Timon of Athens | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Timon of Athens | Act 3, Scene 5 | Summary

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Summary

In the Athenian senate chamber, two senators are discussing the fate of an unnamed criminal sentenced to die. The crime, it soon becomes apparent, is "manslaughter": the rash and vengeful killing of another man. Alcibiades, the city's famed military leader, jumps in to defend the condemned man, a fellow soldier and friend. Why not let the man serve out the rest of his life on the battlefield, Alcibiades asks, where his death would at least be purposeful? The senators argue that this type of revenge cannot be justified, no matter how skillfully Alcibiades may plead on his friend's behalf. "He dies," the first senator tersely decrees.

Alcibiades, however, refuses to accept their sentence and continues to press the issue. Finally the senators are sufficiently angered to banish him from Athens forever. As a last kick at Alcibiades, one senator announces the condemned man will now be executed immediately. When they leave, Alcibiades reveals his plan to turn the Athenian army—still loyal to him—against the city and its leaders.

Analysis

In this scene Shakespeare and Middleton kill two birds with one stone. They provide Athens with the crisis it will face during Timon's absence in Acts 4 and 5: an invasion led by the mighty Alcibiades. They also help bring the play back in line with the real-life history of the Peloponnesian War, a story educated Elizabethans would have known through Greek and Roman sources. In doing this the playwrights preserve the broad strokes of Alcibiades's hostile relationship toward Athens while trimming away the complicated details.

For one thing, the real Alcibiades never personally led an invading army to Athens, as he threatens to do at the end of this scene. He was, however, banished from the city by his political enemies in 415 BCE. In reality, as in the play, the banishment was nominally a response to a specific act Alcibiades had committed: in Timon he angers the senate, but historically he was accused of defacing sacred statues. In both cases the "crime" is less important than the wishes of the Athenian political establishment that is trying to get rid of Alcibiades. The real Alcibiades responded to his banishment by defecting to the Spartans, Athens's longtime enemy, and helping stir up anti-Athenian rebellions among smaller city-states. The authors, to keep the play moving, squeeze this history into a few brief scenes, making the banishment seem abrupt and Alcibiades's response appear vindictive.

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