The beginning and end of tragic themes.
Titus Andronicus and Timon of Athens

King Lear is one of Shakespeare's last plays, but the philosophy is not new. If we go back to Titus Andronicus, which is one of his first, we find basically similar views. We shall go through the latter briefly and then compare it with King Lear to show the development in Shakespeare's thought.

The story takes place in ancient Rome. A victorious general has returned to celebrate his triumph and to bury those of his many sons who fell in battle. His home-coming coincides with a succession conflict, in which he prefers the emperor's oldest son Saturninus.

Titus offends the Gothic queen Tamora by letting her oldest son die as a blood sacrifice on the grave of his own boy, the queen and her two remaining sons being handed over to the newly instated emperor, together with the negro slave Aaron.

When Saturninus is created emperor on Titus' advice, he offers to wed Titus' daughter Lavinia. His brother Bassianus, however, claims a previous engagement to Lavinia and makes off with her, helped by some of Titus' sons. Saturninus declines to have Lavinia brought back to him, since he has in the meantime become enamoured of the Gothic queen. Still, he is furious at the insult and refuses further friendship with Titus and his family, although Titus has in fact killed his own son Mutius for taking Bassianus' side.

Soon afterwards the emperor marries Tamora, who is nevertheless without any feeling of solidarity with her Roman protector. The marriage makes it possible for Aaron and Tamora to take vengeance. Egged on by Aaron, Tamora's two Gothic sons rape and mutilate Titus' daughter, and Tamora and Aaron trap two of Titus' sons so that they are believed to be the murderers of the emperor's brother and are executed.

That is the last straw; Titus revenges himself, kills Tamora's sons and has their heads and blood baked into a pie and offered to their mother and stepfather as visiting guests. The fighting continues until the emperor is felled by Titus' last son.

Early and late

The parallel to
King Lear is obvious. The management of the state is neglected, and the consequences are shown to be equally devastating in both cases: In England and Rome alike the irresponsible leaders and their families are exterminated.

Titus Andronicus is coarse-grained and less meticulously worked out than King Lear. But the major difference is that what we may call ‘the reckoning’ takes place in another manner. In King Lear it is carried out by Edgar and Kent; Titus Andronicus lets the injured father act both as judge and as executioner. True, Titus is a warrior while Lear is decrepit. Even so our conclusion must be that Titus Andronicus is marred by an obscuring of moral issues. Punishment overtakes persons who deserve to be punished; but by having Titus put the judgement into effect, Shakespeare gives his early protagonist an ugly double motive. The play seems to glorify personal revenge, and the audience begins to feel sympathy with the ill-treated father instead of being made to realise his initial mistake. Titus Andronicus therefore never becomes a purified tragedy (cf chapter 9 first section).

King Lear emphasises instead the responsibility of a leader. At the same time the reactions of the audience are allowed a better foundation, since the play establishes a clear difference between the initial offence and its later consequences. Lear commits errors and must atone for them; the punishment of his opponents is left to two other characters. By this means the dramatist has taken a large stride forwards. The Roman tragedy is left behind as an example of a messy mix-up of private vengeance and general human insight.

Furthermore, the characterisation in
Titus Andronicus is confused. Saturninus is loosely put together, his brother likewise. The initial developments happen so quickly that the spectators are hard put to decide whether one or both of these two sons of the previous emperor are villains or simply have different ideas about right and wrong. The prisoners-of-war Tamora and Aaron also seem contradictory. Both are condemned through their actions, but the author here shows at least the most immediate causes that may explain their rigid and destructive personalities. The Gothic queen has been humiliated by the Romans and left as the sexual victim of a foreign culture. Aaron has twice been exposed to the same kind of treatment, being first enslaved by the Goths, then by the Romans. He is given another ameliorating quality through his actions when his queen bears him a mulatto child. Tamora wants to save herself by letting the child disappear. However, fatherly love, allied to fury on behalf of his down-trodden race and bitterness against the offending Goths and Romans alike, awakens in the villain Aaron and he refuses to kill his progeny, even faced with the emperor's likely revenge if he discovers his wife's adultery.

There is often the same difference between Shakespeare's early and late plays that we find in those of Ibsen. The debut play of the Norwegian,
Catilina, anticipates much of the plot of Ghosts. But again the early play drowns its message in unclear characterisation while the mature tragedy is simplicity itself throughout.

Aaron's story gives us a glimpse of waters in the process of freezing solid. If this perspective had been followed up, we would have gained another Shakespeare in addition to everything he had already given us.

How wise are the embittered?

The abominable viciousness of
Titus Andronicus may seem too violent in our days, but it has clear parallels in our own century. Books written about the German concentration camps relate numerous cases of arbitrary guards abusing their prisoners in the same revolting way as did Aaron, Tamora and her sons.

Shakespeare sees such arbitrary behaviour as his deepest enemy. His world contains almost infinitely much cruelty; still its author is concerned to differentiate doing right from going astray. Injustices seem meaningless to those who are their victims. All the same it makes good sense for the theatre to show how new aberrations can be avoided through an understanding of their causes. In order to point out further lines in the later development within Shakespearean drama, we will discuss a play considered by some readers to be Shakespeare's last great tragedy.

