Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Even Shakespeare's Not Perfect: A Review of 'Timon of Athens' by William Shakespeare

Even geniuses need to redraft. Shakespeare was a jobbing writing, so I imagine he had to pick his creative battles, and Timon of Athens was not one of them. Narrative rules of thumb exist for a reason. Rules such as: ‘If you have a character arc, don’t give the first half to one character and the second half to another.’ If you start a play with a character learning to hate all humanity because a few people have wronged him, and you end the play with a character learning to put his hate away when he realises that those few people don’t equal all humanity, then you should ensure they are the same character. And if you are going to have a character realise that not all people are despicable, you should obey the parroting of creative writing manuals, and show us these non-despicable people, rather than just telling us they exist.
There is a rich Athenian called Timon, who gives much charity, gifts, and feasts. He is popular. It has slipped Timon’s mind that he’s paying for these charities, gifts, and feasts with debt. Because Athens has no credit rating authority, Timon’s creditor’s come calling long after he’s lost all ability to repay them. Believing his past beneficiaries will become his present benefactors, Timon asks his friends to bail him out. They refuse, given it is a very large debt, which is primarily his fault. After throwing rocks at his ‘mouth-friends’, he moves to a forest, where he moans about how terrible people are to every passer-by. Meanwhile, an Athenian general called Alcibiades tries to appeal the death sentence of a friend who killed a man in a pub fight. Alcibiades is refused, banished, and so decides to bring an army to destroy Athens. Meanwhile, Timon dies off-stage. In the end, two senators surrender to Alcibiades, and convince him not to kill everyone.            

My summary is only slightly facetious. While Timon still dominates the stage-time, he loses all effect on the plot after he moves to the forest. Narrative momentum shifts to Alcibiades, who has spoken, before this, less than ten lines. But a character does not need to wreak changes on the plot, so long as they wreak changes in themselves. Yet Timon stops developing in the play’s second half. In the whole play, Timon develops from faith in humanity to misanthropy, and then he stays there, before dying. Alcibiades also changes: he starts as a good Athenian, before growing to hate Athens, before realising it’s rash to hate everyone in Athens. Alcibiades’ end complements Timon’s beginning. Had Shakespeare redrafted this a few times, I imagine Timon and Alcibiades’ roles would merge.

Perhaps Shakespeare thought Timon had become such a grump that redemption would stretch belief. Timon’s reason for hating everyone is stronger than Alcibiades’. Although Timon’s bankruptcy is his own fault, that his ‘friends’ refuse to help pay his debts, debts he incurred while giving them gifts, feasts, and even bailing one out of prison, is excessively mean. We sympathise with Timon’s sense of betrayal. We understand how this resentment towards a few ingrates bloats into a hatred for all mankind. Even if we don’t agree with this hatred, we feel its stubborn rationale. Washing this hatred away would require Timon experiencing humanity’s innocence as intensely as he experienced his friends’ betrayal.

Washing away Alcibiades hatred needs far less force, because the cause of his hatred was far pettier. He is not wronged by his ungrateful friends; he is wronged by the single senator who upheld his comrade’s death sentence and banished Alcibiades. Alcibiades perhaps extends his hatred to all Athens because its legal system killed a fellow veteran, thus showing Athens’ ingratitude towards those who fight for it. But the audience have far less sympathy for this extrapolation, because Alcibiades cannot rationally justify it. His comrade earned his death sentence by killing a man in a drunken brawl. Alcibiades rationalises this by arguing, with escalating speciousness: My friend has his ‘reputation touched to death’, possessing him with ‘noble-fury’ (III.v.19, 18); he killed in self-defence; and doesn’t everyone get angry sometimes. The obvious responses are: it is not nobility to kill a man for insulting you; it is not self-defence if you started a fight because someone insulted you; and, yes, everyone does get angry, but not to the point of manslaughter. For lack of any convincing appeals, the senator is right to uphold the death sentence. The senator only oversteps his bounds when he exiles Alcibiades for trying to commute the death sentence. Exile is little better than bankruptcy, so we can understand why Alcibiades would become so enraged as to martial an army against Athens. And because his hatred was planted in a shallower wound than Timon’s, we can also understand how a single dialogue with the surrendering Athenian senators is enough to uproot this hatred. But the shallowness of the wound makes the uprooting less dramatic. It would have taken more work, more psychological development, more ideological confrontation to uproot Timon’s hatred, but – because of this extra work – it would have affected the audience more.

