Timon of Athens | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Timon of Athens | Act 5, Scene 4 | Summary

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Summary

Alcibiades and his army have made their way to the walls of Athens. He orders his troops to sound a trumpet, signaling his wish to talk with the Athenian leaders. Two senators appear on the walls, and Alcibiades berates them for having abused their power, "making [their] wills / the scope of justice." The two senators protest they have tried to make things right both with Alcibiades and with Timon: "We were not all unkind, nor all deserve / the common stroke of war." They offer to let Alcibiades into the city without a fight if he will content himself with killing only "those that have offended." Alcibiades throws down his glove as a sign of good faith, agreeing to enforce justice in Athens strictly but fairly.

The soldier from Act 5, Scene 3 enters, bringing with him the inscription from Timon's tomb. Its words move Alcibiades to pity for Timon's fate, and he resolves to bring order to Athens by using a combination of order—"war"—and diplomacy—"peace." The army strikes up its drums, and all march into the city in a somber conclusion.

Analysis

When the senators say "we were not all unkind," they are making a desperate attempt to save their skins. Some of them, it's true, may have disagreed with Alcibiades's banishment, just as some of them, selfishly, tried to make peace with Timon earlier in Act 5. It may even be the case that a few senators somehow managed to get Alcibiades banished without the involvement of the others. The historically real Athens in this period had no "senate" as such, so it's hard to say who is and who isn't supposed to be guilty here. Without a doubt, however, it was the senate as a group that refused to grant Timon even a modest amount of aid in repaying his debts. It is hard not to see this refusal as an "unkindness," one that contributed to the miserable death of Alcibiades's friend and former benefactor.

Alcibiades isn't stupid, either. He knows the senators—including the ones now pleading for their lives—are a rotten bunch. But he also knows the cycle of bloodshed cannot continue forever. Like Timon he may have given in to his feelings of vindictiveness and wounded pride in Act 4. Unlike Timon, however, Alcibiades has lived long enough to have those feelings cool off somewhat. As he approaches the city in this scene, he has already set aside thoughts of simply pillaging the place. Instead, more reasonably looking ahead, he promises to fulfill a "noble" purpose by ridding Athens of corruption, though as the curtain falls his success is far from certain. And the long-term impact on human, not political, nature is surely open to question.

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