Timon of Athens | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Timon of Athens | Act 4, Scene 3 | Summary

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Summary

In the woods digging for roots to eat, the self-banished Timon finds buried gold instead. He makes a brief speech on gold's ability to pervert humankind and then buries most of the treasure. Alcibiades enters with his mistresses, Phrynia and Timandra. He addresses Timon, who snarls insults in response, claiming, "I am Misanthropos and hate mankind." When Alcibiades offers to help Timon, the fallen aristocrat lashes out against Phrynia and Timandra as "whore[s]" and "harlots." As Alcibiades tries to excuse this behavior, Timon tells him to "beat thy drum and get thee gone." Then when Alcibiades mentions he is warring against Athens, Timon offers him gold to fund his expedition. He throws some gold in the aprons of the women, too, urging them to sleep around with Athenian noblemen and spread diseases. All but Timon exit.

Left alone for a moment, Timon continues digging for food. He is approached by Apemantus, the cynical philosopher last seen in Act 2, Scene 2. The men trade insults, many vicious ones about themselves and families, as Apemantus mocks Timon for having fallen so far from his former glory. Timon, he says, is living in poverty only because he is forced to, not out of principle—"Thou 'dst courtier be again, / Wert thou not beggar." Offended, Timon protests that Apemantus, having been poor all his life, does not know what it's like to face the temptations of wealth. "If thou hadst not been born the worst of men," he says, "thou hadst been a knave and a flatterer."

As the two continue to spar and insult each other verbally, Timon lets slip he has found gold and intends to leave most of it buried. He then asks Apemantus what he would do with the world "if it lay in [his] power." Apemantus says he would give it over to the beasts, but Timon points out the animal kingdom is vicious and violent, in a clichéd sense, dog eat dog. This, says Apemantus, just makes it more like Athens, which "is become a forest of beasts" in its own right. After this short-lived moment of agreement, the two fall back to fighting. At last Timon throws a stone at Apemantus to drive him off. As he departs, Apemantus threatens to tell everyone about the gold, bringing throngs of Athenians to Timon's hiding spot.

A group of "banditti" (bandits) now approach Timon, having already heard of the gold. Hoping to sow further chaos in Athens, he offers them gold freely and urges them to "cut throats" and "break open shops" in the city. His shrill speech backfires and confuses them, and the bandits find themselves contemplating a career change as they exit. Finally the loyal steward Flavius enters, overcome with pity at Timon's "despised and ruinous" state. Withstanding Timon's insults and laments, he approaches and offers him money. This gesture breaks through Timon's misanthropy, but only a little: he is now convinced there is a single honest man in the world. Offering Flavius some of his gold, Timon urges him to "live rich and happy" but hate and suspect the rest of humankind. Flavius insists on remaining by Timon's side.

Analysis

In this scene Timon makes the remarkable decision to stop merely hiding from society and start actively destroying the city that spurned him. When he first discovers the gold, he sarcastically praises its ability to "make / Black white, foul fair, wrong right, / Base noble, old young, coward valiant." In other words he continues the idea of "confounding contraries" from his speech in Act 4, Scene 1, but with a twist. There he merely wished for Athens to change into the gruesome opposite of a thriving city-state. Now, he realizes, he has the material means to implement that wish. By paying soldiers to kill, robbers to rob, and courtesans to spread disease, he hopes to hasten the downfall of the city he hates.

One by one the other characters arrive and are tested by Timon's toxic combination of wealth and bitter misanthropy. Alcibiades, the first to appear, initially seems sympathetic to Timon's plight. He offers both a listening ear and some financial help to get Timon back out of poverty. Worried Timon's cynicism is a symptom of mental instability, he even makes a weak attempt to talk him out of his hatred for humankind. Yet when Timon reveals part of his stash of gold, Alcibiades promptly becomes silent and lets Timon rant uninterrupted. Alcibiades, ultimately, is more interested in the gold than in Timon's state of mind. The concubines, Phrynia and Timandra, are likewise unwilling to put up with Timon's ravings until he literally starts throwing money at them.

Apemantus might seem less corrupted by Timon's gold, for he has no interest in wealth. Certainly Apemantus is consistent in his commitment to poverty, yet he also shows a darker side in this scene than in any prior appearance. For one thing, an ugly pride emerges when he berates Timon for "affect[ing] my manners"—that is, copying Apemantus's behavior. It's as though there's room for only one misanthropic philosopher in Athens, and Apemantus is worried about being put out of his "position" as hater of the population. He smugly insists Timon is simply pretending to be a misanthrope—though why he would pretend is never clear. Smugness, however, isn't the worst Apemantus has to offer in this scene. When he leaves the stage, he makes a cruel jab at Timon by threatening to tell everyone about his stash of gold. Timon has made it clear he wishes to be alone, but Apemantus viciously guarantees that will never happen. His decision to spread the word about the gold is, arguably, part of what may soon drive Timon into an early grave.

Only toward the end of the scene do the playwrights offer a counterpoint to Alcibiades's greed and Apemantus's vindictiveness. The banditti are, paradoxically, reformed by Timon because they see him as a caricature of themselves. His obsession with death and destruction makes them—the death and destruction "specialists"—feel bad about their own line of work. The real hero of the scene, however, is the honest and loyal Flavius. He alone seems totally immune to the temptation either to take Timon's money or to kick him while he's down. Yet at this point, Timon is too far gone for Flavius's actions to have much practical impact. The audience may feel better knowing one honest man is left in Athens, but Timon must be surely beyond help.

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