Folger Theater is going to put on a new production of Timon of Athens, directed by Robert Richmond, in a couple of months, so I've started reading it. It is in some ways the same story as Coriolanus, one of ingratitude, betrayal, and rage/revenge. But still ... just like Coriolanus and King Lear, two other characters in parallel with Timon, our feelings toward the protagonist cannot remain purely sympathetic. There is something troubling about his tragedy. Upon first glance, it is a simple injustice done to him by heartless people who betray his generosity. If you chew on it a bit, however, the easy moral lesson just doesn't sit right. The ambiguity is not as explicitly presented as King Lear's opening scene, but Lear's offering his kingdom to his daughters and Timon's free distribution of gifts to anonymous "friends" somehow give off the same vibe.
Timon believes that everyone at his banquet table loves him, because they tell him so while eating his food and pocketing his expensive gifts. Later, a financial downfall proves his judgment wrong, as none of these people wants to lend him a penny to help pay his debts. To Timon, money seems to be the currency of interpersonal relationships. Affection is bought and sold and passed back and forth between people, as solid and countable as gold coins. When it is apparent that this is not the way of humanity, Timon flips out in a rage. People took my money and paid me in love, and now they refuse to love me again by throwing money at me? Bastards! How could they? In Timon's mind, there is no difference between money and relationship. He is not so bad as those who try to buy love and loyalty via exploitation, because his need and neediness for affection are sincere and, can we say, desperate.
Lest we despise or laugh at Timon, who among us have not been plagued by unrequited feelings and unjust relationships? Who has not attempted to win someone's affection by freely giving one's own, only to be rejected or worse, deceived and betrayed? And yet, there is no road of banishment for us, out of Athens and into the woods, alone and independent, never again to beg for someone's unreliable bond. You can give and give and give, with never any guarantee of returned favor. There is no justice or accounting in our relationships with each other.