The art of artifice (and the artifice of art): The Life of Timon of Athens

In which Shakespeare beats a Painter and Poet with a stick.

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The Life of Timon of Athens isn’t a particularly celebrated play in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Many critics think its language and plot don’t quite stack up to the Bard’s usual standards. Some argue it was never finished. Others conclude the play was a collaboration. Whatever its status in the canon, the tragedy stands out for its focus on money – and still has some warnings worth heeding.

Athenians love Timon because he lavishes them with gifts and parties: “Methinks I could deal kingdoms to my friends,/ And ne’er be weary” (1.2.215-16). His friendships are bought, but Timon is blind to this: “You shall perceive how you/ Mistake my fortunes. I am wealthy in my friends,” he responds when his servant relays that his creditors are demanding payment (2.2.178-79). His generosity is borrowed. And none of his friends bail him out.

The Senate threatens to execute Timon for defaulting on his debts. Fleeing the polis, a forsaken Timon himself forsakes the world. “I am sick of this false world!” (4.3.368) as he cries, cursing man and gold, “thou sweet king-killer,” alike (4.3.374).

Timon becomes his foil, Apemantus, a gadfly philosopher whose cynicism he well sums up in grace he says at one of Timon’s banquets early in the play:

Immortal gods, I crave no pelf.
I pray for no man but myself.
Grant I may never prove so fond
To trust man on his oath or bond,
Or a harlot for her weeping,
Or a dog that seems a-sleeping
Or a keeper with my freedom,
Or my friends if I should need ‘em.
Amen. So fall to’t.
Rich men sin, and I eat root. (1.2.61-70)

In his own root-eating misanthropy Timon fails to see his servant, Flavius, stays by his side. He fails to see to his comrade, Alcibiades, leads an uprising against the city to defend him. The Senate relents their too-cruel punishment, but too late, as Timon dies out in the wilderness.

***

Timon of Athens isn’t exactly the most artful social commentary, but it does develop a  compelling theme of artifice. We see the artifice of men and money, yes. You can’t buy love. Who can you really trust? But we also see the artifice of law. “We are for laws; he dies” (3.6.85), as one senator summarily sentences Timon. It’s a stark reminder that even morality is man-made.

He is as self-absorbed in his exile as he is in buying his countrymen’s affections.

We also see the artifice of Timon’s own self-pity: “I never had/ Honest man about me; ay, all I kept were knaves,/ To serve in meat to villains” (4.3.469-71). No, faithful Flavius doesn’t count; he’s just his lowly servant, as if only the rich and powerful are capable of any depth, or at least any sentiment of value.

There is a touching scene when all of Timon’s servants gather together at Timon’s house to mourn their master’s fall. “Yet do our hearts wear Timon’s livery./ That I see by our faces. We are fellows still,/ Serving alike in sorrow” (4.2.17-19). The master-servant relationship itself is not a natural construction, but Timon’s servants transcend the artifice of social roles and achieve true fellow feeling. “There’s none/ Can truly say he gives if he receives,” Timon earlier comments on the cycle of debt that a gift ignites (1.2.9-10). Only his servants prove otherwise.

But Timon certainly learns no lessons about egocentrism in his hermitage. He is as self-absorbed in his exile as he is in buying his countrymen’s affections. Timon may reject gold, but he doesn’t have to reject man – or the golden mean.

***

We’re always looking for clues to Shakespeare’s creative process. What did he think? What was his process like? How did he come up with his ideas? Did he know he was great? Did ever imagine that, 400 years after he died, some American dude would be cooped up in a spare room qua office in Dublin, spending the Sunday of his bank holiday weekend trying to glean some deep wisdom from the words of one of his lesser plays? Well, Timon of Athens may gives us some small glimpse into the poet’s poetics, but it may not glitter like gold: Shakespeare exposes the artifice of, well, art itself.

Art, counterfeit and fiction, is a made thing, fashioned from human hands, not from some divine imagination we mortals are not permitted to.

Shakespeare (and his collaborator, presumably) stages a Painter and Poet. In the beginning, we see them flattering Timon with portraits and verses. For patronage, of course. For money. For all their highfalutin words of inspiration, not even the artists transcend base greed. We see the pair again at the end of the play. They feign loyalty to the indigent hermit, hearing report of gold Timon discovers in the forest. But Timon overhears their mercenary dissembling and calls them out on it. He cleverly undercuts the Painter: “Thou draw’st counterfeit/ Best in all Athens; thou’rt indeed the best;/ Thou counterfeit’s most lively” (5.1.77-79). And the poet he lambastes: “And for thy fiction,/ Why, thy verse swells with stuff so fine and smooth/ That thou art even natural in thine art” (5.1.80-82). Then he beats the two with his stick. And natural, we should also remember, could mean “foolish” in Elizabethan vernacular – which just takes a sledgehammer to the play’s natural-artificial axis. Thanks, Shakespeare: You knew the artifice of sign and signifier all too well, too.

For as much as we like to worship great art and artists, as if the creator and their works exist in some higher sphere unsullied by the affairs of lowly man, Shakespeare recognizes that art is manufactured. That art, too, is often motivated by practical needs, by self-interest, by profit. The Bard had to make a living, after all. It can be deflating, even cheapening, to peek behind the creative curtain, like a son recognizing his father’s fallibility for the first time. But it’s also comforting, too, especially for the aspiring artist: Art, counterfeit and fiction, is a made thing, fashioned from human hands, not from some divine imagination we mortals are not permitted to.

But not all counterfeits, shall we say, are equally convincing. Not all fictions are equally credible. Not all makers are equally skilled. Not all art is equally good. Timon of Athens is no Hamlet. Still, I could never write a Timon of Athens.

Author: John Kelly

I write about word origins buzzing in news and culture at mashedradish.com (@mashedradish). Last year, I read the complete works of Shakespeare and blogged about it at shakespeareconfidential.com (@bardconfidensh). You can also find my writing on Atlas Obscura, Mental Floss, Oxford Dictionaries, Nameberry, and Strong Language.

5 thoughts on “The art of artifice (and the artifice of art): The Life of Timon of Athens

  1. at least Shakespeare wouldn’t have sided with Wilde in saying “art is a useless thing, which has meant that useless things have become art. Sorry a bit off topic. do you think Shakespeare could have been coerced by Wilde to his opining? it isn’t a great leap from seeing art as manufactured & as an ultimately pointless pursuit. Great post as ever, sorry for the riff.

    Like

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