Fair Foul and Right Wrong: The Language of Alchemy in Timon of Athens

Anna Feuer
Wolfson College, Oxford

Anna Feuer, "Fair Foul and Right Wrong: The Language of Alchemy in Timon of Athens." [EMLS 16.1 (2012): 3] http://purl.org/emls/16-1/feuetimo.htm

  1. A persistent image in Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens is that of one substance transforming into another: diamonds become stones (xi.118), roots turn to gold (xiv.25), and, as Apemantus predicts in the opening scene (i.185), Timon degenerates into a dog.  Such transformations must be read in the context of alchemy, the most popular trend in natural science (or pseudo-science) of Shakespeare’s time.  The alchemical process of transmutation, or the chemical transformation of metallic substance into gold, functions as a lens through which to assess the play’s moral perspective.
  2. Alchemy as a steady motif has gone largely ignored in critical conversation about Timon. Stanton Linden, in his 1996 study of alchemy in early modern English literature, makes only a passing reference to the play and chooses instead to focus his analysis on King John and Julius Caesar. Darryl Chalk, in his essay “‘A nature but Infected:’ Plague and Embodied Transformation in Timon of Athens,” looks to Shakespeare’s bodily language to explain the inconsistencies in Timon’s character but attributes those contradictions to a preoccupation with plague and infectious disease rather than alchemical science. To my knowledge, David M. Bergeron is the only scholar to have closely examined the play’s alchemical references.  Taking his essay “Alchemy and Timon of Athens” as my starting point, I build upon Bergeron’s interpretation of Timon as a failed alchemist and present an alternative vision of Timon as a corrupt metal undergoing alchemical transmutation.  In addition, I examine alchemy’s bearings upon the play’s self-reflexive characters, the Poet and the Painter, and Shakespeare’s consequent linking of theater and alchemy.  Throughout the play, the progress and direction of alchemical transmutation mirrors the moral climate of Timon’s Athens.  An analysis of Shakespeare’s alchemical language and imagery provides a measure of Timon’s “mettle” (xiv.180)—his spiritual character as indicated by his metal.

  3. I divide my analysis into three sections. I explore contemporary alchemical writings and position the tripartite process of transmutation as figuratively parallel to Timon’s character development. Having examined the intellectual climate surrounding alchemy in Shakespearian England, I read several passages in Timon with alchemical implications.  Finally, I identify the Poet as Shakespeare’s false alchemist.  Alchemy ultimately functions to point out the play’s self-conscious artifice and thus explain an aspect of its tragedy.

  4. A note on the question of authorship in Timon: both Shakespeare and Middleton’s contributions feature references to alchemy.  Both authors make explicit use of alchemical language to describe Timon; as such, I read Middleton’s contributions as equally interested in alchemy as a motif or thematic framework for the play.  However, my analysis of the Poet and the Painter relies solely on passages attributed to Shakespeare. In distinguishing between the work of Shakespeare and Middleton, I rely upon John Jowett’s analysis of authorship in the 2004 Oxford University Press edition.

    I. Alchemy in Bacon, Ripley, and Shakespeare

  5. In The Mirror of Alchimy, published in 1597, Roger Bacon defines alchemy as “a science teaching how to make and compound a certaine medicine, which is called Elixir, which when it is cast upon mettals or imperfect bodies, doth fully perfect them in the verie projection” (Bacon 3).  The object of alchemy is to produce gold, for “Gold is a perfect bodie…and it wanteth nothing” (4); it is “a perfectly masculine bodie, without any superfluitie or dimunition” (4)  Charles Nicholl’s analysis of the Mirror emphasizes that gold here is not just “common gold,” or a means of achieving great monetary wealth.  Rather, gold’s perfection represents the wholly cured and balanced state of matter.  Pointing to Bacon’s associations of gold with the medicinal, Nicholl defines “philosophical gold” as “a condition of harmony and incorruptibility…matter redeemed from baseness, dividedness and corruption” (Nicholl 26).  As the product of alchemical endeavor, gold is not a mere instrument of greed but manifestation of physical, philosophical, and aesthetic ideal—nature carried to its fullest and most perfect potential.

  6. Gold occupies a slightly ambiguous position in nature.  While nature itself does not produce such perfect metal, gold represents the end point toward which nature continually aims.  Bacon states, “Nature alwaies intendeth and striveth to the perfection of Gold, but many accidents comming between change the mettals” (Bacon 5).  The alchemist’s work, then, does not alter or disturb nature but instead carries it to its fullest potential.  The difference between natural alchemy—that which furthers nature’s development—and perverse alchemy will become significant in our discussion of Timon, as it is the corruption of natural alchemy that catalyzes Timon’s downfall.

