The Anti-Spectacular in Timon of Athens

Par Richard Hillman
Publication en ligne le 28 janvier 2010


Cet article présente l’argument que Timon of Athens déploie et aborde le spectaculaire en plaine connaissance de cause pour exposer la superficialité de la société athénienne, sinon de la nature humaine. Le protagoniste lui-même lutte contre cette superficialité sans succès, car il finit dans une tombe solitaire quelconque, alors qu’Alcibiades prend possession de la cité de façon ostentatoire. Cet aspect de la tragédie est lié à la technique épisodique et symbolique des «romances», mais sans offrir les possibilités infinies des dernières pièces shakespeariennes, ce qui revient à une redéfinition du genre tragique.

Texte intégral

1When Rolf Soellner subtitled his 1979 monograph on Timon – still the outstanding specimen of a rare breed – Shakespeare's Pessimistic Tragedy1, he was slyly inviting readers to distinguish layers and kinds of pessimism. My own title more bluntly suggests a binary approach to the premise of this conference2 – the spectacular qualities of Shakespearean drama – but I similarly seek to set the aesthetic of Timon less apart from than provocatively athwart a dominant trend. My two-fold point is, first, that the play's exploitation of the spectacular is distinctive in itself, then, that it generates an anti-spectacular counter-current associated with its protagonist's sour-grapes campaign against a "people lifestyle," the people who lead it, then people in general – in visual terms, against the glistering of gold. The result is a parting of the semiotic ways, one of which leads Timon to a self-effacement equalled by no other tragic protagonist in the Early Modern English theatre: he dies, not just out of spite, but out of sight.

2The case holds, I think, even if other elements that set the play apart within the canon complicate the picture and, indeed, remain elusive in themselves. These include the absence of any recorded contemporary staging, though that is hardly unique. Neither is the probable collaborative authorship (Middleton being the favoured candidate)3. More troublesome is the multiply problematic state of the text, which, moreover, apparently made it into the Folio by the skin of its teeth when the copy for Troilus and Cressida became temporarily unavailable. The inconsistencies and loose ends on every level from the linguistic to the organisational have spawned several theories as to the nature of the printer's copy, the dominant one – from E. K. Chambers to H. J. Oliver (the second Arden editor) – being that the play was abandoned unfinished, well short of final revisions. This may be true, though foul papers originating with two authors might give the same impression4. In any case, such revision would not very likely have extended to a death scene for Timon, even if it might have put "tragedy" into a title that now announces only his "life" and thereby abets the obscuring of his death.

3Editors have strongly suggested, in particular, that one of the two couplet-epitaphs combined from the alternatives reported by Plutarch would probably have been suppressed:

 “Here lies a wretched corse, 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.” (V.4.70-73)5

4Timon's exit lines, in fact, provide a convenient point of entry into my subject. First, I must say that I do not find his posthumous one-two punch as contradictory as does, say, the second Arden editor (n. to V.4.70-73): in the initial couplet, the corpse enjoins the epitaph-reader not to "seek" his name; next, he spits out the information himself, as if Yorick's "chop-fall'n" (Hamlet, V.1.192)6 skull were to talk back to Hamlet. This amounts to a typically Timon-like deflation of a would-be interlocutor, but also a last discursive slap in the face for spectacle: "pass and stay not here thy gait" because, once and for all, as far as Timon is concerned, there is nothing to see.

