Timon of Athens | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Timon of Athens | Symbols

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Gold

Gold is a potent symbol for Timon. To him it represents what is wrong with Athenian society and with humankind in general. Before he loses his fortune and exiles himself from Athens, Timon hardly gives a second thought to gold except insofar as he can use it to do favors for his friends. After his self-exile, however, Timon's eyes are opened to the insidious way in which gold twists, changes, and controls people.

When Timon first encounters the stash of buried gold in Act 4, Scene 3, he is full of mocking disdain for the metal because all he wants are some plant roots to eat. Nevertheless Timon is bitterly aware of gold's power to "make / Black white, foul fair, wrong right, / Base noble, old young, coward valiant"—in other words, to make people act in a manner contrary to their natural instincts. He goes on to describe gold's capacity to make people change religions, win thieves a place in the senate, and induce young bachelors to marry "wappened" (worn-out) widows.

A further characteristic of Timon's "gold rant" is his use of personification. For him, gold is not merely the currency of the bawdy-house and the backroom deal, it is itself a "whore," a "slave," and a "strong thief." In using these terms Timon suggests gold has a life of its own (like the power and life of money in general: it goes places seemingly of its own accord and is never fully under the control of its supposed owners. He also suggests gold, in its capacity to seduce (as a "whore") or flatter (as a "slave"), robs human beings of their agency and comes to act on their behalf. Going just a bit further, one might say that gold, for Timon, warps the usual laws of nature, or at least of human nature. Ugly plus gold equals beautiful; wrong plus gold equals right.

At first Timon is content merely to scoff at the gold and its seemingly magical power to control people. Yet he soon finds himself tempted by his secret wealth, if not in the way one might anticipate. He becomes enamored of gold's ability to transform others while he continues to live in self-righteous poverty and seclusion. He does not want to return to his old, false life in Athens, for the allure of fine clothes and sumptuous food no longer has any hold over him. His cynical heart leaps, however, at the chance to control other people again. Before, when he gave lavish gifts to his followers, Timon believed he was simply upholding the ideals of brotherhood and friendship. The unexpected trove of gold offers Timon a chance to reap a second, bitterer kind of enjoyment from his wealth.

Worse yet, the Athenians he encounters—except Flavius—are happy to prove Timon right. Gold, or at least the promise of gold, does transform them. Alcibiades goes from a concerned friend to a mercenary, while his concubines Phrynia and Timandra go from sharp tongued to docile. The banditti give up their day job partly because Timon makes crime seem so ugly but partly because they no longer "need" the money. Apemantus, like Timon, is personally uninterested in gold, but he is willing to use the knowledge of Timon's wealth to make his life miserable. Finally, in Act 5, Scene 1, the poet and the painter reveal themselves to be "slaves" for gold, willing to promise Timon a masterpiece in the hope he will pay in advance.

Water

If gold is the central symbol of corruption in Timon of Athens, water is the main image of purity, particularly the purity that accompanies poverty. Instances of water symbolism in the play are, for the most part, subtle in comparison to the heaps of gold in Act 4. Considered as a group, however, the water images in Timon point to the possibility of a simpler life, with flattery and falsehood stripped away.

Water first appears in two major forms: as a drink (contrasted with wine) and as the stuff of which tears are made. In the first banquet scene (Act 1, Scene 2) Timon's love for his guests is so pure and sincere he cannot get through his speech without tearing up. "Mine eyes cannot hold out water," he declares. Apemantus, cynic that he is, scoffs at this display, but nothing suggests Timon is being insincere. He isn't verging on bawling for dramatic effect but is simply a sentimental, and perhaps at this point somewhat tipsy, fellow. His tears reflect the purity of his conviction he is blessed with many devoted friends. Unfortunately, strongly held as it may be, Timon's belief does not reflect reality.

Water is also present at Apemantus's table, where it fulfills a more mundane function. From the start of the play, the surly Apemantus sees water as the best drink because, unlike wine, it does not intoxicate the mind. Water, he says, "is too weak to be a sinner" and "ne'er left man i' th' mire." That is, nobody ever fell into the mud—literally or physically—as a result of drinking water. Its simplicity is its virtue.

Originally a great giver of toasts, Timon later comes to share this opinion. Part of what drives him to bankruptcy are the vast quantities of wine he dispenses at his feasts, including the one dramatized in Act 1, Scene 2. At his second "banquet," however (Act 3, Scene 6), he serves water as a symbol of his newfound poverty. Because Timon's "friends" were happy to drink his wine when he was rich, he reasons, they should be happy to drink water with him now. Even in this sarcastic display, however, the water retains its connotations of purity and renewal. Splashing it hot and steaming into his guests' faces, Timon declares he is "wash[ing]" away all the flatteries they have attempted to heap upon him.

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