  7. Sir George Ripley, in The Compound of Alchymy (1591), identifies twelve steps in alchemical transmutation.  In the Compound’s epistle, he summarizes the process in a stanza:
    First calcine, and after that putrifie,
    Dissolve, distil, sublime, descend and fixe,
    With Aqua Vita oft times both wash and drie,
    And make a marriage of the body and spirit betwixt…
    Then shall the bodie die utterlie of the flux…
    The third day againe to life he shall arise (Ripley, EEBO document image 50)
    A metal undergoing transmutation exists in three stages: its initial impure form, its second base form, in which it “dies utterly,” and its third rejuvenated and perfected form.  Taking ice as an example, Ripley describes how any semblance of form or order is broken down; the impure substance is reduced to water, its initial or most primitive state.  The decomposition of the body not only prepares the substance for the final phase of physical perfection, but also “will free the hidden spirit within matter” (Nicholl 37).  Ripley explains: “Our Solution is cause of our Congelation / For the Dissolution on the one side corporall / Causeth Congelation on the other side spirituall” (Ripley 18).  With the breakdown of the body comes perfection of the spirit; as matter is reduced to nothing, spirit reaches its highest state.

  8. In the third phase of transmutation, the substance’s matter is harmonized to match its spiritual perfection.  Coagulation describes material regeneration, but this time “will the spirit within the bodie congealed be… / Such congelation be thou glad to see, / Then hast thou a Stone most precious of all Stones” (31).  Alchemy is a process of destruction in order to achieve a rebirth.  In his god-like capacity, the alchemist overturns all order by dissolving matter and in doing so gives rise to the most perfect and ordered of substances.  Ripley identifies “loosing and knitting” as the “poles most principall” of the science (24); destruction must precede perfection, and the substance must return to its primal state before achieving physical and spiritual elevation.  In its final form, gold embodies a “spirituall and flying” (20) power capable of elevating substances with which it comes into contact in the form of medicinal healing.

  9. Thus alchemical transmutation follows a circular path: matter is reduced to raw stuff before it is resurrected into an altered and perfected substance.  Bergeron finds that Timon follows a parallel tripartite structure of corruption, debasement, and rejuvenation.  Timon begins with great wealth, loses it to his greedy friends, and, in the final movement of the play, ironically finds gold again while digging for roots.  By Scene xiv, however, Timon has fully transformed into a misanthrope and curses his gold.  Bergeron comments on the play’s relationship to alchemical transmutation:
    Structurally, then, the play has moved from gold to lack of gold to gold again.  This structure has some relationship to an alchemical process…While Timon completes the cycle by finding material gold again, he does not attain spiritual gold…His idealism is shattered—transformed—and it is not recovered. (Bergeron 368)
    Bergeron reads Timon as a failed alchemist.  Timon begins the play as a successful alchemist with a seemingly endless supply of gold, loses it, then finds it again; however, when he digs gold out of the ground in Scene xiv, it is “common” gold, not “spiritual gold.”  Bergeron concludes that Timon fails in his alchemical pursuits.  If knowledge is an end of spiritual alchemy, the knowledge Timon ultimately gains does not contribute to spiritual enlightenment but instead produces a suicidal misanthrope. 

  10. While I make use of Bergeron’s claim that “alchemy lowers the plumb line in the play by which we can measure the spiritual myopia of Timon” (Bergeron 370), I fashion my argument differently than does Bergeron.  Timon is not only a failed alchemist, but also the victim of a perverse and incomplete alchemical cycle.  As Timon’s Athens is overcome by moral corruption, the transmutation process changes its course, locking Timon in its second stage.  Nicholl’s analysis of alchemy’s bearings on King Lear provides much of the inspiration for my argument.  Nicholl identifies the underlying pattern or classical model of tragedy as “purgatorial and redemptive.  [This] is also the underlying pattern of alchemy…Both alchemy and tragedy define a journey: a road to wholeness that goes by way of dismemberment and dissolution” (Nicholl 142-143).  As Nicholl shows, Lear reaches a profoundly redemptive conclusion by way of the king’s dismemberment.  While I read Timon as one of Shakespeare’s satirical tragedies, which, like Troilus and Cressida, offers little hope, one can usefully apply Nicholl’s alchemical framework to Timon to explain why Shakespeare and Middleton refuse Timon deliverance at the end of the play.

