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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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
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.
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
than he, why, give my horse to Timon—
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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’
III. Alchemy and
Theater: The Poet as False Alchemist
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):
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)
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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)
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.
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
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.
Bacon, Roger. The
Mirror of Alchimy. London: Printed for Richard Oliue, 1597.
Bergeron, David M.
"Alchemy andTimon of Athens."
CLA Journal, 13 (1969-70l), 364-73.
Shakespeare and Science. Birmingham: Cornish Brothers Ltd., 1929.
Gesner, Konrad. The
Practise of the New and Old Phisicke. Printed at
London : By Peter Short, 1599. EEBO.
Linden, Stanton. Darke
Hieroglyphicks: alchemy in English literature from Chaucer to the Restoration.
Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996.
Nicholl, Charles. The
Chemical Theatre. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980.
Ripley, George. The
Compound of Alchymy. London: Imprinted by Thomas Orwin, 1591. Via Early
English Books Online (EEBO).
Scot, Reginald. The
Discoverie of Witchcraft. London: J. Rodker, 1930 (1665). Via Early English
Books Online (EEBO).
William and Thomas Middleton. Timon of Athens. Ed. John Jowett. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2004.
Sherman, William. John
Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance. University
of Massachusetts Press, 1997.
Thomas, Keith. Religion
and the Decline of Magic. New York: Scriber, 1971.
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.
 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.
Responses to this piece intended for the
Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editors at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.