Is Timon a sympathetic character or not? Is he, in Harold Bloom’s words in Shakespeare: The Invention Of The Human, a ‘defrauded idealist’ or a ‘gullible fool’? Is he a kind man whose generosity is taken advantage of, who then slides into understandable misanthropy when he finds that others will not help him as he has helped them? Or is he, as Samuel Johnson and other critics have been led to believe, a naïve fool who allowed himself to be taken in by his friends’ flattery? The text certainly encourages us to view Timon as the latter. The men he is giving this money to are hardly the poorest Athenians. There’s a strong suggestion that Timon is trying to curry favour with influential people, like the rich kid who buys all his friends things so they’ll like him. What’s more, the money he’s giving them isn’t really his to give, as the arrival of the creditors reveals.
Timon seems incapable of moderation, as Apemantus himself observes when he tells Timon, ‘The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends’ (IV.3): he spends the first half of the play chucking his money about as though its supply is inexhaustible, proclaiming all Athenians to be worthy of welcome at his table; he then spends the rest of the play decrying all Athenians for being grasping and sinful and retires to a spartan existence in the woods. Apemantus, the philosopher, tries to warn him that the people he is giving all this money to are not worthy of such gifts, but then Apemantus is hardly a paragon of fairness and objectivity himself. As a Cynic, he believes all Athenians to be knaves simply because they are Athenians.
However, since William Hazlitt mounted a defence of Timon in the early nineteenth century, some critics have begun to view Timon of Athens as a wronged character:
Apemantus, it is said, ‘loved few things better than to abhor himself’. This is not the case with Timon, who neither loves to abhor himself nor others. All his vehement misanthropy is forced, up-hill work. From the slippery turns of fortune, from the turmoils of passion and adversity, he wishes to sink into the quiet of the grave. On that subject his thoughts are intent, on that he finds time and place to grow romantic. He digs his own grave by the sea-shore; contrives his funeral ceremonies amidst the pomp of desolation, and builds his mausoleum of the elements.
As we remarked in our analysis of the play, Timon gives away his gold in a recklessly excessive and liberal fashion both before and after he leaves Athens to go and live in his cave; except his ‘generosity’ in the latter half of the play springs from hatred of the people he gives it to, rather than fondness. There is something fitting about his decision to go and live in a cave: as well as symbolising a return to a simpler existence away from the need for money, pomp, and society, it is also ripe with what we’d now call psychoanalytic or Freudian significance, with the cave representing the womb-like space to which Timon is so desperate to return, and manages to at the end of the play, with his death.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.