5This is certainly true for the audience. The compound epitaph is copied – in wax, as is mentioned twice (V.3.6, V.4.68) – by the soldier who stumbles on the sea-side grave, then carried to Alcibiades to be read out. The scene of the discovery, itself less-than-spectacular – it is a "low grave" (V.4.79), Alcibiades will specify – but at least directly presented, is thus overcast by evocation, displaced in visual memory, just as the couplet-epitaph of the previous scene, the one the soldier could read, is first doubly overwritten, then overspoken. It passes from stone to wax impression to Alcibiades' evanescent voice, which moves on quickly enough to a subject that, like most people, he prefers – himself. The regression corresponds to the corporal self-effacement, in the name of contemptible humanity, which Timon himself has enacted, but which he intended as a statement. The change from Plutarch's Life of Marcus Antonius points up the element of agency: "He died in the City of Hales, and was buried upon the Sea side7." It smacks of Houdini to bury oneself, but Shakespeare's Timon seems to have managed somehow, even choosing his grave-site, contrary to custom, for its ephemerality. This too is not in Plutarch – "Now it chanced so, that the Sea getting in, it compassed his Tomb round about, that no man could come to it8" – but it gives Alcibiades a splendid canvas on which to draw a moral: "rich conceit / Taught thee to make vast Neptune weep for aye / On thy low grave, on faults forgiven" (V.4.77-79). The forgetting of Timon's principles implied in the forgiving of his "faults" – for Alcibiades would bring him, willy-nilly, beyond Lear's defiant misanthropy to Lear's self-abnegating penitence (“Pray you now forget, and forgive”, Lear, IV.3.84) – is sealed, not by an affirmation but by the deferral of memory indefinitely: "Dead / Is noble Timon, of whose memory / Hereafter more" (V.4.79-81).

6This irony is a version of that usually attached to the more-or-less mismatching comments of survivors of Shakespeare's tragedies, but such comments normally serve as a caption to vivid onstage illustration. Here tragedy ends, not with a bang but a wash-out, and for once there is no need to get the body offstage, as must be done, for instance, by Fortinbras or Aufidius – more or less analogous strongmen picking up the tragic pieces and putting them in their pockets. The spectacular overkill an Early Modern audience expected at tragic endings is superseded by incremental understatement. Thus Timon's pointed self-effacement is itself effaced, completing his successive transformation from absent-presence – the image of a hollow "bounty" – not just to present-absence but to absent-absence. And with a double irony, Alcibiades' career impeccably follows the contours of the epitaph, taking Timon at his word: "pass and stay not here thy gait" (V.4.73). The death of the hero is normally inscribed by survivors as a central event; Alcibiades takes note in passing and gets on with the business of dictating terms to Athens – a spectacular business of a conventional theatrical kind, since he is at the moment poised before its gates. "Let our drums strike" (V.4.85) is the final line, as it might be of many tragedies, but the application is self-reflexive, the theme music that of his own show ("our" drums), and the moral punch is pulled; no pity or fear here, Aristotelian or otherwise: seek not to know for whom the drum strikes, he might as well be saying, it's nothing to do with you. Timon's death is thereby confirmed as eccentric and extrinsic – out of sight, out of mind. Thus, from the landward side, as it were, the Athenian spectacular tide equally washes over Timon's dead body. In his campaign to improve the vision of Athenians, Timon cannot even claim the Pyrrhic success of the famous lens grinder who fell into his own machine, thereby making a spectacle of himself.

7What kind of spectacle is the Athenian variety? The play's emblematic mode is conditioned by a complex tangle of intertexts ultimately derived from the all-important dialogue of Lucian, and including an anonymous English play presenting many parallels, though the latter is extant only in manuscript and impossible to date with precision in relation to Shakespeare's9. In any case, the flagrant mise en scène of moral design at the expense of inwardness is unique in Shakespeare. There is a resemblance to the late romances, enhanced by the episodic structure. But in Timon spectacularity is used without mediation to provide a running commentary on a society trapped at surface level, barren of human relations – therefore of human relational failings. This is to stop well short of the method of the romances.

