Shakespeare’s Alchemy: Timon of Athens
When it comes to imbuing works with the richness of alchemical symbolism, nobody was better than Shakespeare. The Bard either personally wrote or had a hand in a great many plays, and of them more than a simple smattering possess signs of the great work. The Tempest, featuring the magician Prospero and the mercurial spirit Ariel and set on the island of the Self, is only the final and best-known of these. In truth, there are very many more, and among these is one of the quietest, yet most profound parables against misanthropy ever to be alchemically gilded: Timon of Athens.
After being neglected for quite some time, Timon is seeing a resurgence, having been, in America, a headline play during last year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival season in a production which starred Anthony Heald, who you may know as Dr. Chilton from MGM’s Silence of the Lambs. The production elevated to a high standard the text, which is not known as one of Shakespeare’s stronger works; in fact, Timon is posited to be only partly written by Shakespeare, regarded as a collaboration with Thomas Middleton written between 1605 and 1608. This interesting note does not diminish the alchemical fingerprints all over the work: indeed, we are assured in the play’s introduction in David Bevington’s The Complete Works of Shakespeare, that “Middleton’s style reveals itself in characteristic sexual wordplay and Calvinist moralizing. Shakespeare appears to have been the senior partner in all events, the initiator and deviser of the overall scheme, so that, with qualifications, we can study the play as an integral part of the Shakespeare canon.” In addition to drawing its setting from sources such as Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans, Timon also draws dialogue from Timon, or The Misanthrope, by the Greek satirist Lucian. The play itself is not entirely finished, not printed until the 1623 folio and rife with inconsistencies and errors which would have been corrected with more editing: indeed, it is not clear if it was ever produced. To see it preformed now makes that clear: the first half of the play is disjointed, disconnected from the second half; indeed, its two sections are divided so clearly into ‘set-up’ and ‘pay-off’ that it reads like one of the most shining rough drafts ever written. However, the pay-off is indeed great, and worth the consideration of any student of literature, alchemy or psychology.
The plot of the play is, on the whole, quite simple. It chronicles the rise and fall of Timon, initially a great and generous citizen of Athens who, when rendered destitute by debtors, is spurned by those he previously helped and retires to the wilderness outside the city. Thus, from an alchemical standpoint, we have already a division into two aspects, two states of mind: City, and Wilderness. This ubiquitous pair of symbols arises in variations throughout a great deal of media, long before even Shakespeare’s time; recent examples of the motif include the film The Lobster and Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. The dictionary offered by The Book of Symbols mentions “Sacred mandalas of which the center is the focus are sometimes configured as cities, and the city is also an image of the alchemical lapis, signifying sanctuary, integrity, symmetry, balance…but ordinary cities also infiltrate our dreams and nightmares, recalling the structures, thoroughfares, familiar and unfamiliar neighborhoods of our psychic adaptation and the sections of our integration.” In the works in which they appear, then, Cities form an important reflection of the psychological state of the characters they house; they often represent the highways and byways of the Self as distinct from the purer state of unconsciousness represented by Wilderness, Forests, etc. Representing a state of psychological destitution for the ego and a pre-evolutionary, pre-cultural state, the Wilderness lies beyond taboo, beyond ethics and reason, and certainly beyond the grasp of mankind. The aforementioned book of symbols describes that, “The forest, with its exotic forces, is “outside” the inhabited precincts of consciousness, as village, city, household or castle.” Whether Timon’s wilderness is depicted on-stage as a forest or a cave, it matters little: the notion is the same, the archetype surpassing its symbolic trappings. Likewise, the wilderness is the basis for civilization, the provider of its materials: in Timon, this will certainly prove so, for it is the wilderness that Timon discovers a wealth of gold, which he uses not to uplift himself, but to see to Athens’ ruination and thus his own.
Much as the settings of the play are divided into two by means of City/Wilderness, the first half of the play is distinguished from the second half in that the first half forms in a sense a series of vignettes, tight, orderly, clipped pieces of narrative which describe the sequence of events, before giving way to the second half, which, with longer scenes and increasingly downtrodden aspect, trails through a tangle of warning symbolism. But even the play’s first half is pregnant with meaning: Timon squanders his wealth and refuses all advice on the matter, from internal and external sources. He gives his money away and wastes it on debauchery, vanity, and ingrates; but the important note here is that the money does not represent money. Rather, it represents psychic energy invested in a situation. It can also represent profound sources of inspiration; this is particularly true of the discovery of gold, the likes of which encountered by Timon. Lest we forget, alchemy was, to some, the pursuit of the lapis by which to turn lead into gold. Indeed, leaden, Saturnine symbolism fills the second half of the play, along with Martial motifs of aggression. In Jung’s Mysterium Coniunctionis, he describes the ‘two exalted brilliances known for their wickedness, and […] two dim lights’ mentioned in Ostanes as being a quarternio consisting of “…the two malefici, Mars and Saturn Mars is the ruler of Aries, Saturn of Capricorn); the two “dim lights” would then be feminine ones, the moon (ruler of Cancer) and Venus (ruler of Libra).” (Jung, 7) There is a similar quaternio being indicated in Timon: in this case, the dying King in need of renewal is Athens, itself, and Timon, as our central figure and the psychological shadow of the play, is responsible in large part for its renewal, an act in which he fails, too enshrouded by his own darkness to make any difference but a destructive one. The quarternio in Timon consists of Athenian Senators in Saturnine aspect, the scorned captain Alcibiades as the Martial aspect, the Mercurial philosopher Apemantus and the dutiful steward Flavius, whose Venusian desire for balance and service as a mirror also doubles as an audience stand-in. Indeed, it is this very capacity as audience proxy which makes Flavius’ role as one of the few (sometimes the only) non-Martial recipient of Timon’s gold most significant, for it is a depiction of the play rewarding us with the wealth of its lesson.
