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.
If Maus had simply dismissed the idea that objects constitute subjects, Being and Having in Shakespeare would be a lot less interesting. She complicates the argument by concentrating on property, which ‘works along two axes simultaneously: “vertically” … to designate a relationship between a thing and its owner, an “object” and a “subject”, and also, at least as significantly, “horizontally” among human beings. Property rights are inherently social, asserted relative to other persons.’ As a legal and philosophical concept, property reaches far into the familial, political and economic relationships that are thickly represented in Shakespeare. ‘Property’ in this sense shuttles between the intrinsic stuff of objects (what is proper to them) and the fact of their being owned. But ‘proper’ can mean ‘adjunct to a thing’, so the intrinsic is legally separable. You know that something is yours, the common lawyer Blackstone argued, when you can alienate it. But if something is alienable, can it be intrinsic? The pound of flesh that Antonio pledges to Shylock lies somewhere down this track.
We know from Shakespeare’s will that he was interested in property: the big house, New Place, that he bought in Stratford; the ‘barnes, stables, Orchardes, gardens, landes, tenementes’ that he acquired in nearby villages; the broad silver-gilt bowl that he left to his daughter Judith. Is it a problem for Maus that Shakespeare hardly ever uses the word ‘property’ in this sense? The concordance shows only a couple of instances, as when Hamlet laments the death of his father, ‘upon whose property and most dear life/A damned defeat was made’. Shakespeare usually employs the word to designate the quality of something. Corin the shepherd wisely says that ‘the property of rain is to wet, and fire to burn.’ That Shakespeare could be fascinated by the subject-object mutualities of property is shown by his mysterious poem ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’: ‘Property was thus appalled,/That the self was not the same.’ What was intrinsic to each bird was alienated by being one with its other. More tangentially, property means an ‘instrument’ or ‘tool’, as when Antony disparages Lepidus for being ‘a barren-spirited fellow … a property’. From this stems a still familiar, theatrical sense. Peter Quince, preparing the rude mechanicals’ show in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, says: ‘I will draw a bill of properties.’
Maus does not entirely ignore theatrical properties. She makes the shrewd point that there is often a tight fit between subject and object in Shakespeare because, in the early modern theatre, things on stage got used. Remember Chekhov: ‘If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.’ Maus does not spend much time thinking about how props were employed, or establish whose property they were. A longer version of her elegantly condensed book – it is based on a series of lectures – would have to unpack this. Properties were carefully inventoried by the theatre owner Philip Henslowe; a great deal of cost and labour went into the crowns, dragons and wrought gloves used in plays. Props, in any case, can be articulate about ownership, as when Lear divides up Britain by tracing lines on a map. When Maus writes about the ‘poetics of property’, she means estates, chattels, bonds and their ownership rather than the properties that represent them. This curtails her investigation, but she has plenty to be going on with.
At the start of Richard II, property is intimate with identity, kingship and obligation. Because land is held as a grant from the king, landholding is inextricable from noble titles and the swearing of fealty; bonds link the barons through sacred verbal commitments as well as through the enjoyment of estates paid for by the provision of soldiers or fees to the sovereign. Maus shows how this rather theoretical high medieval system breaks down as Richard ‘farms’ his realm for tax and disrupts the descent of estates. The exalted mode of feudal landholding projected by the play ‘implies an extremely tight connection between being and having’ but the action tears this apart, first through the king’s abuses but then by Bolingbroke’s seizure of the crown. We go from ‘a world in which you are what you own, and you rule what you own’ to something much less stable.
The world of the Henry IV plays is different because of socio-economic change, historically compressed by Shakespeare. He can only show us this, however, by making a decision to include more of the lower orders than the emblematic gardeners of Richard II, from Falstaff and his drinking companions to the carriers at Gads Hill taking bacon and turkeys to market. The carriers are exemplary for Maus because they clinch the shift from the land-based assets of Richard II to chattels and in particular to perishable goods. You could argue that Henry IV presides over an almost Elizabethan economy of exchange and consumption. ‘Personalty’ is the name for what property has become, things for personal use, subjects acquiring objects.
This angle freshly illuminates Henry IV, but Maus is even more innovative when she thinks about the same development along her horizontal axis, noting that with the shift from feudal landholding to personalty comes the foregrounding of elective relationships. Richard II’s liking for upstarts counts against him, but in Henry IV, ‘voluntary affiliations flourish.’ We should not follow critical fashion and ‘queer’ Hal’s friendship with Falstaff but see it instead as a manifestation of an emotional economy of choice. An uglier sign of the congruity between chattels and human relationships, which Maus does not bring up, is the prominence in Henry IV of whores in Eastcheap. This is a step towards Timon of Athens where the corruption of the world by gold means that the only female characters are masquers and whores.