    II. Timon’s Transmutation

  11. In Scene xiv, Timon, having lost his entire fortune and fled to the woods, describes gold as able to “make black white, foul fair, / Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant” (xiv.29-30).  This statement also speaks to the aim of the alchemist, who seeks to both elevate base substances and achieve a noble (spiritual and social/financial) standing.  Timon correctly assesses gold’s power to alter substances radically, yet he misrepresents its direction—the play shows us that gold instead makes noble base, right wrong, young old, etc.  This inconsistency characterizes the tragedy of the play: in Timon’s Athens, the alchemical process is out of joint, distorted and reversed.  Gold, doubly representative of Timon’s incredible generosity and his friends’ self-serving greed, can either serve virtue or, perversely, function as an object of vice.  Timon’s radical character transformation demonstrates how his friends’ moral failings disturb the course of transmutation.  By tracing the direction of the alchemical cycle, one may track Athens’ moral degeneration.

  12. At the beginning of the play, Timon possesses a seemingly limitless supply of gold—and along with it, gold’s alchemical powers.  “Plutus the god of gold / Is but his steward,” (ii.279-280) describes the Second Lord, to which the First Lord adds, “The noblest mind he carries / That ever governed man” (ii.283-284).  Timon’s elevated virtue matches his material wealth; he has gold and he is gold.  His perfected nature allows him transforming abilities.  In the play’s opening scene, the Poet attributes to Timon supernatural powers, stating of Timon’s neverending riches, “See, / Magic of bounty, all these spirits thy power / Hath conjured to attend” (5-7).  The Senator describes Timon’s generosity as though it produces new substance from nothing:
    If I want gold, steal but a beggar’s dog
    And give it Timon, why, the dog coins gold.
    If I would sell my horse and buy twenty more
    Better than he, why, give my horse to Timon—
    Ask nothing, give it him—it foals me straight
    And able horses (Shakespeare iii.5-10)
    Here the Senator explains that Timon will repay any gift disproportionately—he gives the Senator gold to thank him for a beggar’s dog and offers many “straight and able” horses in exchange for just one.  He depicts these gift exchanges as magical or perhaps alchemical.  Give a dog to Timon, it comes back as gold; one inferior horse becomes several better horses.  However, the Senator does not celebrate Timon’s abilities, but instead follows this description with: “It cannot hold.  No reason / Can sound his state in safety” (iii.12-13).  He claims that Timon’s financial situation poses a lending risk, but also concludes that this pattern of transmutation “cannot hold.”  Events that follow show us that it certainly cannot.

  13. With the loss of Timon’s wealth comes the transformation of his moral character: he turns from noble to base.  Upon learning of his friends’ betrayal, he notes the perversion of a world in which such moral degeneration occurs, crying, “How goes the world, that I am thus encountered / With clamorous demands of broken bonds / And the detention of long-since-due debts, Against my honour?” (Shakespeare iv.36-39).  (The Poet, interestingly, asks the same exact question in i.2—but I will address that connection later in this paper.)  Flaminius, Timon’s ever-loyal steward, echoes the same sentiment, asking, “Is’t possible the world should so much differ, / And we alive that lived?” (Middleton v.45-46).  Already of noble substance, Timon is thrust into the transmutation process, in which he is confounded[1] into his most base parts.  The direction and outcome of the alchemical process point to the Senators’ moral failings.  Scene iv marks a shift in the play’s climate.  The world is inverted; Timon’s noble (though foolish) generosity succumbs to corruption, and his alchemical abilities follow suit.

  14. Timon’s change in fortune is described in physical terms.  Without his riches, Timon is “shrunk indeed” (vi.58).  Moreover, his own powers of transmutation produce the opposite of what of the alchemist is meant to produce.  Though he gives gold to his friends, they “have all been touched and found base metal, / For they have all denied him” (Middleton vii.6).  Similarly, Flaminius calls Lucius “damnéd baseness” (Middleton vi.47), punning on baseness of character, base coin, and base metal.  Timon’s most dramatic demonstration of a perverted alchemy occurs when he serves the senators stones and steaming water upon silver platters.  The Fourth Senator remarks, “One day he gives us diamonds, next day stones” (Shakespeare xii.118).  Timon changes gems to rocks and noble to base.  He is not just a failed alchemist, but a corrupt and unnatural one.

