Timon of Athens
Shakespeare’s Pessimistic Tragedy
Perhaps the most problematical of Shakespeare’s tragedies opens on a distinctly ominous if nonetheless casual note. A poet and painter meet and, after exchanging greetings, the former asks, “How goes the world?” Whereupon the painter replies, “It wears, sir, as it grows”—to which the poet responds, as to a cliché, “Ay, that’s well known.”
The notion of the world’s decay, a survivor of the contempus mundi of medieval philosophy, with its groundings in conceptions of the Fall and Last Judgment, achieved a renewed ascendancy in the darkening climate of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. And it is, Professor Soellner points out, only in the mood and tenor engendered by this pervasive pessimism, which many critics of Timon have found uncongenial, that we can come fully to understand Shakespeare’s misanthrope, who has been much maligned as the inferior of Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and Lear, but who is, if not entirely their equal, an authentic tragic hero in his own right.
Professor Soellner accepts Timon as a tragedy, albeit one that does not necessarily satisfy standard definitions; and though he readily concedes that there are sporadic textual deficiencies, he finds in the structure of the play, its characterization, imagery, and thematic development, the imprint of Shakespeare’s incomparable genius and the indisputable evidence of the drama’s having been meticulously worked out in conformity with a controlling and high tragic design. Indeed, having chosen to treat the difficult subject of an uncompromising and tragic misanthropy, Dr. Soellner argues, Shakespeare anchored the play more deliberately and securely in the pessimistic intellectual tradition than has heretofore been supposed, and made the superbly right decision of presenting Timon’s rejection of a depraved mankind and his contempt for a morally decadent world as an absolute pessimism that is both micro- and macrocosmic.
In delineating his hero’s misanthropy as a tragic predicament, Shakespeare made of it a recognizably human response to a glaring act of ingratitude by a rapacious and exploitative society. Therefore, Timon’s misanthropy is not merely the obverse of his flawed idealism and equally unacceptable, but constitutes also an awakening to the real evil around him. His metamorphosis signals indeed, somewhat paradoxically, an improvement in his character and an enhancement of his stature; for it imposes on his perceptions a closer congruence with the truth of a world that is both corrupted and corrupting, and produces in us, the audience, the amazement, the awe, and even the respect—indeed the pity and fear—that mark the customary response to the tragic hero.
Rolf Soellner, author of
Shakespeare’s Patterns of Self-Knowledge, is a professor of English at The Ohio State University.
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