A tale of two epitaphs

OK, so Timon of Athens. Lots of critics have lots of issues with this play. One of them has to do with the ending.

Sure, Timon just disappears three scenes before the end of the play. He says he’s going to go and die. And he disappears. But after our last play, in which Antony of our title couple is gone for the entire final act, this seems like less a big deal.

Thus, the absence isn’t the problem here. No, it’s a doubled presence.

There are two epitaphs in the play for our titular Timon.

The first is written in a language that one of Alcibiades’ soldiers can understand: “Timon is dead, who hath outstretched his span, // Some beast read this; there does not live a man” (V.iii.3-4). Timon has reached his end (and beyond, in a sense); and any who reads the note is not a man…as there are no such entities. It’s unclear whether this message is left on some note, or scrawled on a wall, or what.

What is clear is that this epitaph is not what Shakespeare (and the consensus is that this final act is his and not Middleton’s) pilfered from Plutarch. That epitaph reads:

“Here, after snapping the thread of a wretched life, I lie.
Ye shall not learn my name, but my curses shall follow you.”
This inscription he is said to have composed himself, but that in general circulation is by Callimachus:
“Timon, hater of men, dwells here; so pass along;
Heap many curses on me, if thou wilt, only pass along.”

And that is the epitaph found by the soldier, but he cannot read; it is carved into the cave, and the soldier takes a wax impression of it, to give to Alcibiades to translate, which he does:

Here lies a wretched corse, of wretched soul bereft;
Seek not my name. A plague consume you, wicked caitiffs left!
Here lie I, Timon, who alive all living men did hate.
Pass by and curse thy fill, but pass and stay not here thy gait.
  • V.iv.70-73

So why two epitaphs?

I don’t get it…

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