  15. With the reversal of his fortunes and alchemical abilities, Timon’s transmutation from gold to base metal is complete.  He continues his perverse alchemical rant when he retreats to the wilderness, declaring, “Matrons, turn incontinent! ...To general filths / Convert o’the’instant, green virginity!” (xii.3-7).  His call for the physical and moral destruction of Athens is described in terms of transmutation.  Right is turned wrong, fair is turned foul.  Naked, outside, digging in the dirt for food, Timon is the dog into which Apemantus predicted he would transform; indeed, Apemantus recognizes in Timon “a nature but infected” (xiv.203).  Timon’s newfound misanthropy prompts him to reduce all mankind to base metal.  While digging for roots, he compares “arrogant man” (xiv.181) to “the gilded newt and eyeless venomed worm” (xiv.183); both are of the “selfsame mettle” (180).  While “mettle” here is taken to mean spirit or the incorporeal, the word has obvious connections to “metal,” especially placed alongside “gilded newt.”  “Gilded” refers to the newt’s shining scales, but also refers to the gold Timon finds in the ground, and as Jowett points out in his editorial notes, may convey false appearance in connection with “eyeless worm.”  Timon not only equates man with the lowest beasts using alchemical terms, but also points out the illusory nature of nobility.  Beneath his gilded exterior lies a monstrous newt; the same holds true for Timon and his aristocratic friends.  He is transformed into base matter, but shows no signs of spiritual congellation.

  16. Unlike Lear, Timon offers few signs of redemption: Timon dies a disillusioned misanthrope who seeks the complete destruction of his city.  Certainly he is not exalted from base metal to gold; the alchemical process is perverse or incomplete.  One may easily read Timon as a victim of a morally corrupt world, in which natural processes fail due to the Athenians’ excessive greed and self-interest.  “I am sick of this false world,” (xiv.376) cries Timon, condemning the play’s systems of unnaturalness and injustice.  However, that explanation is complicated by the presence of Alcibiades and Flaminius, who remain loyal to Timon throughout the play.  Not every character is as morally bankrupt as the senators, yet they too are brought down by Athens’ overriding injustices.

    III. Alchemy and Theater: The Poet as False Alchemist

  17. Timon’s tragedy can be explained, in part, by the absence of any true alchemist.  Instead, the play is populated by false alchemists, gilded conjurers rather than sincere knowledge-seekers.  The association of alchemy with charmers and necromancers was common in Shakespeare’s day.  Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1665), for instance, warns its readers of “the folly of Alchimistry” (Scot 210):
    Under the golden name of Alchymistry there lyeth lurking no small calamity; wherein there be such several shifts and suits of rare subtleties and deceits, as that not only wealthy men are thereby many times improverished, and that with the sweet allurement of this art, through their own covetousness, as also by the flattering baits of hoped gain: but even wise and learned men hereby are shamefully overshot…cousening Knaves do commonly abuse to their own lust and commodity, and to the others utter undoing. (210)
    Similar concerns are addressed in Samuel Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popishe Impostures (1603) and Thomas Lodge’s The Anatomie of Alchymie (1595); Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (1610) offers the most famous image of a deceitful alchemist in the form of Dr Subtle.  Timon’s friends, the play’s “gilded newts,” are clearly false alchemists, as they mask their “base metal” natures in noble exteriors.  However, Shakespeare also identifies two minor characters as “cousening Knaves” who falsify appearances: the Poet and the Painter.

  18. The Poet and the Painter begin the play and reappear only once, to con gold from Timon during his spiritual crisis in the woods.  (The Poet and Painter’s lines are attributed entirely to Shakespeare; Middleton does not appear to have contributed to those scenes.)  They are the only characters to whom Shakespeare explicitly refers as alchemists: Timon throws stones at them, crying, “You are an alchemist; make gold of that” (xiv.649-650).  He prefaces this statement with descriptions of the characters’ gifts, which he describes as forgeries.  He tells the painter, “Thou draw’st a counterfeit / Best in all Athens; thou’rt indeed the best; / Thou counterfeit’st most lively” (xiv.614-616); to the Poet, he says, “And for thy fiction, / Why, thy verse swells with stuff so fine and smooth / That thou art even natural in thine art” (xiv.617-619).  Timon’s sarcastic compliment to the Poet accuses him of an instinctive treachery, while his comments directed to the Painter point out the difficulty of distinguishing reality from alchemists’ tricks.  When the Poet, flattering Timon, despairs of his own ability to “cover / the monstrous bulk of [the Senators’] ingratitude / With any size of words” (xiv.598-600), Timon responds with “let it go naked; men may see’t the better” (xiv.601).  However, he does not convince these alchemists to abandon their search for common gold.

