The Last Honest Beast: Timon of Athens

Benjamin Phelps Gibbon (engraving after John Hayter), Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC 1.0

Draft of the first part of a chapter on Shakespeare and Animals for a Routledge companion on same. I’ve late on this (4 days so far), so: keeping myself honest by posting this here.


ALCIBIADES What art thou there? Speak.
TIMON: A beast, as thou art. The canker gnaw thy heart
For showing me again the eyes of man!
ALCIBIADES: What is thy name? Is man so hateful to thee
That art thyself a man?
TIMON: I am Misanthropos and hate mankind.
For thy part, I do wish thou wert a dog,
That I might love thee something.

In a wilderness, having abjured the false company of humankind, Timon of Athens once more suffers the company of the only person who lives down to his expectations, the philosophical churl Apemantus. Gnawing on roots, disdaining a trove of accidentally unburied gold, and competitively trading misanthropic insults, Timon demands to know what Apemantus would do with the world if he had absolute power: “Give it to the beasts, to be rid of the men” (IV.iii.366).

Speaking at least in a strictly quantitative sense, none of the plays ascribed to Shakespeare is as beast-ridden as Timon of Athens (Kane, Raber). The word and its variants appears in it 20 times, far more often than its closest rival, Hamlet, which has only eight uses (the other plays average at slightly more than three uses a piece). In Shakespeare’s hands, “beast” can sometimes be a neutral word, a mere description, as with the phrase “strange beasts,” which Shakespeare uses twice, when Trinculo tries to classify the sleeping Caliban (Tempest II.ii.31), and when Jacques mocks two rustic clowns (As You Like It V.iv.38). In general, however, to be a “beast” is to be something wretched and awful. A beast is life in its wretchedness: a human possessing no more than its natural needs would be as “cheap as beast’s” (King Lear II.iv.307); “beast” is a handy term of disapprobation: “O, you beast! / O faithless coward, O dishonest wretch” (Measure for Measure III.i.153-4). Finally, Richard III‘s “not to relent is beastly, savage, devilish” (I.iv.273) illustrates the word’s most potent meaning, that of being an enemy to all society, order, and peace (“contumelious, beastly, mad-brained war” (V.i.200)), of being nothing except as a certain force of “fury” (III.v.74) and “wicked[ness” (III.ii.46). The beast thus matches Timon’s “I am Misanthropos and hate mankind” (IV.iii.59), for a beast is life at its most antisocial, wanting no less than destruction for everyone and everything.

Saying that “beasts” are furious, terrifying, and anti-human may seem otiose, because everyone already knows beasts are bad. But one method of critical animal studies, and indeed any other form of cultural critique, is simply to redescribe the things that “go without saying,” but disloyally. Deliberately naive redescription estranges us from the familiar, and loosens long-sedimented ideas. Here I follow the call in Derrida’s groundbreaking work on animals in The Animal that Therefore I am for a “limitrophic” attention to distinctions between humans and that heterogeneous mass of living things humans call animals, an attention, that is, to the cultural work that nourishes (from the Greek verb trophein) the limit. As Derrida insists, the point is not to erase the difference between humans and animals, but to render that limit unfamiliar by attending to it as a problem, and by recognizing the difference as “foliated,” not a single line, but a shifting set of culturally variable differences. To put the immediate limitrophic problems simply: in Timon, what does it actually mean to be a beast, and what does that have to do with being human? And how does being a beast differ from, for example, being a wolf or a fox or a sheep? What are the various things that might happen to humans when they are animalized?

Redescription helps us understand that there is not just one form of dehumanization. In Shakespeare’s works, to be an “animal” is to be one kind of thing, to be a particular kind of animal another, and to be a beast quite something else. The word “animal” never appears in Timon, and only rarely elsewhere in Shakespeare; and as Laurie Shannon in particular has observed, the use of “animal” to mean nonhuman, nonplant living things was not yet common in English during Shakespeare’s life. “Animal” in Shakespeare generally refers to living things in their helplessness or limitations, the “wretched” or “bare forked” animals, or a character scorned as “only an animal, only sensible in the duller parts” (Love’s Labor’s Lost, IV.ii.29). Hamlet’s “paragon of animals” attests to human animality, since we are also living things (as “animal” derives from the Latin anima, soul, the immaterial extra quality that gives life to a body). A human called an “animal” might be dehumanized by being recognized not as a uniquely rational and linguistic creature, but as part of the common lot of dependent and mortal living things: such sympathetic attention to the vulnerability shared between humans and nonhumans would be alien to a play as bilious as Timon. A human called a “beast” is dehumanized in a radically different way. Timon becomes a beast, crucially not an animal, by fleeing everything. Abandoning his hangers-on and his debts (Bailey, Kolb), he sloughs off all communal ties and all obligations, ultimately becoming less a kind of thing than a mad, unclassifiable force that refuses the domestication of any certain order.

