Shakespeare and the Greek tragedy of capitalism
Late last year I walked into a party in a Parnell flat to find a tanned and smiling Ted Jenner holding court. Ted had been missing from the Auckland literary scene for months, after announcing that he was travelling to Greece to continue his research into the short poems that have been found on pieces of papyrus in ancient graves across the Hellenic world. Called 'gold leaves' because of their shape and colour, these artefacts have puzzled tomb-robbers and archaeologists alike for centuries.
Encouraged by Titus Books, Ted had been busy translating leaves and writing commentaries on them. He had thought that a few quiet weeks in the libraries and museums of Greece would help him finish a book, but today's Greece is not a quiet place. In town after town Ted discovered libraries and museums closed by strikes, or budget cuts, or both, and smelt tear gas in the air.
Greece's trade union movement has a long and proud history, and it has responded to economic crisis with a series of general strikes, as well as innumerable street protests. Last year working class voters almost gave Syriza, a coalition of radical left-wing parties, control of the Greek parliament. At the same election an explicitly fascist party called the Golden Dawn entered parliament. Despite its contempt for democracy, that old Athenian invention, and its fondness for Hitler, the man whose armies occupied Greece for three terrible years, the Golden Dawn claims to embody all that is noble in Hellenic culture and tradition. Its members besiege the homes of black and brown-skinned Greeks, and wage street warfare against the left.
It was perhaps inevitable that Ted Jenner, with his left-leaning politics and his loathing for pseudo-history, would be provoked into polemic by the Golden Dawn. In exchanges with ultra-nationalists on the streets of Athens and in a letter to a Greek periodical, he condemned the Golden Dawn for ignoring, because of ignorance or bigotry, the non-European - that is, Phoenician, Babylonian, and Egyptian - influences on ancient Greek civilisation, and for exaggerating the military achievements of the Greeks in their conflicts with Persia. These indignant rebuttals were the beginning of an extraordinary essay, a mixture of prose and poetry, reportage and invective, called 'Plato's Academy', which will be published in the forthcoming 47th issue of the New Zealand literary journal brief. The eeriest passage in the essay describes Ted's pilgrimage to the site of the legendary institution of learning which was inspired by Socrates and founded by Plato:
A ‘sacred wood’ covers most of the ground embraced by the Academy. The wood is an extensive and entangled grove of olive and myrtle trees; so extensive and so entangled that it seems to have been chosen as a shelter during the summer by the homeless and the unemployed, for I kept coming across hastily constructed cardboard ‘beds’ and abandoned piles of clothing amongst the undergrowth. The ‘sacred wood’, now hemmed on all sides by housing estates but throbbing still with the strident ‘songs’ of the last autumn cicadas, has apparently become a fair-weather refuge for the homeless and the illegal.
The crisis in Greece, and the global economic troubles that created that crisis, have prompted interest in one of Shakespeare's most neglected plays. Timon of Athens was written with the help of Thomas Middleton, and doesn't seem to have been staged in Shakespeare's lifetime. Some scholars have pointed to the play's undeveloped subplots, idle minor characters, and pair of epilogues, and argued that it was never finished.
Shakespeare's protagonist is a wealthy spendthrift who holds elaborate dinner parties where he offers his guests, who include unctuous artists as well as dodgy men of capital, absurdly expensive gifts. Timon is also generous to his many servants, helping them to pay off debts. But Timon has accrued debts of his own. When his servant-cum-financial advisor Flavius warns him he is facing bankruptcy, Timon is unconcerned; he believes that the friends who have dined so often at his table will come to his aid. But when Flavius visits the homes of these friends to ask for cash, he is turned rudely away.
Enraged by the meanness of his alleged friends, Timon holds a final dinner party, at which the guests are welcomed with a pretend-bonhomie, then offered a meal of stones and water. After this mock-banquet, Timon strips off his clothes and abandons Athens for a cave on an obscure and closely forested piece of the Greek coast, where he lives on roots and water.
