Timon of Athens | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Timon of Athens | Themes

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Loyalty

In Timon's Athens, loyalty is hard to find. Many people pretend to be loyal—from the poet and painter who offer Timon their works to the lords and senators who offer him their friendship. But the loyalty of all these is, as Timon's steward Flavius puts it, "feast-won, fast-lost." By giving them money and jewels, by holding lavish banquets, and awarding costly prizes to his followers, Timon has not really won their admiration, respect, or friendship. Rather he has won their temporary attention and aroused their greed for more.

Some of the other Athenians candidly admit they are using Timon for his "bounty," as when the unnamed senator in Act 2, Scene 1 declares, "If I want gold, steal but a beggar's dog / And give it [to] Timon, why, the dog coins gold." From this man's widely held point of view, Timon is like a kind of walking philosopher's stone, multiplying whatever riches are sent his way. This casts a pall over the gifts sent to Timon in Act 1, which now begin to look more like bribes. The ambitious people of Athens may love giving Timon gifts, including expensive presents like horses and greyhounds. They do so, however, not out of real generosity but because they know he will respond predictably with an even more lavish gift. When Timon's seemingly magical gift-giving capacity is depleted, they dump him with astonishing speed.

About halfway through the play, Timon finally realizes his followers are "summer birds," willing to flock to him in the warm weather of ease and plenty but eager to depart as soon as the "chill" of poverty sets in. What makes this realization so bitter for Timon is something the audience has been aware of all along but which he has ignored. Flavius has tried to warn him as early as Act 1, Scene 2 and then again in Act 2, Scene 2 with his "feast-won" speech. Apemantus, whose advice is certainly a bitter pill to swallow, has been warning Timon about the disloyalty of his followers since the opening scene. His cautionary words are particularly sharp in Act 1, Scene 2 where he likens Timon's guests to cannibals and murderers: "O you gods, / what a number of men eats Timon, and he sees 'em / not! It grieves me to see so many dip their meat in / one man's blood; / and all the madness is, he cheers / them up too. / I wonder men dare trust themselves with men."

There is, however, one exception to the general atmosphere of disloyalty in Timon. As if to deliver a double dose of dramatic irony, Flavius himself is shown as the only character genuinely loyal to his employer. All Timon's rich friends—the senators, the moneylenders, the lords—spurn him as soon as his bankruptcy is known. To them he is only as good as his capacity to give presents. Flavius, in contrast, deliberately seeks Timon out in Act 4 and offers to help him in whatever way he can. He is not rich or powerful, merely loyal. His sincerity devastates Timon, who has already given up on humanity and pronounces Flavius the "singly honest man." At this point, however, Timon's capacity to trust is so damaged he must wonder whether Flavius, too, is merely pretending to be kind.

Misanthropy

The first known dramatic work to feature Timon refers to him as the Misanthrope, meaning "people-hater." Coming from this tradition of unexplained motivation, Shakespeare and Middleton's play begins at an earlier, happier time in Timon's life. In Act 1 he is not only not misanthropic but is downright philanthropic—a do-gooder, literally a "lover of people." He doesn't stay that way for long, however.

What brings about the 180-degree change in Timon's worldview? The simple answer is Timon is a man betrayed. His friends pretend to be loyal to him when in fact they are loyal to his wealth. Consequently Timon's faith in humanity is so deeply shaken he becomes the opposite of what he was before. Formerly a generous, sentimental man, he pivots into an embittered recluse who chases people away with stones.

The completeness with which Timon embodies this misanthropy in fact makes Timon of Athens awkward to stage, interesting though it may be to read. From the midpoint of Act 3 onward, the play is constantly devolving into long speeches whose main goal is to dramatize Timon's hatred of everyone else. The opening scene of Act 4, for example, consists of 40 consecutive lines of curses piled upon Timon's former home of Athens. Hamlet, by comparison, gets through his entire "To be or not to be" soliloquy in 30. In Act 4, Scene 3 Timon interrupts his people-hating rant only to engage in dialogue with other characters—and even the dialogue eventually comes around to a misanthropic theme. "Be as a planetary plague," he instructs Alcibiades before ordering the general to kill—in no particular order—old men, married women, young virgins, babies, and priests. Understandably several of the other characters that encounter Timon in this scene assume he is not merely angry but insane.

Timon does not, however, arrive at his misanthropic worldview without help. Throughout the play, and apparently for some time prior, Timon has been followed around by Apemantus, the Cynic philosopher. In Act 1 Apemantus is already notoriously misanthropic, so much so that other characters generally steer clear of him. They see him as an "unpeaceable dog" whose unpleasant manners are worsened only by his tendency to spout uncomfortable opinions about his neighbors. Timon, however, tolerates Apemantus's presence out of the same philanthropic spirit that leads him to give away horses and gemstones. Consequently he gets exposed to small but recurring doses of Apemantus's misanthropy. Thus when he finally is betrayed in Act 3, Timon has a ready-made ideology with which to understand what is going on around him: "So, he can now say. Apemantus was right: people really are terrible and dishonest." In adopting Apemantus's worldview, however, Timon merely trades one simplistic perspective ("everyone's great!") for another ("everyone's awful!"). The middle ground, a realistic assessment of people's faults and virtues, never occurs to him as a possibility.

Fortune

Timon views his descent into poverty as the result of misplaced trust and disloyal friends. That's not the only way to analyze his situation, however. As the poet points out in Act 1, Scene 1, Timon's fortunes were bound to take a downward turn sooner or later: what goes up must come down. This idea is captured by the classical "Wheel of Fortune" image: when one reaches the top of the wheel's revolution, there's nowhere to go but back toward the bottom.

Focusing on fortune, as the poet does, makes it clear nothing is inherently special or even good about Timon. He happens to have been lucky, and he enjoys living and acting well toward others. Or, to use the poet's more elaborate terms, Fortune's "present grace"—her favor for the moment—draws Timon upward to his exalted position. This same "grace" also "translates [Timon's] rivals" into slaves and servants, making them his inferiors and dependents rather than his peers. This detail—the subordination of Timon's "rivals" into "slaves"—makes it easier to understand why his supposed friends flock to him at first only to abandon him later. Underneath all the toasting and well-wishing is the sense Timon has done nothing particularly noble to deserve his luxurious lifestyle. Human nature being what it is, some people might even resent Timon's riches and the dependency those riches create. Apemantus warns Timon about this tendency, but, as already seen, Apemantus's misanthropic warnings have an almost magical capacity to go unheeded.

The term fortune continues to be used throughout Timon of Athens to mean both "luck" and "wealth." What's missing from most of the play, however, is a recognition of the capricious and changing nature of fortune—the very attributes represented by Lady Fortune in the poet's speech. Because Timon sees his "fortune" (with a lowercase f) as a given, he fails to guard himself sufficiently against the changes that Fortune has in store for him.

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