Timon of Athens | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Timon of Athens | Quotes

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1.

I wonder men dare trust themselves with men.


Apemantus, Act 1, Scene 2

At the beginning of the play, Apemantus's hatred and distrust of other people contrast strongly with Timon's trusting and generous nature. By Act 3, however, Timon will come to share Apemantus's surprise that anyone trusts anyone at all.

2.

O, that men's ears should be / To counsel deaf, but not to flattery!


Apemantus, Act 1, Scene 2

Apemantus has a slightly different take on Timon's troubles than do most of his friends and servants. From his point of view, Timon's underlying problem is his willingness to listen to flattery but not to counsel, or advice. Flattery, of course, is much more pleasant than the kind of sharp-tongued advice Apemantus doles out. Yet the flatterers are merely using Timon, whereas those like Flavius who have Timon's best interests at heart are willing to tell it like it is.

3.

[I] must not break my back to heal his finger.


Senators, Act 2, Scene 2

This rationalization starts out sounding innocent and practical enough. The unnamed senator in this scene simply wants to collect his debts from Timon before other creditors begin mobbing him. Otherwise he may never get his money back. Because this is a substantial loan, it would "break" the senator's "back" not to be able to recover his money.

Yet this same line of reasoning rapidly deteriorates into flimsy, craven excuses. As Timon's creditors begin to call in their debts, he asks his friends for a tiny amount of money relative to what he owes. Not one of them comes to his aid. As it turns out they are unwilling quite literally to lift the smallest finger to help Timon, let alone break their backs.

4.

Never mind / Was to be so unwise to be so kind.


Flavius, Act 2, Scene 2

Like many Shakespearean servants, Flavius has a shrewder understanding of life than his master appears to possess. Although Timon seems to feel good about giving away expensive presents, Flavius is the one who balances the household books. His contact with practical reality—debts incurred, bills unpaid—helps him understand just how "unwise" Timon is being with his money. Unfortunately, by the time this message gets through to Timon the latter is already bankrupt.

5.

Ne'er speak or think / That Timon's fortunes 'mong his friends can sink.


Timon, Act 2, Scene 2

For Timon at this early point in the play the very idea of being abandoned by his friends is too absurd to mention. Even more troubling is Timon's declaration that such a thought is not only unspeakable but also unthinkable. In saying so, he is walling himself off from the unpleasant reality that others are not as loyal and principled as he.

Timon's effort to banish uncomfortable truths, such as his own poverty and his friends' fecklessness, is a recurring problem in Acts 1 and 2. Flavius tries to warn him, but it's difficult to warn a person who refuses even to "think" about what could go wrong. Timon's willing blindness toward his friends' behavior is a major contributor to his downfall in Act 3.

6.

Let molten coin be thy damnation, / Thou disease of a friend and not himself!


Flaminius, Act 3, Scene 1

Flaminius—not to be confused with the more important character Flavius—here shows his loyalty to Timon after Lucullus has denied him money. In Flaminius's view, friends who refuse to help one another are not really friends but a kind of parasitical "disease" that feeds on friendship.

Interestingly, "disease" later becomes one of Timon's favorite images for describing corrupt Athenian society. What is true about Lucullus, Timon later says, is true of Athens in general.

7.

I am so much endeared to that lord; he's ever sending.


Lucius, Act 3, Scene 2

Before he receives the bad news, Lucius believes what most Athenians want to believe. He views Timon as an endless supply of gifts, "ever sending" but never making demands of his own. In this scene he is crestfallen to realize Timon hasn't sent any gifts this time. Lucius, however, is sly enough to think of a reason he can't send Timon money of his own.

8.

Now all are fled, / Save only the gods.


Servants, Act 3, Scene 3

In this scene Timon's unnamed servant is at least the fourth person to seek money on behalf of his bankrupt master. Flaminius has failed, Servilius has failed, and somewhere offstage another servant has failed. Having heard about everyone else's refusal to lend Timon money, this servant aptly concludes Timon's friends are "fleeing" from him.