Even when being and having are fused, there are problems with inheritance. Time is of the essence: people can get out of phase with the handing-on of titles and wealth. Maus argues that Richard II is not ready to rule when he inherits the crown whereas Hal has to wait too long before his father has the decency to die. He has to pass days and months in acts of ‘performed errancy’. This is one of the book’s occasionally too neat contrasts, since it is hard to imagine Richard ever being ready to rule, but the main point is a powerful one, played out over several chapters. As late as King Lear, Shakespeare is highlighting the problem of fathers who live too long.
The focus on inheritance helps elucidate the attractiveness of Hal. For Maus, he harnesses the sympathy that primogeniture generates for the younger, often prodigal son, who takes his chances and lives by his wits, but also stands ready to inherit. This is likely enough: the role must have appealed to the many apprentices in Shakespeare’s audience, drawn to youthful delinquency but knowing that they would one day be sworn in as respectable tradesmen and masters. Maus, however, goes further, contending that Hal has all the cake and eats it: ‘the advantages of land and the advantages of chattels, the advantages of being an elder son and the advantages of being a younger son, the advantages of being a father and the advantages of being the father’s heir’. Some of this has to be metaphorical; we never see the prince as a father. But the gist is clear: the abundance that was associated with patrimony now turns on ‘functions of character, imagined as ineffable, non-transferable properties of a particular individual’.
Switching on her critical autopilot, Maus admits that such an ‘investment in the personality of the prince can easily be deconstructed as a mystification’ but persuades herself that Shakespeare went along with it. ‘It is a mystification,’ she claims, ‘with which the Henry IV plays, and most of Henry V, seem almost entirely complicit.’ Of all the incisive judgments in this attractively direct book, this is the least credible. It imputes too much cynicism to Shakespeare, and it overlooks his ironies: the discrepancy between what the patriotic Chorus of Henry V tells us and what we see, Harry’s manipulation of the Church and the case against his military opportunism made by the soldier Williams. For Maus, it is only in the epilogue that the drawbacks of Harry’s personal rule are raised, in the weakness of his own son, ‘in infant bands crowned king’. Even as we watch the play, however, his triumphs are slipping away. In Act V, after Agincourt, he has to accept a disappointing peace settlement with France.
Fathers with sons die too early or live too long. With daughters the crunch comes at marriage, when the father has to hand over a chunk of property to a son-in-law. Ways could be found of managing this. Property could be vested in a male trustee, for example. But friction and coercion frequently accompanied courtship, and men like Page in The Merry Wives sought to keep away fortune-hunters. The well-born but impecunious Fenton tells Anne Page that her father holds it ‘a thing impossible/I should love thee but as a property’, as though she walked about Windsor like stamped coin in sealed bags. Maus shows that these issues drive The Merchant of Venice, where the giving of Portia’s hand and wealth is guided from beyond the grave by her father’s love test (the three caskets) and Shylock is pre-emptively required first by theft and elopement and then by legal coercion to hand over a mass of wealth to Jessica and her Christian husband, Lorenzo.
An Elizabethan audience would have responded with mixed feelings. On the one hand, Jessica takes and is then given by the Venetian court the sort of marriage portion and legacy she would expect. That she changes her faith would not, Maus argues, diminish her entitlement. After the readmission of the Jews to England, during a period of relative toleration, ‘An Act to Oblige Jews to Maintain and Provide for their Protestant Children’ (1702) made it illegal to disinherit daughters who converted. At the same time, Jessica and Lorenzo’s extravagance with wealth that is effectively stolen, and the unrelentingness of Portia’s legal onslaught, would trouble audiences who knew how fathers felt when cut out of their daughters’ marriage plans and required to hand over property to strangers.
Shakespeare, Maus speculates, would have sympathised with Shylock when writing The Merchant of Venice in 1596-97 because his only son, Hamnet, had died a few months earlier. He would have been aware that his hard-earned wealth would now pass through the hands of his daughters, Susanna and Judith, to their husbands. Though Maus does not discuss Shakespeare’s will, it bolsters her claim that its opening clause ‘I Gyve and bequeath unto my sonne in Law and Daughter Judyth One Hundred and fyftie pounds’ was revised a few weeks after it was drafted to delete the reference to Judith’s husband, Thomas Quiney, who had become the father of an illegitimate child, making it harder for him to get his hands on Shakespeare’s property.
