Timon of Athens — Speech Study: Timon’s eureka moment

Last week, I took a look at some of the ‘graces’ in Timon of AthensApemantus’ before the first feast, and Timon’s before the second and final feast. Today, let’s look a (sort of) third.

In Act Four, Scene Three, Timon has left Athens and is now in full Misantropos mode. And at the beginning of the scene, he has another long soliloquy; this one at 48 lines, is longer than his Act Four, Scene One, full-scene torrent.

O blessèd breeding sun, draw from the Earth
Rotten humidity; below thy sister’s orb
Infect the air! Twinned brothers of one womb–
Whose procreation, residence, and birth
Scarce is dividant — touch them with several fortunes,
The greater scorns the lesser. Not nature,
To whom all sores lay siege, can bear great fortune
But by contempt of nature.
Raise me this beggar, and deny ’t that lord;
The Senators shall bear contempt hereditary,
The beggar native honor.
It is the pasture lards the brother’s sides,
The want that makes him lean. Who dares, who dares
In purity of manhood stand upright
And say “This man’s a flatterer”? If one be,
So are they all, for every grise of fortune
Is smoothed by that below. The learnèd pate
Ducks to the golden fool. All’s obliquy;
There’s nothing level in our cursèd natures
But direct villainy. Therefore be abhorred
All feasts, societies, and throngs of men.
His semblable, yea, himself, Timon disdains.
Destruction fang mankind! Earth, yield me roots!
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 th’ 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 wappened widow wed again;
She whom the spital house and ulcerous sores
Would cast the gorge at, this embalms and spices
To th’ April day again. Come, damnèd earth,
Thou common whore of mankind, that puts odds
Among the rout of nations, I will make thee
Do thy right nature.
(March afar off.) Ha? A drum? Thou ’rt quick,
But yet I’ll bury thee. Thou ’lt go, strong thief,
When gouty keepers of thee cannot stand.
Nay, stay thou out for earnest.
  • IV.iii.1-48

In the first half of the speech, Timon curses the earth as he digs through it to find “roots” (IV.iii.23) to eat. He finds not roots, but gold in line 25, and then for the remainder of the scene, he outlines the corrupting effects of gold.

With its opening address to the “blessed breeding sun,” it feels almost like an incantation, another prayer. Of course, he’s calling on said sun to pull all the moisture and water from the earth, and to fill the space from the ground to the moon with infected air…making the earth uninhabitable. Then he goes on to call for an upending of society, but thinks better of it and talks of his “disdain” (IV.iii.22) and hatred of mankind. So he digs for roots to eat.

In this section, the verse is anything but regular. 23 lines, 16 of which are non-iambic. Two of the iambic lines are short, three-foot lines, another a longer six-foot line. Leaving only four of blank verse. And only two of those are back to back…and enjambed:

So are they all, for every grise of fortune
Is smoothed by that below. The learnèd pate

Now, both the (Pelican) text’s notes and (for me, the infinitely more reliable glossary of) Shakespeare’s Words, by David and Ben Crystal, define ‘grise’ as “step” or rank. And that would make sense: Every rank of fortune is smoothed by that below it…people included. That interpretation, valid as it is, is based on a reading of “grise” as “grece.” But if they’re homophones, then what about the OED definition for “grise”? Well, it comes in verb and adjective form and it means terrifying (think of our “grisly”). The sentence won’t support a verb or adjective, but this would not be the first time that Shakespeare “invented” a word by using it in its ungrammatical function. This could work; every horrible event of fortune is made smoother by that below. It’s a stretch, so we stick with ‘step’ (though the subliminal meaning that the audience would receive by hearing its homophone gives that step a terrifying subtext). One man stands on another on the stairway of success, with the lower making it easier. Oh, that doesn’t have economic connotations at all, right?

After he finds the gold (which happens in an Iambic pentameter line of dialogue), the rhythm of the speech is still jumbled as he curses the gods for providing him with this gold, this poison. But after he begins to discuss what gold does (IV.iii.34), the rhythm regulates. From “This yellow slave” to the end of the speech (as he is distracted by the sound of the oncoming march) is twelve lines, and over half, seven, are blank verse. That “yellow slave” line is interesting. A two-foot iambic line. That’s a three beat pause. Since it opens a sentence (the line before it ends with a period), I would posit that Timon takes a breath, gathers his thoughts and then tells us about the evils of money.

Successful people climb over those below. Money is evil.

Yeah, I can see how the OSF production had a huge banner with a quote from Marx on it.

Timon of Athens (OSF backdrop)
Timon of Athens (OSF backdrop)