When Timon echoes Apemantus, by himself wishing that “beasts” would have “the world in empire” (IV.iii.438), he must therefore be hoping for an impossibility, because beastly ownership is as impossible as a beastly collective. Animals might be gregarious, but not beasts: so says a key source for Timon, William Painter’s widely read Palace of Pleasure, an English-language compendium of Italian stories that includes, for example, a chapter on Romeo and Juliet, and another that provided some of the material for As You Like It. Its chapter on Timon observes “how like a beast (in deede) [Timon] was: for he could not abide any other men, beinge not able to suffer the company of him, which was of like nature.” Its Timon persists in his refusal of human community even past his death, as he demands that his corpse be thrown into the ocean, refusing any change to his “beastly and churlish life” that would transform his carcass into a corpse (Shakespeare’s Timon, on the other hand, just dies offstage, leaving behind nothing but a tomb inscribed with an epitaph addressed to “some beast” (V.iii.4)). Wanting nothing but destruction for everyone, dwelling in a wilderness whose nature is to refuse everyone and everything a home, Timon and Apemantus at least pretend to want nothing but for the false world to be returned to chaos.

Yet at the center of that chaos remain these two beastly truth-tellers, having abandoned everything but their sense of rightness. In their “sovereign autonomy,” Timon and Apemantus have much in common with what David Hershinow calls a “Diogenical” outsider, whose cynical railing against flatterers, contempt for all merely cultural comforts, and singular possession of the truth grants them a “sovereign autonomy,” mastery, that is, without the need for subjects (Hershinow, Manzella). The furious, irrational, and antisocial beast has become the one true philosopher. A 1598 English translation of Aristotle’s Politics has this philosopher observe that “he that cannot abide to live in company, or through sufficiency hath need of nothing, is not esteemed a part of member of a city, but is either a beast or a god,” or, we might say, both at once. We should tread carefully with such observations. Theoretically inflected literary criticism continues to be allured by the paradox. It delights in the pretense of any pure concept collapsing into its opposite: the host becomes the enemy (Derrida); our own body becomes indistinguishable from an intruder (Nancy); and beastly rage and philosophical detachment, unrestrained by custom or social obligation, are, in their lawless contempt for social constraints, ultimately indistinguishable. The last point point is essentially inspired by Giorgio Agamben’s thinking on the animal paradox of sovereignty, and suffers from the same limitations. As Agamben famously observes in his Homo Sacer, the sovereign approaches the condition of the wolf in his being outside the law: the sovereign decision relies on nothing but itself for its justification, originating therefore in an unappealable nullity; the wolf, likewise, does what it does without appeal to any law, simply taking what it wants.

But the paradox begins to falter once we observe whose violence is respected as sovereign and whose is scorned: the dispossessed are never allowed to exercise the violence of the sovereign without being condemned as beasts. In collapsing the distinction between sovereign and beast, Agamben obscures the distinction between the fantasy of self-willed action and the certainty that others do not understand why they do what they do. The sovereign cynic is a beast to others because he thinks himself the only rational one, while he believes others are beasts because they exercise nothing but their own appetites. Timon the beast wants Athens, now a “forest of beasts” (IV.iii.391), destroyed, because he alone knows the truth, because he alone is indifferent to the appetites he believes unthinkingly motivate others (but cf. Emig).

