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than when Lear appeals to the heavens because they too are old:
THE DRAMA OF DESPAIR :
99 TIMON OF ATHENS
VIMON” marks the extremity of Shakespeare's
suffering. It is not to be called a work of art, it is hardly even a tragedy; it is the causeless ruin of a soul, a ruin insufficiently motived by complete trust in men and spendthrift generosity. If there was ever a man who gave so lavishly as Timon, if there was ever one so senseless blind in trusting, then he deserved his fate. There is no gradation in his giving, and none in his fall; no artistic crescendo. The whole drama is, as I have said, a scream of suffering, or rather, a long curse upon all the ordinary conditions of life. The highest qualities of Shakespeare are not to be found in the play. There are none of the magnificent phrases which bejewel “ Lear”; little of high wisdom, even in the pages which are indubitably Shakespeare's, and no characterization worth mentioning. The honest steward, Flavius, is the honest Kent again of “ Lear," honest and loyal beyond nature; Apemantus is another Thersites. Words which throw a high light on Shakespeare's character are given to this or that personage of the play without discrimination. One phrase of Apemantus is as true of Shakespeare as of Timon and is worth noting:
“The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends."
The tragic sonnet-note is given to Flavius :
“What viler thing upon the earth than friends Who can bring noblest minds to basest ends !”
In so far as Timon is a character at all he is manifestly Shakespeare, Shakespeare who against the world, because he finds no honesty in men, no virtue in women, evil everywhere—“boundless thefts in limited professions.” This Shakespeare-Timon swings round characteristically as soon as he finds that Flavius is honest:
“ Had I a steward
I cannot help putting the great and self-revealing line in italics ; a line Tolstoi would, no doubt, think pompous. Timon ought to have known his steward, one might say in Tolstoi's spirit, as Lear should have known his daughters; but this is still the tragedy, which Shakespeare wishes to emphasize, that his hero was blind in trusting.
Towards the end Shakespeare speaks through Timon quite unfeignedly. Richard II. said characteristically:
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With being nothing.”
1 This passage is among those rejected by the commentators as un-Shakespearean: “ It does not stand the test,” says the egregious Gollancz.
“My long sickness Of health and living now begins to mend And nothing brings me all things."
Then the end:
“ Timon hath made his everlasting mansion Upon the beachèd verge of the salt flood ..."
We must not leave this play before noticing the overpowering erotic strain in Shakespeare which suits Timon as little as it suited Lear. The long discussion with Phrynia and Timandra is simply dragged in: neither woman is characterized : Shakespeare-Timon eases himself in pages of erotic raving:
Strike me the counterfeit matron;
The “ damned earth" even is the common whore of mankind.
“ Timon” is the true sequel to “ The Merchant of Venice.” Antonio gives lavishly, but is saved at the crisis by his friends. Timon gives with both hands; but when he appeals to his friends, is treated as a bore. Shakespeare had travelled far in the dozen years which separate the two plays.
All Shakespeare's tragedies are phases of his own various weaknesses, and each one brings the hero to defeat and ruin. Hamlet cannot carry revenge to
murder and fails through his own irresolution. Othello comes to grief through mad jealousy. Antony fails and falls through excess of lust; Lear through trust in men, and Timon through heedless generosity. All these are separate studies of Shakespeare's own weaknesses; but the ruin is irretrievable, and reaches its ultimate in Timon. Trust and generosity, Shakespeare would like to tell us, were his supremest faults. In this he deceived himself. Neither “ Lear”
Timon is his greatest tragedy; but “ Antony and Cleopatra,” for lust was his chief weakness, and the tragedy of lust his greatest play.
Much of “ Timon” is not Shakespeare's, the critics tell us, and some of it is manifestly not his, though many of the passages rejected with the best reason have, I think, been touched up by him. The second scene of the first act is as bad as bad can be ; but I hear his voice in the line:
“Methinks, I could deal kingdoms to my friends,
And ne'er be weary.”
At any rate, this is the keynote of the tragedy, which is struck again and again. Shakespeare probably exaggerated his own generosity out of aristocratic pose; but that he was careless of money and freehanded to a fault, is, I think, certain from his writings, and can be proved from the facts known to us of his life.