Timon of Athens | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Timon of Athens | Act 4, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Outside Athens's walls Timon shrieks a curse against the entire city. He voices his wish to see Athens devolve into total chaos, with children killing their parents and chaste "matrons" turning into prostitutes. He urges all sources of law and order, such as customs, laws, and religious observances, to "decline to [their] confounding contraries"; that is, to transform into their evil opposites. Then, after wishing painful and disfiguring diseases upon the citizens, he resolves to go live in the woods, "where he shall find / th' unkindest beast more kinder than mankind."

Analysis

At first Timon's speech in this scene may seem like nothing more than a random list of curses. Worked up as he is, it wouldn't be surprising if Timon were just saying whatever nasty things came to mind. In fact nearly all of Timon's curses in this scene are unified by a central theme: collapse of the social order. Timon is not merely wishing for bad things to happen to individual, wicked Athenians. Rather he is wishing for a sudden and complete failure of the very forces that hold the city together.

Until recently Timon's generosity could have been considered part of the basic fabric of Athenian society. He kept innocent people out of jail, helped young commoners get their start in life, and used his wealth to employ the city's artists and performers. From Timon's previous, naive point of view, this benevolence was as it should be: wealth, as he explains in Act 1, Scene 2, is to be used for helping others. Yet Timon's selfish and hypocritical friends never buy into this premise. When he needs their help, they are nowhere to be found. Thus, having been disappointed by the failure of the Athenian "safety net," Timon bitterly wishes for it to fail everyone else. He wants them to undergo the same rude awakening he has just experienced and thus end up sharing his misery.

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