. In his final lines he adjures the bandits to steal from merchants (the rising commercial class), since they are no better than thieves themselves, and there is no honor among thieves.

There's truth in what Timon says, but it's a narrow and ultimately self-serving truth – Timon excuses his own foolish, heedless behavior by blaming the foul and false nature of mankind. He does not see that his heedless extravagance and superficial relationships encouraged the self-interested and hypocritical behavior of those he favored. He does not see and cannot comprehend the generosity and mutual support among his former servants, and when he grudgingly has to admit to himself that Flavius is still faithful and true, he insists that Flavius is a unique exception to the general run of humanity, and he makes a point of noting his lowly status: and he's a steward (Act IV, scene 3, l 507). He doesn't even notice that even the bandits are almost persuaded to give up their thieving ways, after his vehement, hate-filled exhortations.  Timon is a comedy, of a caustic and satirical kind, and its strange hero is as much the subject of comedy as the rest of the cast.

I used the Signet Classic edition of Timon of Athens, edited by Maurice Charney, which now seems available only in a volume with Titus Andronicus – two strange, blackly tragicomic works set in the classical past.


Unknown said...

I have spent a lifetime hearing a less well-written version of that speech from both of my parents, though they would argue that they didn't agree with each other on anything.

As you know, my interests usually go to science, and I was thrilled to read that parts about moon, sun, earth and ocean because the realization of the importance of those cycles wouldn't become part of scientific thinking for centuries, really (though perhaps I'm reading too much into it by assuming that Shakespeare is showing understanding of cycles of energy and matter). What I'm curious about is the one about the ocean stealing salt from the moon. Everything else is absolutely scientifically correct, except that one. I've never come across anything about people once thinking that. Do you know anything about this?


Patrick J. Vaz said...

I think there was a general understanding of the interrelationships among sun, moon, and tides without perhaps a specific understanding of the mechanisms by which that happened. In the lines you're asking about, it's not salt that the ocean steals from the moon -- it's salt tears; that is, a liquid (which forms the ocean's waves). Those lines are actually footnoted in my edition, with the following explanation: "(the idea is that the sea's tides are stolen from the moon's precipitation)". I didn't know that about the alleged precipitation on the moon (because apparently I've been skipping this footnote regularly in the 45 years since I first read this play) and I'm not sure it's even necessary for an explanation, as the lines could simply refer to the tides taking their movement from the moon. "Resolve" can mean "to break down into its basic elements", as in Hamlet's "O that this too, too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew" -- so I think what's really crucial here for the meaning of the passage is the sense of the moon not only being robbed but breaking down, with its basic element being "salt tears" that form the "liquid surge" of the waves -- that is, the basic universal element is the sorrowing one of tears. Not all that sciencey, but then Timon is not motivated by philosophy, natural or other.