What, with all this wealth and money talk this past week, I’m finding some interesting language in the center-most scene in Timon of Athens. And if you think Timon’s in on the action in that midpoint scene, you’d be wrong.
But today’s title might clue you in on who is…
No, the midpoint scene is Act Three, Scene Five, in which the general Alcibiades pleads with senators for the life of one of his soldiers.
At first, his approach is what you’d expect from a plaintiff: he calls for “pity” (III.v.8) and “comely virtues” (III.v.15). He lays out the extenuating circumstance for the man’s crime–his insulted reputation–and ends the speech with an appropriately placed rhyming couplet. He is refused.
He changes tack, and “speak[s] like a captain” (III.v.41), beginning with the diction of war: “battle” (III.v.42), “cut their throats” (III.v.44), and “valiant” (III.v.47), before returning to a call for mercy. It builds to a seeming crescendo with another rhyming couplet: “To kill, I grant is sin’s extremest gust; // But in defense, by mercy, ‘tis most just” (III.v.55). But then he follows it up with three consecutive shortening but end-stopped lines (five, then four, then three poetic feet). It’s almost as if he was done with his speech, but when the senators didn’t respond after the couplet, the general is forced to speak, then speak again, then speak again, before the second senator tells the general that his pleas are in vain.
It is at this point that the scene turns. Alcibiades questions their decision, saying that the man’s “service done // At Lacedaemon and Byzantium // Were a sufficient briber for his life” (III.v.59-61). The first senator says, “What’s that?” (III.v.62)…and this is the entire poetic line…calling for a huge pause before Alcibiades speaks. It’s as if the general knows he has struck a nerve. And so he goes back to talk of war, saying that the soldier has fought in war doing service against Athens’ enemies. But this, too, is to no avail, and the death sentence is proclaimed.
When Alcibiades responds, his diction is completely different. I had said that at the turning point in the scene, the general had said something that he immediately realizes had struck a nerve and he backed away from it. At this point, however, he returns to that nerve and like the dentist in Marathon Man, drills into it.
And what’s that nerve?
You guessed it: wealth, money, filthy freakin’ lucre.
I think the trigger word in that previous speech was “briber” inferring not only the worth of the soldier’s service, but also that the senators may be swayed by something more than service. And if that antagonized the senators, Alcibiades does more than merely poke the bear now. Look at his diction. Over the course of just an eleven-line speech, he uses the following words: “purchase” (III.v.77), “debt” (III.v.78), “deserts” (III.v.79; getting what one deserves), “pawn” (III.v.81; to put something into security for a price), “returns” (III.v.82; the successful results of an action), “owes” (III.v.83), and “receive’t” (III.v.84).
This does not go well, and within a couple more very short exchanges, the senators banish the general. Alcibiades responds, mocking, and saying, “Banish me? // Banish your dotage, banish usury, // That makes the Senate ugly!” (III.v.97-99). After calling them usurers, they leave, and in soliloquy, the general does not hold back his wealth words: “money” (III.v.106), “coin” (III.v.107), “interest” (III.v.107), “rich” (III.v.108), “usuring Senate” (III.v.109), and “worthy” (III.v.112). And he leaves the stage declaring that he’s going back to his army so that he can then attack Athens.
It’s a great scene…one of my favorites in the play (and a highlight in the OSF production this summer). But what about the usury/senate rhetoric? And what is with all the wealth-words, lucre-language, money-mouthing? Is it merely there to support an overall theme of wealth in the play? Maybe, but it feels like there should be more behind this.