Maybe, and more respectably, Shakespeare thought a misanthrope renouncing hatred would have been a tad trite, and so had Timon remain hateful. A daring sentiment, botched in the execution. The dramatic force of Timon’s decision, regardless of it being to keep or stop hating, is undermined by Shakespeare only telling us about instead of showing us the humanity Timon hates. Let’s first consider the ending as is.

Although originally intending to lay ‘proud Athens on a heap’ (IV.iii.102), Alcibiades is dissuaded from massacre by the Athenian senators. They argue:

All have not offended.
For those that were, it is not square to take
On those that are, revenges: crimes like lands
Are not inherited. Then, dear countryman,
Bring in thy ranks, but leave without thy rage.
Spare thy Athenian cradle and those kin
Which, in the bluster of thy wrath, must fall
With those that have offended. Like a shepherd,
Approach the fold and cull th’infected forth,
But kill not all together.
In short: one guy screwing you over doesn’t mean everyone deserves to die. A well-argued point, but note that it is only argued. The ‘Athenian cradle’ and ‘kin’ never appear on stage. We do not feel the danger they are in, nor do we feel relief for them when Alcibiades restrains his wrath.

While it is bad form for a critic to rewrite the work they’re reviewing, and vainglorious if that work is by Shakespeare, I have some changes for the final act. Alcibiades is ready to ravage the city, to take revenge, but then he, and the audience, sees the people his sword will cut: the children and citizens who have harmed no one. More than just an argument that not every Athenian deserves death, we would see evidence.

I shall rewrite the play some more, returning Timon to the centre, and still following the rule of ‘show, don’t tell’. Where in the play as it is Timon remains in misanthropic mopes until he dies off-stage, in the rewritten play Timon would have his misanthropy challenged by innocent humanity. While Timon is wrong to hate everyone, you can’t blame him for thinking everyone’s scum, based on the people he meets in the play. After being betrayed, he meets: a genocidal general; prostitutes willing to veneeally plague Athens for gold; a philosopher more pessimistic than Timon; three bandits; two artists looking for a commission; and two senators who’ve heard Timon’s found gold in the forest. A good belief (or dogma) can withstand counterargument, and Timon has met no argument countering his misanthropy, with the sole exception of his former servant Flavius. Timon must meet some people who, to the audience at least, do not deserve hate. This would either: dissolve Timon’s misanthropy; or, confirm the strength of his misanthropy, though not the truth of it.

Hearing Alcibiades means to massacre Athens, Timon would witness the massacre. For it is one thing to say, ‘If Alcibiades kill my countrymen … Timon cares not’ (V.i.169), but quite another to see the killed and say, ‘I don’t care’. Two developments can result from witnessing slaughter: one, Timon realises these innocents don’t deserve to die, so renounces his misanthropy; two, Timon remains convinced that humans are scum, and so even ‘innocents’ shouldn’t be wept over. In both cases, showing the audience the innocent citizens enhances the dramatic force. Either we would see Timon recant his misanthropy, and we would believe his recantation because we have seen the atrocity he has seen; or, we would see him retain his misanthropy, a steadfastness made more chilling because we see an atrocity that makes us feel pity, but which stirs nothing in Timon.   

Again, Timon of Athens is not a bad play. Alluring moments and monologues almost make up for the flawed whole. A side character spontaneously becomes a main character who steals the title character’s arc, the title character has one burst of character growth and then remains in surly stasis, and the innocent human beings that the thematic climax depends on never appear in the play. Timon of Athens is not a bad play, but we can see everything stopping it from being a good one. 

Quotes taken from the black Penguin edition of Timon of Athens. https://www.amazon.com/Timon-Athens-Penguin-Shakespeare-William-ebook/dp/B003AYZBGG

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