Shakespeare’s The Life of Timon of Athens is an overlooked gem in his corpus. Though less accomplished than many of his other tragedies, this moral drama is distinctive – and timely – in its focus on the relationship between money and affection. It satirizes some amusing characters, including a churlish cynic philosopher and two artists who only ply their craft to win rewards. The play also features some choice language.
In Timon of Athens, our titular protagonist buys the love of his countrymen with generous gifts, but his largesse is loaned. When his creditors come asking for payment, a bankrupt Timon finds that none of his “friends” will bail him out. Banished by Athens, a disillusioned Timon rejects the human world and becomes a hermitic misanthrope. He dies soon after in a cave.
But Timon doesn’t go gently – or quietly – into that good night. He gives everyone a piece of his bitter mind before he goes, including the Lords he once regaled. They try to buddy up to him after rattling off excuses for why they couldn’t help him. In a punchy turn of phrase, he derides them as a “mouth-friends,” loyal in word alone (3.7.81). “Live loathed and long,” Timon rails,
Most smiling and smooth, detested parasites,
Courteous destroyers, affable wolves, meek bears,
You fools of fortune, trencher-friends, times’ flies,
Cap-and-knee slaves, vapours, and minute-jacks!
Of man and beast the infinite malady
Crust you quite o’er. (3.7.85-91)
Shakespeare conveys disingenuousness in a string of sharp and condensed images, like the “meek bear,” gentle in appearance but ferocious by nature. He also conveys it with some now-historical insults. A “trencher-friend” lasted only over mealtime. “Times’ flies” died off come the cold. “Cap-and-knee slaves” obsequiously doffed their caps and took knees to greet their masters. “Minute-jacks,” as the Norton Shakespeare explains, were figures that struck the bells on medieval clocks, thus “timeservers.”
In the next scene, Timon broadens the target of his ire in quite the spleen-splitting soliloquy. He commands the young: “Son of sixteen, / Pluck the lined crutch from thy limping sire; With it beat out his brains!” (4.1.13-15). He attacks the old: “Thou cold sciatica, / Cripple our senators, that their limbs may halt / As lamely as their manners!” (4.1.23-25). He curses all of Athens: “Itches, blains, / Sow all th’ Athenians bosoms, and their crop / Be general leprosy” (4.1.28-30).
The infectious imprecations take a sexual turn when Timon condemns two prostitutes, further figures of purchased affection who “will do anything for gold” (4.3.149). “Hold up, you sluts, / Your aprons mountant,” or skirts lifted, he sounds off (4.3.134-35). He actually then throws gold into those skirts.
The usage of slut stands out here. It’s a surprisingly old term . The Oxford English Dictionary first cites this word of obscure origin in 1402, when it referred to a slovenly women. Its sense of “promiscuous” emerges as late as the 1960s.
Timon also inveighs against the prostitutes’ appearances:
…Yet may your pain-sick months
Be quite contrary, and thatch your poor thin roofs
With the burdens of the dead – some that were hanged,
No matter. Wear them, betray with them; whore still;
Paint till a horse may mire upon your face.
A pox of wrinkles! (4.3.143-48)
“Thatch your poor thin roofs / With the burdens of the dead,” as the Norton Shakespeare helpfully glosses, means “wear wigs made of corpses’ hair to cover your syphilitic baldness.” And “paint till a horse may mire upon your face” alludes to the amount of makeup he derides them for wearing.
But for Timon, it’s not enough for the prostitutes to fall ill to venereal disease: He wills it on their customers. Shakespeare is very descriptive about what effects syphilis will have: “hollow bones” (bone degeneration), “crack the lawyer’s voice” (ulcerous larynx), “down with the nose” (a collapsed nasal bridge), and genital sores: “Plague all, / That your activity may defeat and quell / The source of all erection” (4.3.161-63).
Timon meets his sweary match, though, when he reencounters Apemantus, whose message of man’s untrustworthiness had long been dogging him. Timon often calls the philosopher a dog (e.g., “beggar’s dog,” “mangy dog”). Dog is indeed a widespread term of abuse in Shakespeare, but it has additional meaning in this play, as cynic derives from the Greek word for “dog.” The two exchange a withering repartee. Timon issues a few disses that might land in the dozens today, like “If thou wert the ass, thy dullness would torment thee” (4.3.328) and “I’d beat thee, but I should infect my hands” (4.3.356).
Yet Timon remains as egocentric in his misanthropy as he was in his profligate, flattery-seeking munificence. He fails to identify even with the cynical Apemantus and regresses into a comical, child-like petulance:
TIMON Away, thou tedious rogue!
[He throws a stone at APEMANTUS]
I am sorry I shall lose a stone by thee.
TIMON Rogue, rogue, rogue!
I am sick of this false world…(4.3.361-68)
So sick, Timon is, that he dies of it shortly thereafter in his cave. But he still manages to give humanity one last finger in his final, sweary act: his epitaph. It reads:
Here lies a wretched corpse,
Of wretched soul bereft.
Seek not my name. A plague consume
You wicked caitiffs left!
Here lie I, Timon, who alive
All living men did hate.
Pass by and curse thy fill, but pass
And stay not here thy gait. (5.5.71-78)
“Curse thy fill” indeed. Timon’s misanthropy is obtuse, stubborn, self-pitying, and somewhat tiresome, and the play itself is a tad moralistic. But at least Timon is consistent – and, delighting lovers of Shakespeare and strong language alike, has a consistently, impressively, foul mouth.
BBC has an excellent production of Timon from 1981, starring Jonathan Pryce and directed by Jonathan Miller.