Fathers Who Live Too Long

John Kerrigan

  • Being and Having in Shakespeare by Katharine Eisaman Maus
    Oxford, 141 pp, £25.00, February 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 969800 4

Last summer, the National Theatre put on Timon of Athens as a play about the credit crunch. Simon Russell Beale was the glossy, well-fed protagonist, a wealthy patron of the arts and liberal dispenser of gifts, who plunges into misanthropy when he can borrow no more and his friends reject him. The production was stylishly contemporary, set in the expensive interiors of Mayfair and Canary Wharf. During the interval, the audience spilled out onto the balconies overlooking the Thames audibly relieved that the play was so accessible. In the final acts, when Timon is destitute, Beale’s Lear-like tirades were underpowered, but he was convincing as a down-and-out, pushing his worldly goods in a shopping trolley, and found a psychological link between the compulsive, alienated gift-giving of the opening act and the nihilistic isolation of his ending.

The topicality of Nicholas Hytner’s production was heightened by the interpolation of passages from Coriolanus, which brought angry citizens into the play. Alcibiades was portrayed less as a disaffected soldier, exiled from Athens and returning to conquer it, than as a rallying point for the Occupy movement. Timon, living as a tramp, was threatened by rioters. Purists always object, but Timon of Athens invites adaptation because it is already a collaboration – it was partly written by Thomas Middleton, who composed its city comedy-like scenes – and because the text we have is unfinished. Hytner drew in popular unrest of the sort shown in the Jack Cade scenes of Henry VI Part II and by the mob in Julius Caesar.

To make Timon of Athens a play for today is to cut through a lot of differences between Jacobean and modern London. Again, this is defensible, given the extent to which the tragedy uses Lucian and Plutarch’s version of ancient Athens to throw a sceptical light on the early modern metropolis. The play’s unsparing account of credit, debt and dishonour, its disabused depiction of the way favour and friendship circulate in a male, homosocial elite, owes much to the ethos and economy that grew up around the court of King James VI and I. By 1605-8, the likely date of Timon, the Scottish king had been on the English throne for several years, and a pattern had been established. He bought the loyalty of the nobility and the affection of handsome young men with jewels, gold vessels and the like. The surplus left by Elizabeth turned into a deficit of £600,000, an enormous sum. The king was not alone in finding himself stretched. The availability of credit from the City of London meant that many tracts of land long in the hands of the crown or the nobility were converted into gold and paper. As the Steward says of Timon: ‘What he speaks is all in debt, he owes/For every word. He is so kind that he now/Pays interest for’t. His land’s put to their books.’

Ten per cent per year was the legal interest rate in Jacobean England, but the system had various ways of rendering credit ruinous. The much discussed ‘crisis of the aristocracy’ wasn’t exclusively financial, but Timon’s fall would have seemed to many to reflect a shift in wealth and power towards the merchants and bankers. Even more challenging is the sequence in which the bankrupt protagonist digs up a cache of gold and gives it away to whores and bandits as recklessly as he had earlier lavished gifts on his friends. As the tragedy becomes an action replay, we start to wonder whether generosity is a form of aggression, wealth inherently destructive. Timon of Athens only just made it into the First Folio, and it may never have been performed. But if the austerity of the text denied it popular appeal, it became down the centuries a catalyst of radical thought. Timon’s great speech about gold (‘This yellow slave/Will knit and break religions, bless th’accursed’) encouraged Marx to see money as a bond that separates, and in Capital the passage is quoted when he argues that money is itself a form of property, one which invites endless accumulation. Timon of Athens can be staged as a vehicle for topical allusions, but it is a timely play because it lays bare the essentials of capitalism.

Katharine Eisaman Maus’s admirable new book mentions Timon of Athens several times, but never quite gets round to discussing it. This is a pity, because the play deals intensively with her central topics: land ownership, chattels, debt, friendship, family and inheritance. Starting from the breakdown of medieval landholding in Richard II and Henry IV, Maus ends, after two fine chapters on The Merchant of Venice, with an account of the ‘vagabond kings’ of Henry VI Part II and King Lear. The transition from feudalism to capitalism, from Richard II to Shylock, is an overarching concern. Yet Maus is never reductive. Her grasp of the legal intricacies is complete. This is a book that knows the difference between dominium and seisin, between escheat and forfeiture. But Maus does not succumb to the temptation of eliding text with context and reading literature as law. She is refreshingly aware that the plays attracted audiences by staging exceptional situations. ‘Actual princesses,’ as she puts it, ‘do not flee to the greenwood in male disguise, there to court and marry indigent younger brothers.’ But she also knows that such fantasies can reveal more than dramatic realism about the conflicts of everyday life.

It is getting on for two decades since Maus’s last monograph, Inwardness and Theatre in the English Renaissance (1995), demolished the fashion for ‘decentring’ the early modern self and reducing it to the play of language. She reminded us that such writers as Montaigne and Shakespeare had their own historically specific forms of scepticism, and that when Hamlet says he has that within that passes show we should explore not dismiss his interiority. In her new book, Maus takes on the many scholars who, replacing words with things, argue that clothes, pins, pewter or silver plates, thrones or joint stools, constitute human identity.

No one brought up in a consumerist society is going to doubt that the ownership of things can affect the psyche. I would be a different person if my other car really was a Porsche. What Maus objects to is the ‘more radical contention … that objects constitute subjects: indeed that, looked at closely, “subjectivity” itself is simply a hubristic illusion’. When Lear is deprived of his hundred knights, or rips off his clothes in madness, does he discover something about being human or slip from having into non-being? The hard-thinking Shakespearean Margreta de Grazia, taking a firmly materialist line, says of King Lear: ‘Having is tantamount to being, not having is tantamount to non-being … persons and things cannot be alienated from one another.’ This observation, quoted twice by Maus, is the sort of claim that got her started.

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