THE DRAMA OF DESPAIR: "TIMON OF ATHENS"
"Timon" marks the extremity of Shakespeare's suffering. It is not to be
called a work of art, it is hardly even a tragedy; it is the causeless
ruin of a soul, a ruin insufficiently motived by complete trust in men
and spendthrift generosity. If there was ever a man who gave so lavishly
as Timon, if there was ever one so senseless blind in trusting, then he
deserved his fate. There is no gradation in his giving, and none in his
fall; no artistic crescendo. The whole drama is, as I have said, a
scream of suffering, or rather, a long curse upon all the ordinary
conditions of life. The highest qualities of Shakespeare are not to be
found in the play. There are none of the magnificent phrases which
bejewel "Lear"; little of high wisdom, even in the pages which are
indubitably Shakespeare's, and no characterization worth mentioning. The
honest steward, Flavius, is the honest Kent again of "Lear," honest and
loyal beyond nature; Apemantus is another Thersites. Words which throw a
high light on Shakespeare's character are given to this or that
personage of the play without discrimination. One phrase of Apemantus is
as true of Shakespeare as of Timon and is worth noting:
"The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the
extremity of both ends."
The tragic sonnet-note is given to Flavius:
"What viler thing upon the earth than friends
Who can bring noblest minds to basest ends!"
In so far as Timon is a character at all he is manifestly Shakespeare,
Shakespeare who raves against the world, because he finds no honesty in
men, no virtue in women, evil everywhere--"boundless thefts in limited
professions." This Shakespeare-Timon swings round characteristically as
soon as he finds that Flavius is honest:
"Had I a steward
So true, so just, and now so comfortable?
It almost turns my dangerous nature mild.
Let me behold thy face. Surely this man
Was born of woman.
<i>Forgive my general and exceptless rashness,
You perpetual-sober gods</i>! I do proclaim
One honest man--mistake me not--but one ..."
I cannot help putting the great and self-revealing line [Footnote: This
passage is among those rejected by the commentators as un-Shakespearean:
"it does not stand the test," says the egregious Gollancz.] in italics;
a line Tolstoi would, no doubt, think stupid-pompous. Timon ought to
have known his steward, one might say in Tolstoi's spirit, as Lear
should have known his daughters; but this is still the tragedy, which
Shakespeare wishes to emphasize that his hero was blind in trusting.
Towards the end Shakespeare speaks through Timon quite unfeignedly:
Richard II. said characteristically:
"Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing:"
And Timon says to Flavius:
Of health and living now begins to mend
And nothing brings me all things."
Then the end:
"Timon hath made his everlasting mansion
Upon the beachèd verge of the salt flood...."
We must not leave this play before noticing the overpowering erotic
strain in Shakespeare which suits Timon as little as it suited Lear. The
long discussion with Phrynia and Timandra is simply dragged in: neither
woman is characterized: Shakespeare-Timon eases himself in pages of
"... Strike me the counterfeit matron;
It is her habit only that is honest,
Herself's a bawd:..."
In hollow bones of man...........