The first part of
Timon of Athens is almost painfully clear. Timon is rich, respected and generous; he keeps a large house, is hospitable and helps his needy friends. Gifts he repays sevenfold. A friend is thrown into debtors' prison; Timon pays his friend's debts to have him released. When later the friend's father dies, enabling his son to discharge his obligation towards his benefactor, Timon turns down his offer of repayment. He has helped his friend out of a good heart, not in the way of business. The effect of Timon's conduct is that he is surrounded by an increasing number of spongers and revels in their flattery of him.

But he has inadvertently gone too far, he has spent too much money. Even if he sells all he has, it will not cover his debts. Generous Timon is not worried; he sends his servants out on the town for money. His companions now change their tune, however. Those who used to ask for help are in a hurry to escape, his friends have a hundred excuses, nobody lends him a single penny.

The previously happy benefactor is appalled. He goes and lives wretchedly, like an animal out in the wild forest. In a miserable cave he vents his spleen on life. He curses his friends and nature — may the whole world go under! He exactly repeats Lear's behaviour; and if we were to take these two characters' words for Shakespeare's, they would be strong evidence indeed of the author's melancholy philosophy.

Timon the Epicurean begins to see his former friends in a new light, especially the cynical Apemantus, who always used to speak scornfully about the world at large. Timon now finds Apemantus' philosophy facile. Apemantus has been a cynic out of necessity. Had he been rich, he would instead have indulged in the enjoyment of his riches.

Through such reflections Shakespeare seems to express the philosophy that was to become Nietzsche's, viz that any restraint is simply the action of a weak person rationalising away desires that cannot be fulfilled, in contrast to the undisguised rapacity of the strong. The parallel with Nietzsche goes further. Timon right afterwards denounces everything as theft; the sun, the ocean and the earth are all parasites on one another and so are men. All living beings are vultures that regard the world from the point of view of their own selfish needs alone. — Timon calls ‘theft’ what Nietzsche calls ‘power’, otherwise the content is the same.

So far everything seems simple. Timon is a generous man who is disappointed. But this picture of him begins to flicker through incidents which place the protagonist in an increasingly sombre light. Quite early the spectators begin to feel that Timon is partly responsible for his own misfortune. In the following we shall look at a few characteristic examples.

Timon's steward Flavius has warned his master. The funds have been low for a long time; the spend-thrift has given away more than he owns. The open-handed Timon has refused to listen to advice. He is so free with his bounty that when the crash comes there is nothing left for his faithful servants, who are left high and dry until the thoughtful Flavius helps them out of his own savings.

The play is therefore not so much a story about ingratitude as it is a portrayal of a man who surrenders to easy pleasures and blames the world as soon as the foundations crumble. From this angle we can reconsider his attack on Apemantus. For if everyone preys on others, what about Timon himself? Could something be wrong with his own attitude to life?

A closer reading of the text will raise considerable doubts about the hero. His many outbursts are perhaps just another means of exposing Timon's weakness?

Text as a sign of something else

“Burn house! Sink Athens! Henceforth hated be Of Timon man and all humanity!”

There is something frightening about the acrid way in which Timon holds forth. The rich man ends up hating everything and calling down destruction upon the entire universe. His vindictiveness recalls Tamora and Aaron. His maledictions against a world which let him fall also point ahead: We remember Hitler's spiteful words about the Germans after they had ‘failed’ him towards the end of the second world war. His chosen people had proven unworthy and deserved to go under. Let the Americans bomb them to hell!

The fourth act, in which Timon's self-centredness is illustrated, brings our thoughts to the Book of Job. Several groups of people find their way to Timon's cave in the forest. Some thieving bandits arrive, and later two hypocritical artist friends. These all confirm the hero's negative views. But Flavius also seeks him out, actually to help him; and his behaviour is altogether different from the kind of misconduct Timon so greatly resents. The protagonist's power of judgement is therefore revealed as weak. His rejection of the world is expressive of short-sighted emotions more than of reason, after his misfortune as before.

Our suspicions are strengthened by a peculiar incident. A scene starts with Timon hurling abuse at nature. Digging in the ground for roots he finds gold! But he spurns his find contemptuously because of his distressing previous experiences. The gold, however, is an ingenious reminder from the author, and so is Timon's rejection of it. The bitter protagonist now childishly turns down the blessings of nature in order to continue his lamentations.

This interpretation is supported by a comment from Apemantus. The “churlish philosopher” holds that his former protector understands neither himself nor the world. Timon's melancholy as recluse is a consequence of his mistakes as a rich man. “A madman so long, now a fool.” It is easy to agree with Apemantus. The more we see of Timon, the stronger the impression that the rich liberal gentleman lives without forethought and that he does not really change even with the disaster that befalls him. He resembles some of the other heroes we have encountered already — men who surrender to their inconstant emotions, unable to work out an orderly relationship between the parts of their lives that conflict with each other. Timon's misanthropy is no remedy for his previous naive thoughtlessness. His conversation with Apemantus, in which they surpass one another in cynicism, ends in a down-right ridiculous quarrel as between two naughty children.