One day when he is digging for his next meal, Timon the anchorite uncovers a stash of gold some bandit or exiled prince has buried and forgotten. Hearing rumours of this flukish find, Timon's old flatterers pay visits to his cave. Instead of gifts of gold, though, they are treated to denunciations of their greed, and of the sinfulness of humanity in general:
That nature, being sick of man's unkindness,
Should yet be hungry! Common mother, thou,
Whose womb unmeasurable and infinite breast
Teems and feeds all; whose selfsame mettle,
Whereof they proud child, arrogant man, is puffed,
Engenders the black toad and adder blue,
The gilded newt and eyeless venomed worm,
With all the abhorred births below crisp heaven...
Ensear they fertile and conceptious womb;
Let it no more bring out ingrateful man.
Go great with tigers, dragons, wolves and bears,
Teem with new monsters...
After giving his new fortune to Alcibiades, a rebellious general who is preparing to turn his soldiers against Athens, Timon dies in his cave, an irredeemably embittered man.
Most Shakespeare scholars have considered Timon of Athens a poor relative of King Lear and Hamlet, but a number of great thinkers and artists have been preoccupied with the play. Herman Melville thought Timon of Athens superior to Hamlet; in his Paris Manuscripts and in the first volume of Capital, Marx used the play to explain the alienating effects of money; Vladimir Nabokov took the title of Pale Fire from one of Timon's tirades.
Last year London's National Theatre brought Timon into the era of the Global Financial Crisis and the Occupy movement. In a production which toured England, National Theatre Director Nick Hytner showed Timon as a wealthy financier ruined by a lurch in the market. After being spurned by his old dinner guests, the National Theatre's Timon ends up not in a forest cave but in the rubble of an abandoned building site, where he sleeps rough beside a shopping trolley filled with his possessions. Timon's fall is paralleled by the rise of an army of protesters led by a self-proclaimed revolutionary named Alcibiades, who ends the play by cutting a deal with the establishment and selling out his supporters.
The 2012 incarnation of Timon of Athens was filmed, and has been shown this summer in a number of New Zealand cinemas. In both Britain and this country, Nick Hytner's work has impressed reviewers. Writing in the New Zealand Listener, economist Brian Easton summed up the response to the play when he claimed that it demonstrated that 'money can't buy true friendship'.
It is easy to understand why Ted Jenner went to watch Timon of Athens shortly after his return to New Zealand. In an e mail to me, he praised the play:
Yes, I saw Timon of Athens last week and have read it twice (thanks to Wyndham Lewis whose superb drawings of Alcibiades got me interested in the play). The acting in Timon was brilliant (this is after all THE National Theatre) and it was in modern dress which I always prefer (after all, the plays in the 16th-17th were in Elizabethan-Jacobean dress, they wouldn't have put on Roman armour for Coriolanus). The early scenes of the play were somewhat truncated; Alcibiades' name is mentioned but you don't see him till about half-way through the play. The worst thing about watching these filmed National Theatre plays is the advertising that comes with it.
I can't help thinking that there is something rather backhanded about all the praise for the new Timon of Athens. The Timon of 2012 is at best a fool, and at worst a vain, spoilt fool. Like so many of the 'big swinging dicks' of Wall Street and the City of London, with their permanent tans and permanently maxed-out gold cards, he is man who has forgotten the stubbornly real world outside his mansion, the world which gives and - on occasion - deprives money of its value. The National Theatre's Timon would have fitted snugly into the boardroom of Lehmann Brothers.
By making Timon into a fool, though, the National Theatre arguably violates Shakespeare's text and deprives his play of much of its tragic grandeur.
The Wheel of Fire, Knight argues that Timon is a noble, even saintly man, whose story has a 'tragic scale...even more tremendous than that of Macbeth and King Lear'. Knight notes that Shakespeare emphasises Timon's goodness, and refrains from sneering at his troubles. Knight can see, in a way that the National Theatre and reviewers like Brian Easton apparently cannot, that Timon intends his gift-giving as a model for all human behaviour. He is, in Knight's words, a 'supreme lover of humanity' who wants to build a 'heaven on earth' by encouraging humans to give freely to their fellows. His motto might be Marx's 'from each according to his means, to each according to his needs'. Timon's tragedy is that he lives in venal, predatory Athens, which sees his his generosity as something to exploit rather than emulate.