Friendship was exalted in early modern writing partly because property made family relationships so fraught: these bonds could be chosen. Yet emotionally charged expectations can be as demanding as any legal obligation. Antonio shows his love for Bassanio by staking a pound of flesh. Aristotle declared that ‘all things are common among friends’ and a surprisingly large number of Renaissance humanists agreed. According to Montaigne, friends should share ‘wills, thoughts, judgments, goods, wives, children, honour and lives’. Generosity of this order requires Christ-like self-sacrifice, or folly. When he follows Aristotle’s dictum, Timon becomes like Jesus at the Last Supper, with Judas ready to destroy him. ‘O you gods,’ Apemantus declares, ‘what a number of men eats Timon, and he sees ’em not! It grieves me to see so many dip their meat in one man’s blood … The fellow that sits next him, now parts bread with him, pledges the breath of him in a divided draught, is the readiest man to kill him.’
Shakespeare was sceptical about the humanist doctrine of friendship. When Valentine offers to give up Silvia to his miscreant friend Proteus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the gesture is calculated to jar. As Maus reminds us, the plays repeatedly raise the question of how much friendship demands, and what its limits are. In the case of The Merchant of Venice, she resists the view that the notorious ring trick is meant to subordinate friendship to marriage. When Bassanio, at Antonio’s prompting, gives Portia, who is disguised as a lawyer, the ring that Portia had given him, this is not, Maus argues, so that she can later tell him to put his wife above his friend. Rather, she is giving Bassanio ‘a lesson in property management’. Wealth in this play has a magical, cornucopian quality, but there is also a principle of retention, taken to extremes by Shylock, and the adventurer Bassanio needs to learn a bit of that if he is to become a good husband. This is not a reading open to all the dissonances, but it is cogent and original.
Maus is just as groundbreaking when she moves from the vagaries of kingship in Henry VI to the more harshly exposed journey of Lear. Many critical accounts turn the family drama into a fairy story: Goneril and Regan as the wicked sisters, Cordelia as Cinderella. Maus is correctively attentive to the language used of property and to the way it flows through the play. Lear begins the love trial in the same predicament as Shakespeare writing his will. He has two married daughters, so what is given to them will be enjoyed by their husbands, not to mention France or Burgundy when one of them marries Cordelia. The king pointedly speaks of ‘our daughters’ several dowers’. The notion that Goneril and Regan will live quietly, as ciphers of their noble husbands, is, of course, vain. That may be the legal position but not the psychological or the royal one. ‘The laws are mine, not thine,’ Goneril says when she slaps down Albany.
Maus’s preoccupation with property allows her to find a way between the psychoanalytic involution of Stanley Cavell, who argues that Lear puts love up for sale because he is ashamed of the excess of his feelings, and the sharp-edged view of Margreta de Grazia that by giving away his kingdom Lear is collapsing his own identity. A sweep through Holinshed and The Mirror for Magistrates shows that property, love and status were mutually implicated in earlier versions of the story. Shakespeare refuses to take that implication for granted. The vagabondage of Lear, Gloucester, Edgar and even Cordelia does more than reframe the critique of kingship and ownership in Henry VI. ‘The effect of Lear’s wholesale disjointings,’ Maus argues, ‘is to complicate, almost to the extent of annihilating, the powerful connections between property and power.’
Something is always left of the bare forked animal, man. This is a tragedy of immiseration and resilience, and of partial belated insight. Lear’s detachment from property transforms value as he discovers how much can be pared away from a life that is still endurable. Our perception of what is necessary and what superfluous is sharpened without blunting the demands of necessity. To be warm, in any sort of clothes. To stay out of the rain, in a hovel if not a palace. Shakespeare puts it so much better: ‘The art of our necessities is strange,/That can make vile things precious.’ In Henry VI, resolution is found in the well-kept garden of the aptly named Alexander Iden, where Jack Cade’s rebellion is brought to an end. No such stable, temperate propriety exists on Lear’s heath, where wisdom is found in turbulence.
Maus illuminates the core stuff of the tragedy, from the king’s outcry against injustice to the sequence after his death when the division and handing on of property is again a major concern. She is alert to the way Shakespeare ties up the web of inheritance, with Edgar reclaiming his title and lands from Edmund then becoming king. Why this matters is clearer because of what Maus’s book has already shown. The point here for her is that what is usually so important is seen to be unimportant. Apocalyptic language (‘Is this the promised end?/Or image of that horror?’) throws into relief the fact that ‘the traumas of the play have made inheritance impossible.’ It is not just that Lear and his children are dead but that ‘the radical devaluation of what property might mean has emptied ambition of its motive by making it seem pointless.’
