Timon of Athens Perspective


Timon of Athens Perspective

Timon of Athens: King of Ingrates?

“You know, nobody likes your dinner parties,” an erstwhile guest once informed me. In that moment, I identified with Timon of Athens. He was benevolent and charitable to a fault. Yet he also might not have been genuine and heartfelt. Perhaps he himself would have been unable to explain why he felt compelled to host people whom he did not like especially and who reciprocated in the lack of sentiment doubtless.

The dilemma for Timon, as for any of us who is aggrieved toward our intimates if even for a moment, is that it is impossible to call out ingratitude. As soon as you do so, you have exposed your own ego, fulfilling all criticisms. You appear petty. By accusing another for their lack of appreciation (of you!), you reveal that you have kept an account, tallying up who has returned a favor, who not. As much as resentment is human, the only acceptable response to disrespect is to shrug and laugh, showing you can dismiss it as trivial, confirming your magnanimous spirit, including to yourself.

The story of Timon is among the most obscure by the Bard. A rare staging of this “problem” play brings out those who wish to “complete” Shakespeare. The status of this piece, which deserves better, is due not only to its dubious provenance (as a co-authored script, just admitted to the canon, ranking above only Cardenio and Two Noble Kinsman) but also its open misanthropy (which fails to be heroic, as in Richard III). It tells of a disagreeable hermit who once presided over banquets most bounteous, a recluse who has retreated to his cave after a run as a popular man about town. In the beginning, Timon seems happy as a patron of the arts and a benefactor to the needy; he does not heed the warning of cynics.

The challenge is determining the cause of his downfall. Timon is abstemious, eating no meat, drinking no wine. He has done nothing impressively wrong such as murder. At worst he has been superficial and insincere. He has been wasteful as well. He has squandered both money and goodwill. Once he is bankrupt, with creditors calling, he discovers what we hope never to find out about those who surround us. None whom he entertained earlier is interested in helping him now.

Even Timon’s one true friend, Flavius, is an ambiguous relationship, because Timon is the master, Flavius his servant. It is Flavius who seeks out Timon after he has exiled himself. By then, Timon cannot be redeemed. He dies alone. His final accomplishment is to give away gold he has discovered, in order that his former city be besieged and prostitutes transmit venereal disease. This end is more pathetic than tragic.

Timon can teach us — at least me. He overestimated his popularity as we underestimate his relevance. Our own social networks provoke anxiety. We cannot be sure of the motivation of an acquaintance who wishes to “connect.”

Thus skepticism might be the vaccination for embitterment. Generosity cannot be transactional. It raises its own standard.

By: Frank Wu

<b>Frank Wu</b>
Frank Wu