Apemantus, a key character from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, is a philosopher and a cynic. He dislikes Athenians (branding them all ‘knaves’, with no exceptions), and seems to be consumed by hate. But is this a fair assessment of Apemantus’ character, and his role in the play? Or is there a little more to him than that?
William Empson disagreed with fellow critic G. Wilson Knight over what Apemantus is meant to signify. For Knight, in his influential analysis of Timon of Athens in The Wheel of Fire (Routledge Classics), Apemantus was little more than a cynical man full of hatred for his fellow human beings, possessed of little more than ‘churlish cynicism and disgust’. For Knight, ‘Timon is a universal lover, Apemantus a universal cynic.’
For Empson, however, writing in his essay ‘Timon’s Dog’, the character of Apemantus is more than just a ‘a mere symbol of Nasty Cynicism and Hate’. Apemantus has wit and humour (especially ill humour, we might joke), and Shakespeare gives him some of the most memorable lines of the play. He never goes on a full rant about prostitution and venereal disease, as Timon does in the play’s last two acts; so there’s that in his favour, too. For more on Empson’s assessment of Shakespeare’s play, see his essay ‘Timon’s Dog’ in his The Structure of Complex Words (Penguin literary criticism).
Nevertheless, it’s true that Apemantus tells Timon that he finds all Athenians to be knaves, which leaves the same sour taste as saying that everyone from Liverpool is an untrustworthy sort. If it stops short of full-blown racial prejudice, it’s certainly civic prejudice, hating somebody simply because of where they come from. What’s more, where does Apemantus live? Surely he’s an Athenian as well? What’s he doing living in a city whose inhabitants he detests so much?
This provides a clue to what we might call a more Empsonian reading of Apemantus’ character. He is partly a symbol of cynicism and hate: indeed, he is a Cynic, belonging to that school of philosophy named after the Greek for ‘dog’. But there is a suggestion that, whilst his cynicism may be real, his hate is at least partly performative. And his cynicism performs a vital role in the play: many critics link Apemantus’ role of the ‘Critic’ in the play with similarly critical characters, such as the cynical Jaques from As You Like It, or, indeed, Hamlet. In other words, Apemantus’ cynicism has much to recommend it: he may not be the sort of person we’d want to go for a drink with (and he’d doubtless say no anyway, hating everyone), but he provides some of the best articulations of the greed, hypocrisy, and disloyalty at the heart of Athenian society. And since Athenian society in the play might be taken to represent Jacobean society, and Shakespeare’s own time, Apemantus gives voice to a more wide-ranging and deep-seated suspicion of others who show themselves unworthy of admiration.
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