In the case of The Room, the explanation is simple: Tommy Wiseau actually is an alien. This conclusion is obvious if you've seen his movie or had the joy of witnessing an interview with him. In the case of Timon of Athens, the schizophrenic tonal shifts are the result of the play having two authors, Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton. It would be interesting to know what their collaborative process was like, but the upshot of the partnership is a discordant yet enjoyable mess — much like The Room.
If I were to guess at the germinal idea behind this play, it would be something about how blind generosity can be as deadly a vice as blind greed. Being a wealthy nobleman, Timon is anesthetized from the real horrors of the world, making him as sheltered as a Season 1 Bluth. He allows himself to get completely drunk on the false love of his flatterers, and pursues it at any cost. In one particularly illuminating example, he gives away an expensive horse, saying simply, "it is yours, because you liked it." The dude is like that one super-loaded kid in high school: addicted to people pleasing, but completely naive to the fickle loyalties of his hangers-on.
Some characters clearly recognize that Timon is being fleeced, premier among them the world's crankiest dirt bomb: Apemantus. Cynical and abrasive, Apemantus spends much of the first act of the play warning Timon that everyone is sucking up to him because of his affluence, not due to any real affection. When Timon tries to get him to lighten up at one of his lavish feasts, Apemantus refuses the offer of food.
Apemantus: I scorn thy meat; 'twould choke me, for I should
ne'er flatter thee. O you gods, what a number of
men eat Timon, and he sees 'em not! It grieves me
to see so many dip their meat in one man's blood;
and all the madness is, he cheers them up too.
I wonder men dare trust themselves with men.
Apemantus may be a constant downer throughout the play, but he knows how to deliver an epic helping of real talk (indeed, he brilliantly sums up Timon's whole arc in one sentence: "The middle of humanity thou never knewest/ but the extremity of both ends"). I love the metaphor of Timon's flatterers literally eating him alive as his assets dwindle. It's echoed in another speech by Timon's servant Flavius, who also recognizes the folly of his master's generosity. Behold:
Flavius: His promises fly so beyond his state
That what he speaks is all in debt; he owes
For every word: he is so kind that he now
Pays interest for 't; his land's put to their books.
Well, would I were gently put out of office
Before I were forced out!
Happier is he that has no friend to feed
Than such that do e'en enemies exceed.
I bleed inwardly for my lord.
Flavius is unable to get through to his boss until it's too late. And when Timon falls, he falls hard. He's so immediately bitter about his friends' refusal to toss him a dime that he decides to prank them. He throws a feast and, stoked that ole Timon apparently found more moneybags, the Mooch Parade eagerly gathers to chow down their next free lunch. But when the plates are unveiled, they're filled with boring old water.
Timon then rants about what a pisspoor bunch of maggots they all are, and throws the water in their faces like they're misbehaving cats. As they run from the house, he throws the dishes at them too. His petty revenge accomplished, he rushes off into the wilderness and delivers this fantastic monologue about how people are the WOOOOORST. I copied it in its full glory below, but you only need to read a line or two to get the overall message, which is "fuck y'all, I'm out."
Timon: Let me look back upon thee. O thou wall,
That girdlest in those wolves, dive in the earth,
And fence not Athens! Matrons, turn incontinent!
Obedience fail in children! slaves and fools,
Pluck the grave wrinkled senate from the bench,
And minister in their steads! to general filths
Convert o’ the instant, green virginity,
Do ‘t in your parents’ eyes! bankrupts, hold fast;
Rather than render back, out with your knives,
And cut your trusters’ throats! bound servants, steal!
Large-handed robbers your grave masters are,
And pill by law. Maid, to thy master’s bed;
Thy mistress is o’ the brothel! Son of sixteen,
pluck the lined crutch from thy old limping sire,
With it beat out his brains! Piety, and fear,
Religion to the gods, peace, justice, truth,
Domestic awe, night-rest, and neighbourhood,
Instruction, manners, mysteries, and trades,
Degrees, observances, customs, and laws,
Decline to your confounding contraries,
And let confusion live! Plagues, incident to men,
Your potent and infectious fevers heap
On Athens, ripe for stroke! Thou cold sciatica,
Cripple our senators, that their limbs may halt
As lamely as their manners. Lust and liberty
Creep in the minds and marrows of our youth,
That ‘gainst the stream of virtue they may strive,
And drown themselves in riot! Itches, blains,
Sow all the Athenian bosoms; and their crop
Be general leprosy! Breath infect breath,
at their society, as their friendship, may
be merely poison! nothing I’ll bear from thee,
But nakedness, thou detestable town!
Take thou that too, with multiplying bans!
Timon will to the woods; where he shall find
The unkindest beast more kinder than mankind.
The gods confound–hear me, you good gods all–
The Athenians both within and out that wall!
And grant, as Timon grows, his hate may grow
To the whole race of mankind, high and low! Amen.
Timon is no doubt sincere, but the fact that he blames humanity for his own atrocious financial management skills reveals that his vast naïveté has somehow survived his fall not only intact, but empowered. He's mad at mankind because...he can't do basic math?
Point being: Timon ain't no Lear. He has no revelation about his own culpability as he struggles in the wilderness. On the contrary, I think he actually gets stupider post-fall. For example, he says stuff like "Earth, yield me roots." Dude, you can't just order Earth to feed you at your whim. The planet is nobody's butt-boy. You may have also caught that during his soliloquy, he says, "Timon will to the woods; where he shall find/ The unkindest beast more kinder than mankind." Yeah, good luck telling that to a lion while it bites your face off and chows down on your guts. I mean, are we supposed to root for this dumbass or what?
Alone and despondent, Timon eventually says "fuck it" and digs his own grave. He apparently just lies in it until he dies of what I can only assume is a fury-based brain embolism. He also carves his own epitaph, which is the whiniest death note ever written. Behold:
"Here lies a wretched corpse, of wretched soul bereft:
Seek not my name: a plague consume you wicked caitiffs left!
Here lie I, Timon; who, alive, all living men did hate:
Pass by and curse thy fill, but pass and stay not here thy gait."
Talk about a guilt trip from beyond the grave! I don't what the hell Shakespeare and Middleton were thinking when they wrote Timon of Athens, but I'm pretty sure there was booze involved. And that's why, like The Room, it gets high marks from me. It makes no sense, but that's kind of its charm. As Tommy Wiseau would say...
Best Line: "Hold up, you sluts." Gotta love when Shakespeare sounds like ODB.
Stage Direction Madness: What with all the plate-throwing and gold-prospecting, Timon of Athens is up there with A Winter's Tale for weird stage directions. My favorite was "Timon retires to his cave." So simultaneously dignified and debased.
Best Curmudgeon-Off: Late in the play, Apemantus recognizes that Timon has become a noble rival in grouchiness. The two yell "Beast!" "Toad!" and "Rogue, rogue, rogue!" at each other before agreeing that humanity is terrible. It's pretty funny.
Alcibiades Forever: If you know me, chances are you've been victim to my rants about the Athenian general Alcibiades, who is one of my all-time favorite historical figures. I don't know why there haven't been about 16 biopics about this arrogant bastard. A major character in Timon of Athens is named Alcibiades, but much to my dismay, he turned out to be a good guy. Just my luck that the one time I fall in love with an epically selfish bad dude, Shakespeare writes him as a saint. Hey HBO, Netflix, AMC, and other companies that enjoy villain protagonists: Alcibiades' life story is your next show. Trust me on this.