Thursday, September 12, 2013

A Beggar’s Dog

I have never before blogged about Timon of Athens.  And I am sure you wonder why.  There are reasons—which mostly do not matter today.  What matters is why I finally decided the play was worth a mention.  Still, I recognize that few on the planet have bothered to read this tortured text.  Therefore, I begin with this basic plot summary: 

The play’s main action involves an ancient Athenian (Timon) who swings violently from being a jovial philanthropist to bitter misanthrope after his own fortunes take an abrupt nosedive in the first Act.  Timon had showered his wealth on characters depicted as blatantly undeserving—parasitic artists, intellectual poseurs, and other pretentious deadbeats.  Then, when he himself falls on hard times—surprise, surprise—his deadbeat pals show little interest in helping Timon deal with the debt-collectors.  Timon decides to get even.  He invites his so-called friends to a special banquet.  When the “meal” is served, the guests find nothing but rocks and tepid water. Timon throws a temper tantrum then flees for the woods where he takes up residence in a cave.  There, he denounces all of humankind and gives the last of his wealth to the rebel Alcibiades, who has recently been banished from Athens.  Timon hopes that Alcibiades will essentially bring down the whole despicable human race—or at least all of Athens.  Before Timon can see how the plan unfolds, he dies alone in the wilderness—not even fully recognizing that the species had produced at least worthy character: his faithful servant who had tried all along to warn him about his lousy friends and who had stood by him despite his insufferable rants and his relocation to a dank cave.   
One problem with this play may be rather self-evident.  It is a tad hard to sympathize with ole Timon because his resentment is rather over-the-top.  After all, it wasn’t like the moochers and sycophants were hard to sniff out.  He was just not a great judge of character; besides, he really seemed to revel in the way his wealth permitted him to be the center of attention.  His initially euphoric view of humanity was as simplistic as his ultimate cynicism.  Worse still, Timon is not a particularly articulate or witty flawed hero.  Shakespeare didn’t even arm him with an arsenal of clever insults, as he did with characters in so many other plays.  Check out this pathetic mama-ranking between Timon and another misanthrope, Apemanthus, which takes place after Timon has chosen self-banishment:
When there is nothing living but thee, thou shalt be
welcome. I had rather be a beggar's dog than Apemantus.
Thou art the cap of all the fools alive.

Would thou wert clean enough to spit upon!
A plague on thee! thou art too bad to curse.

All villains that do stand by thee are pure.

There is no leprosy but what thou speak'st. 

If I name thee.
I'll beat thee, but I should infect my hands.
I would my tongue could rot them off!
Away, thou issue of a mangy dog!
Choler does kill me that thou art alive;
I swound to see thee.

Would thou wouldst burst!

Thou tedious rogue! I am sorry I shall lose
A stone by thee.
(Throws a stone at Apemantus)



Rogue, rogue, rogue!
I am sick of this false world, and will love nought
But even the mere necessities upon 't.
Honestly, William, dear.  Was that really the best you could muster?
For some reason, this less-than-awe-inspiring element of Shakespeare’s oeuvre popped into my head the other day after a surprise call from a charming former colleague. Although he is now a hot-shot partner in a high-flying law firm and has served in the highest spheres of public office, he admitted that he was calling so as to take a break from drafting responses to requests for production, what folks in the biz call “RFPs.”  This is not glamorous work. Indeed, it is downright stultifying—because so much of the drafting is boilerplate, involving clunky, repetitive recitations of standard objections that few will ever read.  And I guess that is what made me think of Timon. 
Lawyers have to deal in tedium sometimes—even super-successful lawyers.  And maybe many super-successful lawyers are super-successful because they don’t ever conclude that they have reached some apex that permits them to feel free and clear of any and all tedium.  Timon is about a guy with some serious bi-polar issues, unable to handle compromise of any kind.  But a world (or profession) that requires that even the successful log hours hammering out responses to RFPs now and then is a fundamentally imperfect, humbling, compromised world.  Lawyers who can live with that reality don’t have to retreat to a cave.  Or otherwise quit.  They can keep toiling away—rather happily, if not ecstatically—for years.  In this, they are more like Timon’s faithful, if somewhat curmudgeonly, servant--he who “bleed[s] inwardly for [his] lord.” 
Which is what lawyers generally do for their clients.  Lawyers “bleed inwardly.”  Lots of them do.  If you don’t believe me, imagine just one of them toiling away late into the night, scrupulously composing responses to RFPs that few will ever read and fewer still will ever find noteworthy.  He deserves your admiration—especially when his toil makes you think that, rather than do likewise, you would be a beggar’s dog.

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