This feels like the book’s promised end, rather than the place the play actually leaves us. Poor naked wretches exposed to the pitiless storm do not think property pointless. That Lear and Cordelia die does not stop an audience from noticing that the kingdom or kingdoms of Britain will be divided yet again unless someone accepts the crown. Yet it strengthens Maus’s case to recall, as she does not, that who inherits what is textually unresolved. In the Quarto, Albany implicitly becomes king and speaks the play’s last lines, but in the Folio, as part of a string of revisions, the crown goes to Edgar. Jacobean explanations can be found for this, but it more profoundly shows that there is no inevitability about inheritance. Folio Edgar is left to go through the motions of the final speech: ‘The weight of this sad time we must obey;/Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.’
It is wholly to Maus’s credit that when she pulls her argument together, she draws back from talk of impossibility and pointlessness, even though it leaves her ‘in the embarrassed position of Edgar, obliged to say something stirring but at a loss as to what that might be. The simple conclusion about being and having in Shakespeare is that there is no simple conclusion.’ As the inheritor of beliefs that are full of contradiction when it comes to subjects and objects, Shakespeare ‘broods intensely if intermittently upon them, making them extraordinarily productive but even less resolved’. It is a sign of the book’s success that this anti-conclusion sounds right rather than a fudge. It does, however, depend on Maus not pursuing the tragedy of property beyond King Lear.
Shakespeare never gave up on a belief in orthodox succession and inheritance. The late romances go to inordinate lengths to find long-lost princes and princesses and bring them back to their patrimony. In Timon of Athens, however, more radically than King Lear, the tragedy of property is pushed to an extreme, and inheritance does not redeem it. Timon has false friends who get hold of his property, and servants some of whom prove true. Alcibiades, marching on Athens, becomes in a particular, narrow sense his heir. But there is no line of descent, so everything can turn more tightly on extravagance and accumulation.
In Lucian, when Timon leaves Athens he sets to work as a labourer for four pence a day. The gold he digs up with his mattock is a perverse reward for his efforts. Shakespeare’s Timon abandons labour, profit and society, and lives like a wild man in the woods. He finds gold when digging for roots. As Russell Beale said while rehearsing the play, this is ‘a cosmic joke, like an alcoholic being offered a drink’. Timon cannot stop himself giving the gold away, any more than he can stop the parasites who visited him in the opening acts seeking him out in the woods. But the black joke goes deeper. Nature is complicit in corruption. Death is welcome to Timon because he cannot otherwise escape the universal kleptocracy: ‘The moon’s an arrant thief,/And her pale fire she snatches from the sun.’
The dirty, glittering gold is pulled out of nature into culture and returned to the earth as a hoard. Marx notes in Capital that, as soon as commodities begin to circulate, there is a ‘passionate desire to hold fast the product of the first metamorphosis … its gold chrysalis … money is petrified into a hoard.’ After quoting Timon on gold he adds: ‘Money is itself a commodity … capable of becoming the private property of any individual.’ This leads him to the Timonesque thought that money drives accumulation because it is quantitively limited yet qualitatively boundless. You can easily run out of gold, but it represents our potential to exceed. The idea of money as property is not new. Any early modern lawyer could, like Shylock, think in such terms. The precious metals used for coin made the connection the more inevitable. This line Maus doesn’t follow. What she says about land and chattels helps us understand the first half of Timon of Athens, but once pictures, jewels and horses give way to the unearthed raw matter of value, a more powerful economic alchemy is at stake.
Timon goes to the woods because they are common land, beyond ownership. In the same way he plans to give up language and be buried at the other classic early modern site which is no one’s private property, the beach, ‘where the light foam of the sea may beat/Thy gravestone daily’. The vicious strokes of life will subside to a soothing froth, and the only chattel exchanges will be the to and fro of water and sand. In the end, Timon’s grave is in both these unownable places at once, outside the sphere of property as theft, in a nihilistic, utopian gesture. We see a soldier finding his gravestone in the woods, but he is also said to be ‘Entombed upon the very hem o’th’sea’. Paying his valedictory tribute, Alcibiades says that ‘rich conceit/Taught thee to make vast Neptune weep for aye/On thy low grave.’
Timon’s intensity is made clear, but so is his irrelevance. He disappears into silence and off the map of property while the world goes on without him, with an army paid for, deals struck and a siege raised. Hytner’s production adapted the ending of the play to make Alcibiades even less evidently Timon’s heir, co-opting him into the Athenian senate, in the way protest is so often neutered. Again this develops something that is stirring in the play. The force of the tragedy of property that impels Timon beyond society prevents Timon of Athens being a great tragedy because the dramatic action around him tilts into history play and satire and the whole does not cohere. But the play is no aberration. Maus’s brilliant book may not quite get to Timon of Athens but it makes it absolutely clear why and how Shakespeare had to write it.