A grave beginning

A brief introduction in which I meditate on the presence of cannibalism and other unsettling images within the play which are related to plague.

“Yet you do well/To show Lord Timon that mean eyes have seen/The foot above the head” (I.93-95)

Each time that I revisit Timon of Athens and, subsequently, the criticism that it has spawned, I find myself astonished that so few readerss have remarked upon the prevalence of plague imagery in the text. In their defense, Timon is a very strange work indeed. Often classified as a “problem play,” Timon has arguably been relegated to the back burner in terms of formal analysis; its awkward structure and status as a potentially co-authored piece no doubt have contributed to this. Strange qualities aside, the play is one of my favorite early modern dramas and deserves to be spotlighted as a significant work which draws heavily upon the power of disease imagery, channeling its tale through the visceral elements of human corruption. For this reason it seems almost appropriate that the “war” within the play (Alcibiades’ siege against Athens) is only alluded to; the audience never finds itself on the battlefield. The majority of the violence is contained instead within Timon’s curses, levied against his former friends and colleagues with enough speech-act power behind them to ignite an epidemic in their own right.

Richard Cosway's "Timon of Athens Before His Cave" http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARichard_Cosway_-_Timon_of_Athens_Before_His_Cave_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

Richard Cosway’s “Timon of Athens Before His Cave” (c. 1805, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

“Sorrow and truth, sit you on each side of me, whilst I am delivered of this deadly  burden: prompt me that I may utter ruthful and passionate condolement: arme my trembling hand, that I may boldly rip up and anatomize the ulcerous body of this Anthropophagized Plague…” (103)

In 1603 Thomas Dekker, a self-fashioned pamphleteer (which coincided with his unemployment as a playwright, due to the shuttering of theaters during plague-time), published the above sentence in his short work, The Wonderfull Yeare. Although “anthropophagized” appears here ostensibly in the past-participle form, one senses the main gist of Dekker’s words: the plague is a decaying but cannibalistic body, devouring as quickly as it deteriorates.

Likewise, more than one reader has remarked upon the frequency with which flesh-eating is alluded to within Timon of Athens– most specifically, the eating of Timon’s flesh. In Scene 2, Timon chides Apemantus’ mood-killing behavior, imploring him to “let my meat make thee silent”(37). Apemantus senses the strings of reciprocity attached to such a meal, and responds:

I scorn thy meat. ‘Twould choke me, for I
Should ne’er flatter thee. O you gods, 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; and all the
madness is, he cheers them up, too (38-41).

Later, witnessing the hypocrisy of Timon’s “friends,” the First Stranger remarks to the other:

For mine own part,
I never tasted Timon in my life,
Nor came any of his bounties over me
To mark me for his friend (6.73-76).

Francisco de Goya's "Mala Mujer" (1801-1802)

Francisco de Goya’s “Mala Mujer” (1801-1802, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The Stranger’s words reveal a certain sense of relief that he never “tasted” Timon himself; furthermore, he has been spared the “mark” of friendship. In many ways these lines underscore the sense that Timon’s bounteous giving represented a methodical process of marking, even stigmatizing. It’s worth noting that the word “mark” frequently was used in early modern medical discourse alongside “token” to describe the physical imprints the plague was known to have left upon the body– spots or rashes brought on by inflammation. Their having “dip[ped] in the same dish,”(63) Timon’s flatterers have subsequently been marked as members of the anthropophagous society. To the modern reader, the communal aspect of all of this dish-dipping and blood-dipping is unsettling; in terms of contagion, it may also conjure up a more upsetting connection to the pathology of prion-based infections. It serves as a reminder that the involuntary, visceral reaction to these lines experienced by Shakespearean audience members (and today’s readers) perhaps anticipated later microscopic revelations concerning the dangers of sharing and bodily fluids.



  1. This is really fascinating. Do you think the cannibalism, particular the parts that talk about tasting his meat or dipping their food in Timon’s blood, also invokes Eucharistic imagery, as sort of a false or corrupted Eucharist?


  2. Yes, absolutely! The Eucharistic element has definitely been observed by critics in the past, so you’re spot on there. I didn’t elaborate on it here because a.) it has already been explored by much stronger critics than myself b.) I didn’t want to end up digressing too much on the obvious parallels between Timon and a Christ-like martyr.

    The idea of a *corrupted* Eucharist is more in line with the type of martyrdom the play presents, in my opinion, which is both inverted and incredibly cynical. I’m finishing up a post today (hopefully) which touches more upon this, but essentially the cannibalistic imagery establishes a bizarre analogy between the Eucharistic element and early modern medical practices involving leeches; what you get is a disturbingly formula involving corrupted flesh as a merciful remedy to an already “infected” populace.


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