Earth's bounty and the circuit of borrowing in Shakespeare and Middleton's Timon of Athens 4.3
online resourceposted on 2006-04-26, 14:43 authored by Gabriel Egan
Reduced by penury to the epitome of the asocial man, Timon's long scene in the forest outside Athens gives the dramatists an opportunity to explore the familiar theme of man's natural state. The 500-line scene is full of imagery of the natural world, and in particular of the relationships between realms on Earth (the soil, the air, the oceans) and the wider principles operating in the sublunary and superlunary spheres. Forced by hunger into elemental petition, Timon's plea for the Earth to supply him with an edible root is apparently answered by provision of the last thing he needs at this point, exchangeable gold. A Marxist reading of this scene would tend to stress the natural state of human sociability, from which Timon repeatedly fails to escape, but an ecocritical view must attend to just how Earth's bounty is characterized here. Timon himself gives an account of the repeated borrowings in nature: by animals from sustenance of plants, by plants from the soil's nutrients, by the soil from the atmosphere, the atmosphere from the ocean, and thence the larger motivating forces of the moon and the sun's operation. What emerges from all this is a sense of cosmic interconnectedness that seen in one light is close to the kinds of official doctrine about a Great Chain of Being that was surveyed by Arthur O. Lovejoy, popularized by E. M. W. Tillyard, and roundly condemned as scholarly wish-fulfilment by New Historicist and Cultural Materialist critics. However, this Great Chain--we may choose to consider it under the more recent name of Gaia--is shown in this scene to be markedly indifferent to human concerns, and this might alert us to the ecocritical possibilities for characterizating nature without falling into anthropocentrism. The natural world's indifference to Timon might be the most positive thing the play has to show to us today.
- The Arts, English and Drama
- English and Drama