Shakespeare Quarterly 52.1 (2001) 34-66
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"One Wish" or the Possibility of the Impossible: Derrida, the Gift, and God in Timon of Athens
Kierkegaard considers Abraham's torment:
He destroys his happiness in the world in order to have his happiness with God--and now if he has misunderstood God--where shall he turn?
Kierkegaard considers the representation of Abraham's torment:
Thanks to you, great Shakespeare, you who can say everything, everything, everything just as it is--and yet, why did you never articulate this torment? Did you perhaps reserve it for yourself, like the beloved's name that one cannot bear to have the world utter, for with his little secret that he cannot divulge the poet buys this power of the word to tell everybody else's dark secrets. A poet is not an apostle; he drives out devils only by the power of the devil. 1
This essay is largely an attempt to use Jacques Derrida's recent work on the gift (particularly in Given Time: 1. Counterfeit Money) and the gift's relationship to religion (particularly in The Gift of Death) to illuminate what I see as Shakespeare's profound exploration of religion in Timon of Athens. 2 Specifically, I will argue that Timon seeks what Derrida calls "the gift, the impossible" and that a religious passion motivates the search. Moreover, this passionate religious search for the gift produces the critical crux that alternately has fascinated and tortured critics of [End Page 34] the play: Timon's sudden shift from a generous noble to a mad misanthrope. In this emphasis, my essay claims some affinity with G. Wilson Knight's fairly well-known (if now rarely cited) and distinctive treatment of the play in The Wheel of Fire. 3 I will refer frequently to Knight's essay while negotiating the work of Derrida, whose recent work is a less familiar and comfortable presence in Shakespeare studies.
Knight's work is important here not simply for the sake of clarity but because one could say he took the play as far as it could go within the boundaries of his era's ethical, philosophical, and religious understanding. His insights were then left behind, almost lost, in the changing fashions of literary criticism. The ethical, philosophical, and religious scholarship that informed Knight's work, however, has continued to develop--even if literary studies, and Renaissance literary studies in particular, tends to act as if ethical and religious scholarship has ceased to exist in any meaningful way. While we persist, as Richard Halpern says, in our "untranscendable" situation, our "seemingly endless alternation between contextualizing and decontextualizing approaches," an effort to reconsider Shakespearean texts in the light of new ethical and religious perspectives seems not just in order but necessary. 4
Knight argues that Timon "only aspired to the infinite" and that this transcendent aspiration underlies the split character. 5 Both Timon's excessive giving and his misanthropy reveal a "primary energy" directing him away from the partial and finite world. 6 For Knight, Timon is something of a Nietzschean superman pushing past Christian thought. 7 This portrait is consistent with Knight's understanding of [End Page 35] Shakespeare generally: he has, "always in morality's despite, viewed Shakespearian tragedy as in some indefinable, Nietzschean, way an advance" over Christian belief. 8 But Timon of Athens stands out. So powerful is its movement to the "infinite" that Knight suggests the play "includes and transcends" Othello, Hamlet, and King Lear. 9 While in agreement with Knight's suggestion about Timon's transcendent movement shaping the play, and with his suggestion that the play should have a more central place in the canon, I will suggest that this transcendent movement resembles a Derridean working through (or in, or with, anything but a deconstruction of) Christianity more than it does a Nietzschean "advance" over Christianity.
The phrases I wish to use--"religious passion" and "Derridean working through" and their distinction from Knight's Nietzschean drive--can be defined properly only in...