The strongest evidence of all is conveyed through one particular visitor. Alcibiades used to be among the flatterers in Timon's grand old days. Now, however, he behaves much better than the rest. He himself is in a process of considerable change in other respects as well. His development is related as a story within the story:

Alcibiades the captain clashed with the Senate of Athens concerning the case of a soldier who had killed another citizen in a quarrel. The Senate has sentenced the soldier to death but Alcibiades asks for clemency on the strength of his friend's noble courage in the battle-field and his own faithful service as a war-leader. In the opinion of the Senate, however, true courage is the ability to endure the strains which life brings: “He's truly valiant that can wisely suffer The worst that man can breathe”; “To revenge is no valour, but to bear.” The senators refuse to take any notice of Alcibiades' arguments, which are that the qualities deplored by the Senate in circumstances of peace are such as in a soldier's life are held up as valuable, indeed as necessary for the city's defence. The Senate considers the soldier to be a mere brawler and “rioter” and sticks to its verdict. It also somewhat harshly banishes Alcibiades for making threats and trouble in connection with the case.

We are now at the very centre of an issue that runs deep in the history of the world as well as in Shakespeare's writings. This is
the conflict between what the individual regards as just, on the one hand, and the rules that originate from society, on the other.

Everybody values personal relationships and commitments, even when they are at odds with consideration for the community generally. Here Alcibiades and Timon — and the very youngest Nora of Ibsen's
A Doll's House — are in agreement. A concomitant of having purely private loyalties as the sole guideline in our lives, however, is the total collapse of our whole universe and way of life whenever our personal relations break down. What follows is described by Shakespeare through the contrast between Timon and Alcibiades. Our dramatist has felt the struggle deeply and in Timon of Athens gives his careful reflections on the problem.

The story about Alcibiades shows new principles in the process of breaking through in Athens. They rest on a completely different foundation from the short-sighted feelings of Timon and King Lear. Personal grievances had at first led Alcibiades to fall out with his native city and to an uncritical undermining of its fundamental values. But by the time he stands before its gates with his army and has the city in his power, Alcibiades has matured and has developed a far more profound community sense than his friend Timon. He accepts the Senate's apology for its unfortunate handling of the earlier case and reconciles himself with Athens, even offering more generous terms than the Senate begs for: He will execute no one as revenge or even as justifiable redress for the wrongs done to him, but
only those whom the Senate itself finds guilty. Any of his army who “offend the stream Of regular justice in your city's bounds ... shall be remedied to your public laws At heaviest answer.” He has therefore come much further than to settling a score with his personal opponents. The foundation of life that wins in Alcibiades is the higher conception of the state governed by the rule of law which is Shakespeare's own ideal.

Ever more questions within Shakespeare's universe are answered. Through Alcibiades
Timon of Athens makes a giant advance upon the simpler message from King Lear. Timon's tragedy is that of a hero who is exposed despite all that he himself says, and contrary to everything the audience believes at the outset. Our information is gleaned from a Timon who has been made into a bragging hypocrite ignorant of his own character. The teaching can be applied by the reader or spectator to gain a better perspective on the companion play of King Lear as well. Again, Lear's denunciation of the world could be taken to place Shakespeare on the verge of the theatre of the absurd of our own day, but a comparison with Alcibiades and Timon makes such an interpretation difficult to maintain. Instead the furious eruptions from the deposed king must be understood as the poetic expression of an unavoidable collapse in the personal horizon of the half-demented ruler. Titus Andronicus, Lear and Timon all act mad for long stretches of the text. Their derangement expresses those harrowing moments when we vacillate between our original feelings of the body and a reasoned ordering within a wider context.

The transfer to the realm of reason is neglected by both Lear and Timon. But the old king at least comes to realise his own folly. Titus Andronicus goes one step further by restoring law and order on his own initiative, even if the effort kills him. In this sense the Roman is ahead of the Greek in his conduct. The text of
Timon of Athens, on the other hand, is far superior to Titus Andronicus in the inner meaning that it relates, with Alcibiades assisting the audience in diagnosing the basic faults of the hero.

We understand that a more searching approach to Shakespeare's theatre is called for. Nothing in his plays can be taken at face value. This is not to say that his characters' behaviour should be interpreted as clues to obscure mental structures or to motivation of the type favoured by psycho-analysis. Shakespeare is firmly realistic in his concerns. The persons portrayed on stage express, or at least reveal to us, what they truly mean, they are affected by the events displayed, their characters are precisely the way they are presented to us, and the questions of importance to Shakespeare in the plays are exactly those real life issues we see illustrated in the stories that unfold. But the total and rounded character of each individual is only made clear as the narrative progresses through time; the full meaning of words and action lies in the
sum of everything that happens on stage and its consequences. In a didactic perspective, therefore, Shakespeare's plays fit into a framework which is wider than the individual values expressed in words by the plays' personalities.

We sense the possible birth of a new kind of criticism. Everything spoken explicitly on the Shakespearean stage must be understood tentatively, indirectly, the interpretation to be revised in the light of the total development. The play as a collected whole is the author's guide to a critical assessment of his self-centred ‘heroes’.