8In Pericles, for instance, the moral lessons vividly materialised at Antiochus' court are subject to distortion by the hero's flawed sensibility, which will be duly rectified after years of stormy sea-travel: "See where she comes, apparelled like the spring, […] / […] / Her face the book of praises" (I.1.13-16). In Timon, the audience is also constantly encouraged or enjoined to "see." As Katharine Eisaman Maus observes, "Timon opens on a panorama of glittering abundance10," and there are in fact all manner of things to look at – with outward sight, as well as the mind's eye – as the play sets up its dramaturgical terms of reference: jewels, paintings, poetic images, as well as those who control or create these objects – Merchant, Painter, Poet (for they have no names to complicate perception, at least in this state of the text). But what we see is irreducibly what we get: "See, / Magic of bounty, all these spirits thy power / Hath conjur'd to attend!" (I.1.5-7). Spirits are void of substance, as Prospero reminds the audience of the pageant he conjures, to which the whole of Timon is roughly analogous. They are self-referential, representations of nothing but themselves, performing, in effect, their own contingency on performance. And to the Painter and the Poet here we may certainly add the cynic philosopher, who, even if he has a name, has one that, in contemporary pronunciation, might just have suggested the very aping of appearances of which Apemantus accuses Timon: "Men report / Thou dost affect my manners, and dost use them" (IV.3.200-201); "Do not assume my likeness" (IV.3.220). The question raised, as by Hamlet's famous disclaimer of "actions that a man might play," is the nature of what might lie "within that passes show" (Hamlet, I.2.84-85); to discover or produce that inwardness, by exposing its lack, becomes uniquely the quest of Timon, and the futility of the quest comes as close as anything to defining tragedy in his play.

9In other words, what is tragic here is precisely the refusal of tragedy to emerge out of and in contradistinction to the mode of morality play. Timon would like to become Lear, but finds himself enacting the progressive, or regressive, isolation of Everyman, as the latter is stripped by and for Death: the desertion by false friends and, most spectacularly, Goods. Yet Timon lacks the prospect, fearful but finally consoling, that his reckoning will be read by anyone. The place of that reckoning is taken by the rewritten, overwritten epitaphs with which Timon is latterly preoccupied, and whose impact ironically depends (like that of our research, as we are constantly reminded), on visibilité and lisibilité: "I was writing of my epitaph; / It will be seen to-morrow" (V.1.184-85). Everyman, of course, goes out as a "wretched corse" (V.4.70) in this world in order to appear spectacularly in the next, and still within the theatre:

 “Come, excellente electe spouse, to Iesu!

Here aboue thou shalte go

Because of thy synguler vertue.

Now thy soule is taken thy body fro,

Thy rekenynge is crystall-clere.

Now shalte thou in to the heuenly spere11.”

10By contrast, the indifferent sea bounds the play-world of Timon geographically, semiotically and metaphysically. That "I shall perish on the shore12" was Donne's final image of his deepest fear in that momentous lyric whose refrain goes something like "die and have done with it." In fact, that rude parody comes quite close in spirit to Timon's, in keeping with a soul equally conceived as "wretched." Timon, then, in his revolt, mounts a doomed assault on a whole semiotic system, to which the play's peculiar variety of brittle spectacle is key. The assault is doomed because Timon's own inwardness is founded, not on rock, but on sand. He can only go through the tragic motions, to use that word with connotations of its Early Modern sense of "puppet."

11The moment that defines at once Timon's project and its futility is his last supper – an event multiply charged, in fact, with Christian symbolism, as has been largely appreciated. What seems to have been missed is the symbolic overdetermination, which has the effect of showing him as trapped within his own Christology. His version of apocalypse is an indelibly stagy affair, a second coming to judgement that, in the revelation of the "Royal cheer" (III.6.48) of the "covered dishes" (III.6.47) as mere "Smoke and lukewarm water" (III.6.85), reverses the miracle of the loaves and fishes, re-turns wine into water, and takes double-barrelled aim not just at the Eucharist but at baptism:

“This is Timon's last;

Who, stuck and spangled with your flatteries,

Washes it off, and sprinkles in your faces

Your reeking villainy. [Throwing the water in their faces]”. (III.6.86-89)

