Timon of Athens

by: William Shakespeare


Timon is an ambiguous figure, however. When he leaves Athens, he declares that mankind can be reduced to greed for money and nothing else. But do we agree with him entirely? Or is response out of proportion with the actual slights he has suffered? Timon begins the play as a generous but foolish man, and appears to end it as an angry and foolish man. He storms out of the city because of the cruel behavior of a few men, taking them as a sign of the rottenness of all humanity. Yet people seem to line up outside his cave to prove otherwise.

Flavius, who echoes Timon's generosity by sharing his remaining funds with Timon's servants, proves himself an honorable man in Timon's eyes. Apemantus and Timon seem to argue, yet at base they also seem to enjoy each other's company. And Alcibiades, in a subplot involving a condemned friend which may have been one of the casualties of an un-revised play, prepares to attack Athens in order to rehabilitate Timon's honor in the city. If so many people like Timon, including the senate, who seeks to lure him back to Athens, then can his insistence that mankind is evil be thoroughly justified?

In fact, after Timon dies, and Alcibiades arrives at the gates of Athens, the senators use an interesting argument to try to convince him not to attack. They explain that those who were cruel to Timon and to Alcibiades make up only a small portion of the population, and will be easy to single out and punish. So the play concludes with the suggestion that villainy is not a universal phenomenon, as Timon thought, but one apparently limited to Timon's greedy friends.

Hence we are left with an inconsistent message. The hero, if Timon is that, makes bad decisions when he has great wealth (to take loans in order to give gifts), and he makes bad decisions when he loses his money (to leave the city and curse humanity). He hardly has time within his extreme behavior to learn anything, and he dies before he can begin to find a mean between his various strong reactions. Does Timon's plight teach us to distrust generosity, as we have seen its recipients are ungrateful flatterers? Is the play against friendship, showing Timon's acquaintances to be largely driven by greed?

Both questions can be answered positively, yet proof for the opposite also exists. For example, Flavius, a lower class man, genuinely appreciates Timon's generosity and offers his friendship. But does that support the point that only a few bad eggs in Athens turned against Timon, while really most people are kinder than that? The numbers don't prove anything; three of Timon's friends deny him loans, and three men visit him in the wilderness to try to connect with him in various ways. Does that prove one point or the other? Or neither? Timon was unable to take a middle path, but interpretation of this play must. The conclusion, like Timon's behavior, seems largely ambiguous.

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