[EXPLICIT CONTENT, ADULT LANGUAGE AND SOPHOMORIC SEX HUMOR AHEAD… SKIP IF EASILY OFFENDED.]
[just kidding…this is pretty humorless]
Eric Partridge, in his study of and dictionary for the bawdy in the Bard, Shakespeare’s Bawdy, has this to say about our play:
“Timon of Athens is, in III vi–the end, the most misanthropic of Shakespeare’s plays, sexually as well as generally. Quantitatively comparable with All’s Well, Hamlet, Lear” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy, Partridge, Eric. New York: Routledge Classics, 2001; page 57).
A refresher on how we felt about the bawdy in those plays:
- Hamlet: we said that play sucked the fun out of the bawdy (and not in a good way)
- All’s Well: we made the journey from virginity to prostitution in what Partridge called “not a ‘nice’ play)
- Lear: we found misogynistic and largely humorless in its nudge-nudge-wink-wink
So. Caution: this is not going to be pretty…
When Timon and the flatterers greet Apemantus, we get an exchange that is barely sexual, but certainly curse-worthy:
You’re a dog.
Thy mother’s of my generation. What’s she, if I be a dog?
Wilt dine with me, Apemantus?
No. I eat not lords.
An thou shouldst, thou ’dst anger ladies.
O, they eat lords. So they come by great bellies.
That’s a lascivious apprehension.
The painter calls the cynic a dog; cynic responds that the painter’s mother is the same species of the cynic, so what does that make her? Double points for being both a “yo mama” joke and insultingly calling her a bitch. We then get his statement that women sexually consume (“eat”) men, and thus become pregnant (“great bellies”). Believe it or not, but this is the most “fun” bawdy passage we’re going to discuss. SAD.
When at the banquet, one of the dancing ladies tells Apemantus to take them at their best, he responds, “Faith, for the worst is filthy, and would not hold taking, I doubt me” (I.ii.149-50). This is the first of many disease references in the play. The ladies are sexually filthy, the cynic claims, so riddled with disease that no man would want to ‘take hold’ of them.
In Act Two, Scene Two, Apemantus and the Fool trade barbs with the servants waiting to ask Timon for repayment of loans. The Fool mentions Corinth (II.ii.72), a city notorious in Shakespeare’s day for its brothels. Then we learn that the Fool’s mistress is a bawd because “when men come to borrow of [Varro], they approach sadly and go away merry; but they enter [his] mistress’ house merrily and go away sadly” (II.ii.100-102), satiated but guilt- and possibly disease-ridden.
Timon, in his first Act Four misanthropic torrent of a soliloquy, curses the virgins of Athens to become “general filths” (IV.i.6) or common whores, then calls for “lust and liberty [to] // Creep in the minds and marrow of our youth” (IV.i.25-6) so that they’ll be then covered with “itches [and] blains” (IV.i.28), the effects of sexually transmitted diseases.
He continues in this vein two scenes later in another soliloquy:
Make[s] the hoar leprosy adored…
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.
- IV.iii.35, 39-42
Lots of disturbing imagery here: gold will make the old, white-haired (“hoar”) diseased woman adored (that the word “hoar” is a homonym for “whore” is no coincidence). Gold will also make the worn-out (“wappened”) widow wed again (now that could be marry or it could just mean have sex); this old woman who would make the sick in (ho)spital throw up, would be made young again by gold.
When Alcibiades arrives with his two mistresses (?), Timon denounces them as (deadly or) “fell whore[s]” (IV.iii.62), “a brace of harlots” (IV.iii.80), and “sluts” (IV.iii.135). He tells one of them, Timandra:
Give them diseases, leaving with thee their lust.
Make use of thy salt hours. Season the slaves
For tubs and baths. Bring down rose-cheeked youth
To the tub-fast and the diet.
Here, he tells her that since her ‘johns’ don’t love her, that she should give them diseases, ones that would be treated with “tubs and baths” as well as abstinence (“the tub-fast”) and medicinal diets.
And it’s not just whores he mistrusts, telling the soldier to
It is her habit only that is honest,
Herself’s a bawd. Let not the virgin’s cheek
Make soft thy 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.
Timon sees all women as false (“counterfeit”), hiding behind a guise of chastity (“honest”), all the while a whore (“bawd”). He says to not have pity on the virgins, either, as they flash their tits (“those milk paps”) at men, making them teases and traitors. Extra bawdy bonus points here: One of Alcibiades’ companions is named Phrynia, which seems to be a reference to the ancient Greek courtesan Phryne, who while on trial–according to legend–flashed her tits at the jury, and got off. (pun totally intended)
Then, as if obsessed, Time goes back to whores and disease:
And to make whores a bawd. Hold up, you sluts,
strong shudders and to heavenly agues
Be strong in whore, allure [the pious man], burn him up.
Let your close fire predominate his smoke,
And be no turncoats. Yet may your pains six months
Be quite contrary. And thatch your poor thin roofs
With burdens of the dead—some that were hanged,
No matter; wear them, betray with them. Whore still.
Paint till a horse may mire upon your face.
A pox of wrinkles! …
In hollow bones of man; strike their sharp shins,
And mar men’s spurring.
Hoar the flamen,
That scolds against the quality of flesh
And not believes himself. Down with the nose—
Down with it flat, take the bridge quite away—
Of him that, his particular to foresee,
Smells from the general weal. Make curled-pate ruffians bald,
And let the unscarred braggarts of the war
Derive some pain from you. Plague all,
That your activity may defeat and quell
The source of all erection.
Wow. He tells them to not stop being whores so they can bring disease–almost holy (“strong shudders and to heavenly agues”)–to even the pious man, whom shall have his burning desire burned out by their disease. But then he says that within half a year, they’ll be feeling the pain of the disease themselves, so much so that to disguise their disease, they’ll have to wear wigs (“thatch your poor thin roofs”) and cover themselves in so much make-up as might trap a horse. He then turns to how their customers shall feel the disease: pains in bones, pale with skin diseases, loss of noses and other facial features, loss of hair. This, Timon hopes, will kill off man’s lust…the “source of all erection.”
Later in the scene, when Apemantus comes to check on Timon, we revisit a piece of bawdy from back in Romeo and Juliet, when Apemantus says,
On what I hate I feed not.
Dost hate a medlar?
Ay, though it look like thee.
An thou ’dst hated meddlers sooner, thou shouldst have loved thyself better now. What man didst thou ever know unthrift that was beloved after his means?
Back in our discussion of bawdy in Romeo and Juliet, I said
So. We have that working for us.
Our last bit of bawdy, comes after Timon’s death, as the final scene is beginning with Alcibiades at the gates of Athens. He talks of the “breathless wrong” (V.iv.10) that sit in the thrones of Athens, and the insolence that farts (“break his wind” [V.iv.12]).
And thus bawdy in Timon of Athens ends not with a bang, but with a fart. (sorry, TS…)
No fun, no sex, just disease and whores… which reminds me more of Troilus and Cressida than the trifecta of Hamlet, All’s Well, and Lear, even though Partridge is on the mark with his lumping Timon in with those three.
I just want to shower. And not in a good way.