Charity and Whoredom in Timon of Athens

Abstract

The gift and the denial of charity can sometimes occur simultaneously. I once read a review of a Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Tempest (1993); the critic found many virtues in the show, but also a few poor performances “which charity forbids me to name.” That kind of alleged generosity diminishes the recipient and giver at once. In Shakespeare and Middleton’s Timon of Athens, the protagonist’s problematic charity—at once too generous and too self-centered—is something of this ambivalent sort; it comes to haunt him when his friends, who had received his bounty, later reject him in his hour of need. Timon is also haunted, however, by an ideal model of charity: the work of Phrynia and Timandra, the battletrain prostitutes who visit the self-exiled man in Act 4 of the play. Through the whores’ interaction with Timon, and the once-rich man’s furious curses at and then agitated alliance with the women, we can detect the lack that has always damaged Timon’s social relations. The women play a minimal role in the dramaturgy but an immensely important part in the symbolic centrality of charity in the play, the proper meanings of which had always remained opaque to Timon and many of his readers.