Timon of Athens | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Timon of Athens | Act 1, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

The banquet at Timon's home is a lavish affair, with sumptuous food and loud music. Timon and the Athenian lords—Lucius, Alcibiades, and Ventidius among them—are present. Timon's steward Flavius is also in attendance, and Apemantus is off sulking to one side. Ventidius speaks up first, thanking Timon for his help in getting him out of jail. He offers to repay double the amount of the debt, but Timon will not accept a penny. "There's none," Timon grandiosely declares in an important insight into what he believes, who "can truly say he gives if he receives." Apemantus mocks this flourish of generosity, but Timon graciously offers the angry philosopher a table to himself. As the lords joke, converse, and toast one another, Apemantus muses about their disloyalty to Timon and asks the gods for wisdom to see through men's schemes.

Timon, meanwhile, launches into a long speech about the value of friendship. He says he is glad to be surrounded by so many friends, knowing they would help him out if he were ever in need. "What a precious comfort 'tis," he says, "to have so many, like brothers, commanding one another's fortunes." As the lords cheer him on, the trumpets announce the arrival of a troupe of dancers—one costumed as Cupid, the rest as Amazons. Apemantus continues to inveigh against the foolish luxuries of Timon's court, but the rest of the men join hands with the "Amazons" and dance with them. Timon thanks the entertainers as they depart.

Then Timon calls to Flavius and asks him to bring forth a casket of gems. Flavius complies, muttering under his breath about what he sees as Timon's ruinous generosity. Timon offers a jewel to one of the lords, who professes to be deeply indebted to him already. Servants and messengers soon arrive to announce other gifts sent to Timon, who accepts them all. Flavius worriedly observes the lords are sending in presents expecting Timon to reciprocate with even more lavish gifts of his own. If this continues, he says, Timon will soon be driven from debt into bankruptcy. Nonetheless, as the evening wears on Timon continues to dole out expensive gifts—including a horse—to his attendant lords. At the end of the party, Apemantus cautions Timon to stop "giv[ing] [him]self away," but Timon refuses to listen.

Analysis

This scene adds another ingredient to the tragic situation: Timon may be a fool and a spendthrift, but he's not a bad person. Back in Act 1, Scene 1 it would have been reasonable to wonder whether Timon was being truly selfless in bailing Ventidius out of jail. Maybe he had an ulterior motive—like winning an influential political ally or getting Ventidius to pay him back with interest. Maybe all those other gifts—the "nest egg" money for Lucilius, the jewels handed out as party favors—were just Timon's way of commanding the loyalty of his fellow Athenians. These are reasonable doubts to have given such extreme behavior, even if all for the seeming good.

After Timon refuses repayment from Ventidius, however, it becomes harder to see things this way. A hardboiled cynic like Apemantus will still see Timon as using his wealth to buy and bribe his friends. From his point of view, Timon really is selfish; he just happens to like flattery more than material wealth. Timon, however, doesn't think of it that way at all—at least not consciously. Instead, in his long, sentimental, and occasionally tearful speech at the dinner table, he gushes about friendship as a form of mutual sharing. What's mine is yours, he tells his guests. This would be a nice sentiment if it were reciprocated, but the truth is that the play will show that Timon's "friends" are mostly leeches who dine, drink, and entertain themselves at his expense. Timon may be too noble hearted, or too naive, to keep tabs on all he has given away, but others are keeping fastidious records of everything he borrows from them, no matter how kindly he treats them.

Nevertheless, even if Timon's kindness is accepted as totally sincere, it does not let him off the hook for his high-roller lifestyle. In fact, part of what makes Timon of Athens tragic is the protagonist's complicity in his own downfall—his unwitting way of helping Fate along. If Timon went bankrupt because of a natural disaster or events beyond his control, like a flood or a bad harvest, the play would be sad but not necessarily tragic. As it happens Timon's downfall owes as much to poor money management as to his naive belief in human kindness. Like the chorus in an ancient Greek tragedy, Flavius and Apemantus try to warn him, but only the audience hears their dire message.

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