12This is an anti-spectacle of un-substantiation, a would-be exposure of the insubstantial. Yet, as with Reform iconoclasm, the revelatory impact presumes, depends on, hence seeks to confirm an inward being on which grace, the Word, may be invisibly inscribed. Since the dramatis personae are see-through icons through and through, Timon is punching a pillow. The lack of impact is pointed up theatrically by his failure to serve up a traditional apocalyptic revenge banquet on the model of Thyestes or, closer to home, Titus, whose recipes define humanity as self-consuming artefact. Here there is not even food for thought. In other theatrical circumstances, a disappearing banquet might induce and foster subjectivity: witness Ariel's harpy-performance, but that, like the spirit masque of Prospero, is meta-theatre aimed at arousing spiritual responses in its onstage spectators: conscience, wonder. It is not, like Timon's exercise, the essence of "the great globe itself" (The Tempest., IV.1.153).

13Timon's anti-grace before anti-meat, a prayer addressed to gods who are mere projections of his disillusion, brings out the essence of his anti-spectacular project: "For these my present friends, as they are to me nothing, so in nothing bless them, and to nothing are they welcome" (III.6.79-81). The echoes support his claim to be demolishing the illusion of something. He appropriates the trappings and the suits of the inwardness that elsewhere in Shakespeare defines tragic woe: Cordelia's challenge to Lear's blind materialism – "Nothing will come of nothing" (Lear, I.1.92) – ; Richard II's discovery of self through self-absence:

“[…] whate'er I be,

Nor I, nor any man that but man is,

With nothing shall be pleas'd, till he be eas'd

With being nothing.” (Richard II, V.5.38-41)

14Thus, in his assault on appearances, Timon effectively sets himself on Lear's tragic path by way of Kent's urgent injunction to "See better" (Lear, I.1.158).

15What follows the banquet is an attempt to pursue the tragic trajectory thus delineated. Like Lear, he goes looking for a wilderness to cry in. He strips himself like Lear, when the latter imitates "unaccommodated man" (III.4.106-107) in the person of Poor Tom. But that is far from all there is to Poor Tom: better seeing remains to be done – by all the blind. It is one thing, a necessary progress – as "through the guts of a beggar" (Hamlet, III.3.31) –, to think "a man a worm" (Lear, IV.1.23), as Gloucester did, too, in the presence, ironically, of his son's forgiving love. It is another matter to be bounded by a stage on which all men really are worms, and more or less proud of it.

16Poor Tom, in Lear's madness, is also a "good Athenian" (III.4.180), and this makes one think of the faithful Steward who would accompany Timon, Edgar-like and Kent-like, in his exile. Here, undoubtedly, is the exception that proves the moral rule. He is no exception, however, to the semiotic one. The "nobility" of Timon on which he insists, and which links him with Alcibiades, remains likewise bound up with the "magic of bounty" and positions him within the system, not outside it. When Kent initially enjoins Lear to "See better," he is protesting not just against deceiving appearances (Goneril and Regan versus Cordelia) but, more largely and profoundly, against quantifying the intangible; the best that Timon's Steward can come up with is "Do the math better," because in this play, that is as deep as truth goes. And "nobility" goes with it – with a glance at the Crisis of the Aristocracy, no doubt13, but one that ricochets too within the semiotics of Shakespearian tragic realization. No one here is about to proclaim Timon "the noblest Athenian of them all14" or lament, "Noblest of men, woo't die" (Antony and Cleopatra, V.1.59). And his own affirmation, "No villainous bounty yet hath pass'd my heart; / Unwisely, not ignobly, have I given" (II.2.177-178), rings hollow by comparison with Othello's account of himself as "one that lov'd not wisely but too well" (Othello, V.2.344), where "too well" surely has the sense of "too much."