To delve a little further into the image of ‘money’, think about all the subversive idioms we use which regard money. The word ‘currency’ comes from the Latin currere, “to run” or “to flow”, which we of course recognize not just as the source of the English word ‘current’, as in that which carries us down a running river, or the flow of an electrical charge, or what we use to describe events we perceive as happening at present, that is, ‘current events’; but also the source of Spanish correr and Italian correre. One ‘pays attention’ or when bothered is told to ‘pay no mind’: indeed, those of us who have experienced what it is to be preoccupied with some terrible existential or personal anxiety understand what it is to have our resources of attention exhausted by something we perceive as external. The Spanish dinero comes from Latin denarius, literally ‘containing ten’ but also, of course, the name of the Roman currency initially introduced around 211 BC. (Haskell, 1947) Interestingly, around 218 AD, the emperor Elagabalus would rule a Rome which used a currency most symbolically sublime, representing the story of the Syrian sun-god of the same name; one of the coins features his holy stone, a black meteorite worshiped by his cult, being retrieved in a four-horse chariot; this was largely the result of his efforts to impress upon the people said cult, and after his inevitable death, the cult resigned itself to scarcity. The amount of inevitability in the emergence of these symbol sets is fascinating.
To get into the plot of the play, proper: our tale opens with the poet and painter meeting and giving us a bit of exposition to introduce Timon and set the vaguely meta-fictional tone of certain aspects of the play. The painter has painted a commissioned painting of Timon, the poet has crafted an epic poem, and the pair of them meet a jeweler who hopes to sell a gem to Timon pending his appraisal. Next we meet Timon, himself, who, speaking to a messenger, agrees to pay the debts of his friend Ventidius to generously free him from prison; when an old Athenian comes complaining Timon’s servant, Lucilius, is creeping into his house to spend nights with his daughter, Timon agrees to pay a dowry to the father so they may be married; and when the impetuous, Athenian-hating philosopher Apemantus arrives on the scene to form a dour counterpoint to Timon, the play’s eponymous character proves nothing but dogged in his efforts to coax the philosopher into joining him and his friends for dinner. But throughout all of this, Apemantus remains unmoved, undeceived by material appearances and the lavish charades of every day life:
How dost thou like this jewel, Apemantus?
Not so well as plain dealing, which will not cost a man a doit.
What dost thou think ’tis worth?
Not worth my thinking.–How now, poet?
How now, philosopher?
Art not one?
Then I lie not.
Art not a poet?
Then thou liest. Look in thy last work, where thou has feigned him a worthy fellow.
That’s not feigned. He is so.
Yes, he is worthy of thee, and to pay thee for thy labor. He that loves to be flattered is worthy o’th’ flatterer. Heavens, that I were a lord!
What wouldst do then, Apemantus?
E’en as Apemantus does now: hate a lord with my heart.
That I had no angry wit to be a lord.
It is worth noting that the last line, which is somewhat unintelligible, is thought by some Shakespeare scholars—particularly George Steevens—to be corrupted. Steevens’ suggested restoration of the line in Volume XV of his and Samuel Johnson’s complete works of Shakespeare renders the line as either ‘That I had so hungry a wit as to be a lord’, or ‘That I had no angry wit—to be a lord!’ either way setting the stage for the self-loathing prophesied by the philosopher. Much as the Spirit Mercurius which is the prima materia and the ultima, Apemantus’ attitudes foreshadow the direction in which Timon will soon find himself hurtling. This parallel is drawn most clearly in the appearance of two Athenian lords, one of whom chases Apemantus away, calling him a ‘dog’, which is what the philosopher called Timon on his first appearance, when Apemantus leaves, the nobleman remarks to his companion that, “He’s opposite to humanity,” and we are of course acutely aware that Timon is at its heart a story about misanthropy.
