Timon of Athens | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Timon of Athens | Act 5, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

The poet and painter from Act 1 have made their way to the woods where Timon lives. Because Timon now is rumored to be "full of gold," they regard previous reports of his poverty as a ruse. He is testing them, they think, to see who is truly his friend. Accordingly they have now come to offer him their talents in hopes of getting a reward for their loyalty. Neither one has a new work to present to him, but they hope he will be satisfied with "promises" of their good "intent."

As the two artists converse, Timon sneaks out of a nearby cave and listens to them unseen. He laughs cynically to himself about the "god"-like power of gold, which draws flatterers to "worship" wherever it is found. He then steps forward and, as predicted, the two artists fawn over him, voicing pity for his mistreatment by his "thankless" friends. Timon plays along, pretending to admire the two artists' talents. Finally, however, he angrily chases them offstage without giving them any sought-after gold and then returns to his cave.

Flavius now enters, accompanied by two Athenian senators. They have come to ask Timon to return to Athens and help defend it against Alcibiades. Flavius warns the senators their apology will be too little, too late. When Timon reemerges from his cave, he is indeed harsh to the senators: he wishes a plague on Athens and refuses their offer of "recompense" for his suffering. I care not, he says, "if Alcibiades kill my countrymen." He then tempts the senators by promising to reveal a way "to prevent wild Alcibiades's wrath." As the senators eagerly listen, he tells them that whoever wants to prevent further suffering should come into the woods and hang himself. Disgusted, the senators leave with Flavius. Timon, prophesying his own imminent death, sets about writing an inscription for his gravestone.

Analysis

This is another scene that parallels an earlier moment in the play, providing a dramatically ironic "Before" and "After" picture. The "Before" in this case is all the way back in Act 1, Scene 1, where the poet, painter, and others have gathered to pay tribute to Timon. In that scene the poet and the painter are all smiles as they discuss the works they will dedicate to the "bountiful" Athenian lord. A reward of some kind is clearly on their minds, as they talk about the "magic of bounty" (generosity) that has brought them all to attend on Timon. Yet they restrain themselves from seeming too greedy in front of Timon, who is flattered to be the subject of their works. So far as he can tell, they are making him the subject of their art because they admire him. It is only natural for him to repay this kind gesture with patronage of some kind.

Now, however, the situation is different. Although human nature is still the same, the efforts to disguise it are wearing thin. In their chat at the beginning of the scene, the poet and the painter are baldly mercenary. No longer hinting and joking about Timon's "bountifulness" as they did in Act 1, here they candidly speak of their intentions to carve out a share of Timon's fortune by seeming to sympathize with him. Timon, who has grown at least a little wiser in the intervening acts of the play, is no longer flattered by their gifts, though he pretends to be. Instead he is amused by their cynical attempts to exploit his status as a rich (so they think) but friendless man. Similarly he manages to get a bitter laugh at the expense of the senators by pretending to have some military advice for them. From Timon's point of view it serves them right, for only greed and desperation have led them to seek him out and apologize.

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