Timon of Athens | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Timon of Athens | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

A poet, a painter, a merchant, and a jeweler have gathered at the home of Timon, an Athenian aristocrat. They wish to pay Timon tribute, offering him gifts and seeking favors in return. To pass the time until his arrival, the four men compare their gifts—the poet critiques the painter's portrait, the merchant commends the poet's verses, and so on. The poet then describes the content of his poem, a narrative work that records Timon's rise and predicts his eventual fall. Lady Fortune, he says, has smiled upon Timon, and his generosity has won him many followers. But when his fortunes decline, the poet predicts, Timon will find himself suddenly alone. "All his dependants"—the friends he has aided with his wealth—will "let him slip down" without offering him help.

Timon comes onstage in the midst of a conversation with a messenger. Lucilius, one of Timon's servants, follows behind. The messenger brings news that Ventidius, an Athenian nobleman, has been jailed for debt, and Timon promptly agrees to bail him out. The messenger thanks Timon and leaves to give Ventidius the good news. An old Athenian enters next and complains of Lucilius's attempts to woo his only daughter. He says, in effect, Lucilius is too poor to be his son-in-law. Timon offers to give Lucilius enough money to "make him weigh with" (make him as rich as) the old man's daughter. This satisfies the old man, who exits with the now-welcome Lucilius.

The poet, painter, merchant, and jeweler now come forth, offering their works to Timon, who accepts and praises their gifts with promises to return the favor. Apemantus, a negative, misanthropic philosopher, appears and rebuffs Timon's greetings. Undeterred, Timon invites Apemantus to dine with him, an offer the bad-tempered man refuses. In the ensuing conversation, Apemantus rails against the Athenians for flattering Timon and against Timon for "lov[ing] to be flattered."

A trumpet and a messenger announce the arrival of the general Alcibiades, who enters shortly thereafter and is welcomed to town by Timon. Apemantus continues making snide remarks to himself while the others leave the stage. Two Athenian lords enter, having been invited to a feast at Timon's. Apemantus berates them for their foolishness but agrees to go to the feast "to see meat fill knaves, and wine heat fools." At last the lords grow tired of his insults and threaten him with violence, causing him to leave the stage. They follow, discussing Timon's legendary generosity as they go.

Analysis

As usual in a tragedy, the first people to see the problem are the ones least likely to be listened to by others. The poet is a person with little evident power in Athens, but as shown by Shakespeare he is a shrewd judge of human nature. He recognizes the rickety foundations of Timon's popularity well before Timon himself knows the score. He knows Timon's many "friends" are hanging around simply because Timon is a rich spendthrift and they will abandon him immediately when his money runs out. Worse yet, the poet indicates he believes Timon's story is far from unique. By describing Timon's prosperity in terms of the allegorical Wheel of Fortune, he suggests it is part of an age-old pattern in human affairs. People like Timon attract flatterers and parasites as they rise, yet they ultimately will fall alone.

The other figure who clearly understands what's going on is Apemantus, who calls Timon's friends dishonest "knaves." Yet because Apemantus is so bitter and insulting in dispensing his advice, nobody—least of all carefree Timon—bothers to listen to him. Being ignored doesn't seem to trouble Apemantus much, and it's tempting to wonder whether he really wants people to change their ways or he just expects they will go on as they are. Later in the play Apemantus will seem to derive considerable satisfaction from saying "I told you so."

This scene also prepares the audience for the kinds of cynical mind games Timon's friends will play to justify their cruelty and neglect. The poet, as noted, understands Timon is seriously deluded about his friends' integrity. Yet the poet's insight does not automatically make him a better person than those he criticizes. Like the other Athenians, he too will abandon Timon as soon as he no longer has lavish gifts to dole out. He will return only in Act 4 when he hears Timon has gold—and might therefore be willing to patronize a new poetic composition. The Athenian lords who flock to Timon's banquet likewise will pretend to be broke, or simply not at home, when Timon's servants ask them later for help. They will come running back as soon as Timon can do something for them.

Thus, before Timon even enters the stage, the basic machinery of the play is up and running. His actions—and his friends' reactions—in this scene serve mainly to make the poet's foreshadowing more credible. Each time Timon gives a gift to one of his followers, everyone erupts in praise of his generosity, indicating the real, material reason they value him. Noticeable, by the way, is that nobody praises his intelligence, his wit, his good looks, his taste in decorating—only and always his "bounty." Every extravagant gesture sharpens the conflict between Timon's apparent popularity and the state of his true friendlessness.

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