Only a few Athenians escape his scorn: Flavius, his loyal steward; Alcibiades, betrayed by Athens, and for that begrudgingly admired by Timon; and especially Apemantus, whose philosophy and demeanor Timon imitates. The two bestial philosophers hold nothing back, however, from the play’s few women: neither from the Amazons of Timon’s first, lavish banquet, costumed dancers, and scorned by Apemantus as a “sweep of vanity” (I.ii.136); nor from Alcibiades’ two concubines, the prostitutes Phrynia and Timandra, who receive from Timon both gold and unrelenting scorn. When Timon urges Alcibiades to destroy Athens, his hopes for merciless slaughter concentrate especially on women. His list of targets begins with an old man, then continues like so:

Strike me the counterfeit matron;
It is her habit only that is honest,
Herself’s a bawd. Let not the virgin’s cheek,
Make soft they trenchant sword, for those milk paps,
That through the window-bars bore at men’s eyes,
Are not within the leaf of pity writ,
But set them down horrible traitors. (IV.iii.124-33)

And Phrynia and Timandra, indistinguishably delivering their lines mostly together, are brought on stage just to be seen through: Timon is certain that Phrynia’s “cherubin look” (IV.iii.70) only masks the disease he is certain she carries, and when he heaps her and Timandra with gold, he hopes that their beauty might disfigure all Athens with syphilis. When they depart with Alcibiades, Timon next turns his scorn on the earth itself, that “common mother” (III.iii.203), so echoing his earlier scorn for his unburied gold as “damnèd earth, / thou common whore of mankind” (III.iii.46-47). In women, whether virgins, mothers, prostitutes, or old matrons — this list being his full taxonomy — Timon turns up the material form itself of “prostituted humanity” and thus the form of the irredeemably false social order his beastly philosophy aims to undo (Adelman, Kahn, Stanton). These woman, all women, are for Timon Athens as it really is.

We are all familiar with the cliché of the lonely man, the enemy of all fraud, and all too familiar with their habitual targeting of women. Timon is no exception. The beast is a misogynist, because the structure of independent, solitary, and contemptuous certainty is fundamentally misogynist. Beware the man who believes he is beyond desire.

Dehumanization strips away humanity, but not in any one way, because there is no one way for a human to be non-human. Timon bestializes the rest of the world, because he believes he knows what irredeemably drives them, and therefore why they must be destroyed. Timon’s acts also bestialize him, but in this case, bestialization removes him from the dependence, often feigned, but not always — recall Flavius — that knits others together. In the wilderness, Timon first misidentifies Flavius, because of his weeping, as a woman (IV.iii.541), and then proclaims him the “one honest man” (IV.iv.557): his last brief willingness to receive compassion, with its hint of a collapse of gender difference, and its willingness to acknowledge the good in others, might have been Timon’s escape from cynic philosophy, and a redemption for himself, for others, and for other life. But he at last drives Flavius away, and thus drives from himself, again, all common delights, all obligation. In feeling himself only scorned, Timon becomes a beast, and for that, everything else has to suffer his truth.

Key works:
Adelman, Janet. Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare’s Plays, Hamlet to the Tempest. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Bailey, Amanda. Of Bondage: Debt, Property, and Personhood in Early Modern England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

Derrida, Jacques. The Beast and the Sovereign, Vol II. Ed. Michel Lisse, Marie-Louise Mallet, and Ginette Michaud. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. [for wilderness fantasies of autonomy and solitude]

Emig, Rainer. “Renaissance Self-Unfashioning: Shakespeare’s Late Plays as Exercises in Unravelling the Human,” in Stefan Herbrechter and Ivan Callus, Posthumanist Shakespeare. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 133-59.

Hershinow, David. “Diogenes the Cynic and Shakespeare’s Bitter Fool: The Politics and Aesthetics of Free Speech.” Criticism 56.4 (2014): 807-35.

Kane, Eilidh. “Shakespeare and Middleton’s Co-Authorship of Timon of Athens.” Journal of Early Modern Studies 5 (2016): 217-35.

Kahn, Coppélia. “‘Magic of Bounty’: Timon of Athens, Jacobean Patronage, and Maternal Power.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38.1 (1987): 45-57

Kolb, Laura. “Debt’s Poetry in Timon of Athens.” Studies in English Literature 58.2 (2018): 399-419

Manzella, David. The Making of Modern Cynicism. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007.

Raber, Karen. “Shakespeare and Animal Studies.” Literature Compass 12.6 (2015): 286-298

Shannon, Laurie. The Accommodated Animal: Cosmopolity in Shakespearean Locales. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Stanton, Kay. Shakespeare’s ‘Whores’: Erotics, Politics, and Poetics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.