The word fled is particularly appropriate here because of the suddenness with which Timon's friends abandon him. From their speed in avoiding him, one might think him a criminal or bearer of some contagious disease. In fact he is something much worse to their selfish nature: a man in need of a favor.

9.

If 'twill not serve, 'tis not so base as you, / For you serve knaves.


Flavius, Act 3, Scene 4

As he leaves Timon's estate after having been let go, Flavius is accosted by servants representing Timon's creditors. Even though Timon is no longer his employer, Flavius cannot resist the opportunity to tell them off. It is "base," he says—abject and demeaning—for them to serve such dishonest and dishonorable men.

What makes the creditors "knaves," in Flavius's view, is their willingness to look the other way while Timon was holding feasts and giving gifts. They call Timon to account only when he stopped spending on them. This is the same sort of hypocrisy Lucullus displays in Act 3, when he praises Timon's generosity before immediately criticizing his lavish spending.

10.

O thou wall / That girdles in those wolves, dive in the earth / And fence not Athens!


Timon, Act 4, Scene 1

Timon begins his long speech against Athens with the image of a wall, the defining border between a city and the outside world, especially in the ancient world where walls were vital for countless reasons of definition and security. In wishing for the wall's collapse, Timon wishes for the collapse of all those structures—legal and social as well as physical—that protect and define Athens. He proceeds to heap curses on Athenian law, religion, and customs, each of which might provide some comfort or order to the corrupt citizens. Ultimately, he says, he will not be content until total chaos and panic reign in Athens.

11.

Yet do our hearts wear Timon's livery.


Servants, Act 4, Scene 2

The situational irony of Timon's suffering is underscored by his poor and powerless servants remaining loyal and his rich friends abandoning him. In other words, those who are most able to repay his kindness are least willing to do so.

Livery is a servant's uniform. In Shakespeare's day the servants of different noble houses had distinctive liveries to show who employed them. Thus the nameless servant in this line is saying, "I'm still loyal to Timon even though he can't afford to pay me anymore." In later scenes Flavius exemplifies this loyalty by leaving Athens to seek out his former master.

12.

I am Misanthropos and hate mankind.


Timon, Act 4, Scene 3

A misanthrope is someone who generally hates or distrusts others. Timon fits the definition so perfectly he uses the word in place of his own name. This is, to be sure, an over-the-top gesture, a little like calling oneself "Sir Hates-a-Lot." Yet it goes to show how completely misanthropy has replaced other aspects of Timon's identity. He is now as invested in hating people as, in Act 1, he was in helping them, and he will die in this extreme condition without any compromise or softening that might make life possible to continue.

13.

What a god's gold / That he is worshiped in a baser temple / Than where swine feed!


Timon, Act 5, Scene 1

Even at this late juncture, Timon is still bitterly surprised and amused at how low people will sink for gold. The "temple" he refers to here is, literally, his own crude seaside dwelling in exile. But the "base temple" may also be the mind of a person like the poet or the painter. These figures are "base" (ignoble and unprincipled) because each is willing to sell his art to the richest patron he can find. They purport to be honoring Timon when really they are "worshipping" the gold they believe he has to give them.

14.

Commend me to my loving countrymen.


Timon, Act 5, Scene 1

Bereft of real comfort in life, Timon decides to play along with those who seek him out. When the senators ask him to return to Athens and lead their defense of the city, he pretends to consider their offer. In giving them a message to take back to Athens, he addresses it sarcastically to his "loving countrymen." The joke is, as far as Timon is concerned, there are no loving countrymen—only parasites and sycophants. "Commend me to my loving countrymen," when uttered by Timon, is full of verbal irony in referring to something he knows does not exist.

15.

Some beast read this; there does not live a man.


Soldier, Act 5, Scene 3

The hapless soldier who comes to Timon's cave finds a gravesite instead of a dwelling. Reading Timon's epitaph aloud, he shows the audience Timon was misanthropic to the very last. There are no real "men" left in the world, Timon's bitter joke goes, so only beasts will survive to read the writing on his grave.

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