Apemantus soon gives way to the arrival of Alcibiades, and then the freeing of Venditius, whom Timon assures he has freed out of love, not out of wish for repayment. A feast commences, and Apemantus, who has returned, is relegated off to a table on the sidelines so as not to bring down the party guests: the stage production at 2016’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival did a magnificent job of depicting the slowly, yet urgently-escalating debauchery which so disturbs Apemantus as Timon’s party guests descend upon his feast and the dancing girls hired to entertain. As the festivities close, we learn from Timon’s nervous servant, Flavius, that the man is giving from an empty coffer; even as his master distributes jewels to the party-goers, Flavius worries to the audience that Timon when in a giving mood has no mind to listen to his concerns. This if course echoes audience concerns, for we can see quite easily, even before the arrival of the debt collectors, how well Timon’s generosity will be returned. In fact, it is a Senator to whom Timon owes his debts: that is, Timon has given so much energy and attention to external matters and flatterers that he has none leftover for himself. When eventually his generosity, his debts and his so-called friends’ refusals to issue him loans in his time of crisis, Timon throws one last party where the feast consists of nothing more than water and stones and is driven to the wilderness, where he, like misanthropic Apemantus, subsists on roots. Alcibiades, meanwhile, has been banished from Athens: not of his own volition, but rather for speaking up and acting on behalf of a friend who has been unjustly sentenced to death. Undeterred by Alcibiades’ status as a captain, the senate banishes him: this mirror of Timon’s situation echoes how the psychic structure of the Self (Athens) is actively hampering various mental elements from their functioning, and the social structure of society as a whole has both lost its meaning and become, to the mind, a repressive state. Athens’ rejection of Alcibiades sets the stage for both the inevitable storming of the city, and the psychic implications of the play’s conclusion: that the person whose psyche is being played out in the characters of this play has himself taken a dim view of society and its regimented, materialist trappings and given rule of his inner city to the hateful, Martian aspect of the unconscious, that which thrives on bitter violence and resentment.
Outside the city, Timon strips naked and, with a shovel, commences digging for his food, roots, much as one might seek out the roots of one’s psychic dilemma or pursue the root of the divine within oneself in order to lift oneself from depression. This process—of naked Timon resorting to primeval ways of living and digging through the dirt in hopes of finding bland sustenance—is as symbolic for a man’s shuffling through his psyche in the wake of some personal trauma or tragedy as it is for that sifting’s inevitable discovery of gold. In his search for roots, Timon uncovers a seeming storehouse:
Who seeks for better of thee, sauce his palate
With thy most operant poison! What is here?
Gold? yellow, glittering, precious gold? No, gods,
I am no idle votarist: roots, you clear heavens!
Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair,
Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant.
Ha, you gods! why this? what this, you gods? Why, this
Will lug your priests and servants from your sides,
Pluck stout men’s pillows from below their heads:
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed,
Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves
And give them title, knee and approbation
With senators on the bench: this is it
That makes the wappen’d widow wed again;
She, whom the spital-house and ulcerous sores
Would cast the gorge at, this embalms and spices
To the April day again. Come, damned earth,
Thou common whore of mankind, that put’st odds
Among the route of nations, I will make thee
Do thy right nature.
Keep in mind that alchemy is typically described as pursuit of the means to transmute ‘base’ metals into ‘noble’ ones. However, Timon does not take his opportunity, does not take advantage of his discovery of gold. Instead, he re-covers most of it. Flavius, out of love for his master, follows him into the woods to serve him using money from his own pocket; meanwhile, as Timon stands cursing the sun and earth, Alcibiades bumps into him, and, on learning of the former captain’s intent to sack Athens, uses the gold to fund his Martial conquest. This warning symbol of giving psychic energy to violent and hateful tendencies could not be clearer: indeed, it is appropriate than that Alcibiades should close our play by reading aloud about the off-stage death of Timon while around him the Senate is stripped of its power. This death comes not before Timon’s reunions with Flavius, the Poet and Painter, and, most significant, Apemantus, who condemns Timon’s extremist perspectives: “the middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends.” Much like the need for balance and the conjunction of opposites expressed in alchemy, Timon is ultimately a story about moderation and the sensible use of psychic and inspirational resources. When one is struggling and in pain, when one feels alone and misanthropic, and one strikes gold, one is best off not using it for scorn, but to raise oneself up to higher standards of life, lest they die off-stage, a footnote in their own tragic play. Timon had every opportunity to change his attitude and fix his situation: all which happened, he ultimately brought upon himself due to his attitude, and his way of being in the world. So the next time you’re digging for roots and strike gold, consider giving it to the Poet and the Painter, instead of sending them on a chase after themselves: at the very least, you’ll have some culture to ease your stay in the wilderness.
M.F. Sullivan is the author of Shakespeare- and Aeschylus-influenced tragedy, DELILAH, MY WOMAN, and the forthcoming ALBEDO, renamed THE LIGHTNING STENOGRAPHY DEVICE. To buy the former, click here; to buy the latter, keep checking back every two weeks for new essays and updates on the status of the new book.