  19. That the Poet and Painter, ultimately identified as Timon’s alchemists, open the play establishes the tension between reality and appearances—gold and base, diamonds and stones—as an overriding theme.  The two begin with a discussion of the Painter’s “pretty mocking of the life” (i.35).  The Poet compliments, “Artificial strife / Lives in these touches livelier than life” (i.38-39).  These lines not only attest to the Painter’s skill at creating reality on canvas, but also suggest that artifice itself is alive, or has some ability to act upon reality.  These masters of forgery are the only two characters to foresee Timon’s downfall.  The Poet assures the Painter that “Fortune in her shift and change of mood” will “[spurn] down her late belovéd” (i.85-86); his “dependants,” meanwhile, will “let him flit down, / Not one accompanying his declining foot” (i.88-89).  The Painter responds, “A thousand moral paintings I can show / That shall demonstrate these quick blows of Fortune’s / More pregnantly than words” (i.91-93).  Fortune dictates Timon’s moral and metaphorical degeneration, but it is the artist who best understands and depicts this process. 

  20. In the same vein, actors are also alchemists in Timon.  In scene iv (mostly attributed to Shakespeare), the fool describes a whoremaster as
    a spirit; sometime’t appears like a lord, sometime like a lawyer, sometime like a philosopher with two stones more than’s artificial one.  He is very often like a knight; and generally in all shapes that man goes up and down in from fourscore to thirteen, this spirit walks in. (Shakespeare  iv.104-108)
    Although the fool is ostensibly insulting Varro’s Servant, this passage is also a self-reflexive meditation on the actor, a spirit who takes all shapes.  The “artificial one” refers to the philosopher’s stone, the key to the alchemist’s success.  The actor (and by extension the playwright) turn base to noble, a whoremaster into a knight.  The Poet, the Painter, and the actors are the play’s only successful alchemists, but Shakespeare is sure to depict their alchemical pursuits as mired in deceit.  Despite their appearances, they are still found base metal.

  21. The Poet opens the play with “How goes the world?” (i.3), a question Timon echoes exactly upon learning of his financial ruin.  An aspect of Timon’s tragedy is that he lives in the world of the Poet and the Painter, in which “glib and slipp’ry creatures” (i.54) masquerade as nobles.  Timon ostensibly recognizes the role of artifice in Timon’s Athens.  He tells the Painter in the first scene:
    The painting is almost the natural man;
    For since dishonour traffics with man’s nature,
    He is but outside; these penciled figures are
    Even such as they give out. (Shakespeare i.161-164)
    Artifice is natural to human beings, says Timon, for dishonor has made man’s outside appearance his most important characteristic.  Still, Timon is shocked when his friends’ true natures differ from their exteriors; their artificialities act upon Timon just as Timon’s sincere generosity acts upon them.  Tragedy perverts or stalls the alchemical process by locking the noble hero in his most degenerate state.  In Timon, Shakespeare also attributes the tragic fall to the artificer, the alternate identity of the alchemist.  The Poet and the Painter point to another layer of artifice on top of the tragedy—the play itself, as a piece of art, is Timon’s ultimate example of false alchemy.

  22. The Steward sums up the moral paradox of Timon: “Man’s worst sin is he does too much good!” (xiii.39).  An analysis of alchemy’s bearings on the play offers a framework within which to read Timon’s debasement and enables us to trace Shakespeare’s (and Middleton’s) perspective on the moral climate of Timon’s Athens.  While a classical tragedy like Lear follows alchemy’s three-stage cycle of corruption, degeneration, and rejuvenation, that Timon only achieves the first two stages marks it as even darker than Lear.  The alchemical process cannot reach its natural completion because Athens has become a “false world;” it has shifted, almost unnoticeably, from reality to artifice.  Timon, the only figure close to a true alchemist in the play, is undercut by his friends, the Poet, and the Painter, all false alchemists who pass off base metal as spiritual gold while solely motivated by the desire for common gold.

  23. Hence alchemy functions as an indicator of the play’s moral position.  As moral corruption and self-interest overtake Timon’s generosity, we watch the alchemical process pervert or turn back on itself.  It no longer works to change black to white, wrong to right, or foul to fair, but achieves the exact opposite.  In this faulty alchemical system, Timon’s noble pursuit of knowledge is the very reason for his destruction.  Alchemy in Timon does not elevate man, as Bacon and Ripley describe.  Rather, in Timon’s world of false alchemists, it leaves Timon a base and dispirited misanthrope.

Works Cited

This article was originally written for Professor James Shapiro’s “Shakespeare in 1606” course at Columbia University. I would like to thank Professor Shapiro for his guidance and criticism.

[1] According to Jowett, “confound,” meaning “to bring to ruin or destroy” or “To destroy the purity, beauty, or usefulness of; to spoil, corrupt” (OED), occurs eleven times in the play, over twice as often as in any of Shakespeare or Middleton’s other plays.  The word always occurs in those sections attributed to Shakespeare.  The word has clear alchemical implications, particularly in its second definition.


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© 2012-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).