Timon of Athens focuses doggedly on one main topic at the exclusion of almost all others: does money buy friendship? Is material well-being inextricably linked to ties of love and friendship?
Timon is wealthier than all his friends, and he enjoys sharing his bounty. His "friends" seem to include a whole set of people who stick around to see how long his bounty can possibly last. He can easily fill a feast with people who appear to be fond of him. Yet do they merely hang around because they hope he will give them gifts, and because they enjoy eating his food for free? Apemantus seems to think that Timon's friends are all worthless flatterers, yet he too hangs around, admittedly without eating or accepting gifts. Timon's wealth is particularly unique; his generosity seems to benefit from an almost magical bounty which he seems to be able to expend without end, which maintains itself without effort at new acquisition. Yet not forever. He must mortgage his lands to pay for gifts and his feasts and borrow money from his friends to buy them gifts.
And for what? Apparently Timon likes their affection and the thanks he receives from his friends when he helps them. But he doesn't give gifts out of a desire for a return; rather, he acquires status merely by spending. If anything, he believes his generous gifts solidify his friendship with the various Athenian lords who surround him. Timon relies on a system of intangible bonds, which he is astonished to see fall to pieces when he needs loans from his friends. Unlike Timon, they all refuse to lend him money on the basis of his friendship alone.
Apemantus's commentary contrasts with Timon's idealistic beliefs. Apemantus provides his point of view throughout the banquet scene, and he takes the opposite tack of Timon at every stage. He believes people are naturally greedy and villainous, not generous; he thinks generosity is not a mark of sociability but an effort to influence others and gain a return later. Yet both men's beliefs circle around the idea that one's possessions, or lack thereof, determine one's interactions in society and the way one thinks of oneself.
Exchanges of commodities are the only transactions in this play. In fact money is the only thing that seems to have any power of reproduction (some of the lords mull over Timon's money and its ability to magically reproduce). Financial exchanges between men overwhelm this play, where no women have any significant role. Hence exchanges of money take on a certain perverse or depraved role, standing in for absent heterosexual relations. Similarly the play draws on the ancient portrait of usury as a depraved form of unnatural "breeding" of money for interest.
Timon's reaction to his fall is a curious one. Like many of Shakespeare's heroes, Timon is a self-absorbed character, who must learn a lesson in order to grow as a person and carry on. Yet he fails in this task, going simply from one extreme behavior to another. In the beginning, he isolates himself from the other Athenian lords by setting himself up as a god of generosity. Later when he loses his money, he isolates himself in the wilderness and curses mankind with enthusiasm equal to that with which he praised it previously. Even after his sense of the innate kindness of friendliness human nature has proven false, Timon's egocentrism remains solid as a rock, and the sense of his separateness remains. He dies alone, even managing to bury himself and carve his own epitaph.
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.