17The last two instances bring us to Timon's relations with women – or, rather, to the lack thereof. The point is unavoidable because, yet again like Lear, in particular, he strangely goes through the common Shakespearean tragic motions of sexual disgust as a metonymy for disillusion with humanity. Whether or not Lear – or Hamlet, or Othello – are at all convincing in this view, or meant to be, is not the issue here. The point is that sexual disgust in their cases implies sexuality – even in King Lear, where the filial and other cruelties of Goneril and Regan are intertwined with their appetite for Edmund. By contrast, there is no evidence that Timon has any sexual dimension at all, any more, apparently, than he has a family or other intimate relations. The masque of Cupid and dancing Amazons that intrudes programmatically on his successful banquet (I.2.118 ff.) is of a superficial piece with it and will not bear comparison, for instance, despite the structural parallel, with the sexy doings at Wolsey's p(a)lace in Henry VIII (I.4). On the other hand, it begs comparison with Alcibiades' later spectacular arrival "with drum and fife, in warlike manner" (IV.3 SD) – but also in playboy style, with his two concubines more or less draped over him, as it would seem. In his initial malediction cast at the walls of Athens, Timon had, Lear-like, imagined chaos sexually, inciting "matrons" to "turn incontinent" (IV.1.3) and evoking a pubescent baisodrome: "To general filths / Convert, o' th' instant, green virginity! / Do 't in your parents' eyes" (IV.1.6-8). Now the concubines provoke Timon's full fit of sexual nausea (giving him, in turn, as good as they get – when Phrynia opens her / his presumably pretty little mouth, she minces no words: "Thy lips rot off!", IV.3.64). In fact, there is no room for fraught and conflicted human relatedness in this play, whose raison d'être is the insubstantiality of relations. Personal bonds, including the often troubled, sometimes tragic one between men and women, are reduced to the level of Bond, James Bond. This fact, not brute force, is what puts a premium on the talent of Alcibiades for pouring oil on troubled waters: "Pardon him, sweet Timandra, for his wits / Are drown'd and lost in his calamities" (V.3.89-90). It should not be hard for such a hard smoothie harmoniously to reconcile contraries in Athens, where he plans to "Make war breed peace, make peace stint war, make each / Prescribe to other as each other's leech" (V.4.83-84). Despite the presumptive proximity in dates of composition, we are far removed in both political and personal terms from the universe of Coriolanus, where a self-subverting fracture (not to say flaw) stymies the agency of Alcibiades' companion subject in Plutarch. The "boy of tears" (Coriolanus, V.6.100) may well bluster, "I banish you!" (III.3.123), but he pitches his tents between Scylla and Charybdis – who is besieging whom? – and he never gets back inside the walls of Rome (if, indeed, he ever leaves them).

18It symbolically epitomises Timon's futile quest for something deeper – within, beneath – that he is driven to digging for roots – for indeed "The art of our necessities is strange / And can make vild things precious" (Lear, III.2.70-71) – yet ends up bringing gold to the surface – gold which, by attraction, reconstitutes emblematisation around him: the whores (again), the faithful Steward rewarded, the banditti, the image-making flatterers (again). Timon has come to bury spectacle, only to have it thrust upon him. And it is the self-reflexive key to the process that gold here serves as its own touchstone. There are no moral puzzles offered or solved, no leaden casket concealing true value: here "all that glisters" (The Merchant of Venice, II.7.65) is gold indeed.

19So at the end of the game, Timon is the odd man down and out, exhausted by a struggle against mechanisms of textual signification, the hegemony of the spectacular, that consign him to the status of footnote, with a monument no more resistant to eternity than a footprint in the sand:

 “Timon hath made his everlasting mansion

Upon the beached verge of the salt flood,

Who once a day with his embossed froth

The turbulent surge shall cover. Thither come,

And let my grave-stone be your oracle.

Lips, let four words go by and language end.” (V.1.214-19)

20His "four words," whatever they may be, can be no match for Phrynia's, which flash a sortie from the world of spectacle and subjunctively invoke the end of language on his behalf: "Thy lips rot off!" So did Yorick's lips rot off – "Here hung those lips […] " (Hamlet, V.1.188) –, as a warning to "my lady" (193); so, probably, will ours, too; but surely not Phrynia's – any more than, say, Carla Bruni's.