Shakespeare vouches for Timon's goodness in the very first lines of his play. Before their benefactor has stepped onto the stage, the poet and painter who are his regular dinner guests discuss his 'good and gracious nature'. If this pair had been speaking in Timon's presence then their words of praise would have been worthless, but they have no reason to flatter their patron in his absence. As Maurice Charney noted in his introduction to the Signet Classic edition of Timon of Athens, the poet and painter's discussion is a revelation of Timon's essential nature. Sadly, Nick Hytner omitted the first lines of Timon of Athens from his version of the play.
When he flees Athens for the countryside, Timon reminds us of the adventures of some of Shakespeare's most remarkable characters, like Lear, who exchanges the castle of his evil daughters for a stormy heath, Guiderius, the prince who spends most of his youth in a Welsh cave, and Orlando, who swaps the dangerous politics of court for the delights of Arden Forest. As Raymond Williams showed in his masterpiece The Country and the City, English writers have a long tradition of contrasting the venality of urban life with the supposed tranquility of the backblocks. In the speeches he makes from his cave, Timon explores a series of ideas about the natural world, and its relation to humanity. Timon is perhaps briefly tempted by the notion of the countryside as a place of refuge, but soon insists, in what are his most famous lines, on the moral continuity of the human and non-human parts of the universe:
The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea. The moon's an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun.
The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears. The earth's a thief,
That feeds and breeds by a composture stol'n
From gen'ral excrement. Each thing's a thief.
Timon the cave-dweller is preoccupied with nothingness, and longs for death, which he sees as a door to nothingness. G. Wilson Knight argues convincingly that this nihilism is not the metaphysical tantrum of a spoilt man who has gotten his comeuppance, but the justifiable response of a disappointed idealist to the real and terrible flaws of the world. Timon's 'disillusioned hate' is the 'measure of his original love' for the world.
By ignoring Shakespeare's positive presentation of Timon the National Theatre has done its audiences a disservice. The tragedy of a good man in a fallen world has become a shallow satire of bourgeois credulousness; the cosmic meditations which a wilderness of waves and leaves inspired in Timon have become the irrational ramblings of a derelict who has no one but himself to blame for his fate.
There are many Timons in today's Greece. The men and women sleeping rough in the groves of the Academy are only a few of the hundreds of thousands of Greeks impoverished by the crisis that began in 2008. The nouveaux poor protest their fate in different ways. Some march and chant and confront policemen kitted out like American Football players on city streets paved with broken glass and illuminated by burning rubbish bins; others turn their anger inwards. Greece traditionally had one of the lowest suicide rates in Europe, but that has changed over the last four years. Dimitris Christoulas, who shot himself in the main public square of Athens last April, is perhaps the most famous of the hundreds of Greeks who have preferred death to the miseries of extreme poverty. Christoulas' suicide note is reproduced on his grave:
The government has annihilated all traces for my survival, which was based on a very dignified pension that I alone paid into for 35 years with no help from the state. I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life so that I don't find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance.
In the media and parliaments of more prosperous European nations, there has been a tendency to attribute Greece's crisis to the supposedly intemperate and profligate character of its citizens. Greeks are blamed for borrowing too much money and buying too much during the good times that preceded the 2008 crash. Now that debts are being called in Greeks must, they are told, learn to be less greedy and to work harder.
But this sort of rhetoric ignores the role that Greek consumers played in making profits for banks and manufacturers in Germany and Britain and other wealthier nations in the first eight years of the noughties. Now that the debt bubble has burst, the banks are being bailed out and the manufacturers are being subsidised, while the workers of Greece and other nations are made to suffer.
The portrait of ordinary Greeks as greedy and lazy is also unjust. Many of the men and women who borrowed heavily before 2008 were intent on buying homes for their families. If they spent beyond their means, and ended up with mortgages they could not service, then it can be argued that, like Timon, they had honourable reasons for their profligacy. They may be guilty, like Timon, of underestimating the ruthlessness of financiers, but this failing is surely forgivable.
There are parallels, then, between the National Theatre's apparent distaste for Timon and the widespread contempt, amongst the establishments of nations like Britain, for the plight of today's Greeks. As much as I admire Ted Jenner's essay about his time in Greece, I can't agree with him about the latest Timon of Athens.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]