21Timon's staking of the tragic territory is finally so "pessimistic" – I return to Soellner's formula, though without his metaphysics – because it is uncontested. For a last time, we may compare Lear, when he takes the measure of his heath: "Thou'dst shun a bear, / But if thy flight lay toward the roaring sea, / Thou'dst meet the bear i' th' mouth (Lear, III.4.9-11). Clearly, a wilderness in which to cry is pointless if it is bounded by an accommodating Athens, on the one hand, a mildly lapping sea, on the other. Moreover, Timon is no sailor. The example of the late romances suggests that to escape the hegemony of the spectacular he would need to test the depths of "unpath'd waters," the play-ground of Fortune, and arrive at "undream'd shores" (The Winter’s Tale, V.4.567): bracing sea air, a storm or two, a birth and a death, or two – so the spectacular might be first superseded, then recuperated, attached to "that within which passes show." Given, of course, time (or Time). What there is so abundantly to see in Timon remains tightly wrapped within a waterproof aesthetic – impermeable – a glistering surface staked out with posted statements of property rights. Within there bustles a perpetual motion social machine that takes its would-be prophet at his final word, or four words, if not by passing, at least by turning in circles it deems to be endless. In so doing it dismisses Timon's silly pretensions to produce tragedy where none is called for, a sense of destiny and contingency where none exists – as if his assault on the semiotic system were a kind of eccentric campaign to make Russian roulette the national sport. That idea might be difficult to sell anywhere, but it is a definite non-starter in a play-world indeed, one whose most lofty idea of a gamble remains stalled at the level of beach-blanket bingo.


1 . Rolf Soellner, Timon of Athens: Shakespeare's Pessimistic Tragedy: With a Stage History by Gary Jay Williams, Colombus, Ohio State University Press, 1979.

2  «Spectacular Shakespeare / Shakespeare et le spectaculaire», University of Poitiers and MSHS, 14-15 February 2008.

3 . See Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor, et al., William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion, New York, Norton, 1997, p. 501.

4 . Ibid., p. 501.

5 . William Shakespeare, Timon of Athens, Ed. by H. J. Oliver, London, Methuen, coll. “The Arden Shakespeare” (2nd ser.), 1959.

6 . With the exception of Timon, Shakespeare's works are cited from The Riverside Shakespeare, gen. eds. G. Blakemore Evans and J. J. M. Tobin, 2nd ed., Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

7 . Cited in H. J. Oliver, ed., op. cit., p. 142.

8  Ibid.

9 . See the summary of the issues by Geoffrey Bullough, "Introduction to Timon of Athens," Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols., London, Routledge / New York, Columbia University Press, 1966, vol. 6, p. 225-250, esp. 232-235 on the anonymous Timon.

10 . Katharine Eisaman Maus, "Introduction to The Life of Timon of Athens,"  The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), pp. 2245-51, p. 2245.

11 . Everyman, ed. A. C. Cawley, Old and Middle English Texts, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1961, ll. 894-899.

12 . John Donne, "A Hymne to God the Father," The Complete Poetry of John Donne, ed. John T. Shawcross, Garden City, NY, Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1967, p. 392, l. 14.

13 . I allude, of course, to Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (London, Oxford University Press, 1967), whose perspective has given rise to the "New Historicist" orientation that now seems to dominate Timon criticism (see, e.g., Maus, p. 2247-2248).

14  Cf. Julius Caesar, V.5.68.

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Par Richard Hillman, «The Anti-Spectacular in Timon of Athens», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], Shakespeare en devenir, N°2 - 2008, mis à jour le : 28/01/2010, URL :

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Richard Hillman is Professor at Université François-Rabelais, Tours (English and Centre d'Études Supérieures de la Renaissance - CNRS), with a particular interest in early modern theatre. He has published numerous articles and several monographs, most recently Self-Speaking in Medieval and Early Modern English Drama: Subjectivity, Discourse and the Stage (Macmillan, 1997) and Shakespeare, Marlowe and the Politics of France (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2002). He has also translated four French political ...