Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1366
The Athens house of Timon, a wealthy lord of the city, is the scene of much coming and going. Poets, artists, artisans, merchants, politicians, and well-wishers in general seek the friendship and favors of a man whose generosity knows no bounds. While waiting to speak to Timon, a poet discloses his vision to an artist: Timon is depicted as the darling of Dame Fortune, and his friends and acquaintances spare no effort in admiring his favored position. The vision continues; Fortune turns and Timon tumbles into penury, his friends doing nothing to comfort him.
Timon joins the crowd of suitors in his reception chamber. When a messenger reports that Ventidius, his friend, was jailed for a debt, Timon promises to pay the debt and to support Ventidius until he becomes solvent again. An old man complains that one of Timon’s servants stole the heart of his only daughter. Timon promises to match the girl’s dowry with an equal sum. Then he receives the poet and the painter and the jeweler graciously, accepting their shameless flattery. Apemantus, a crudely candid friend, declares broadly that these flatterers and seekers of bounty are a pack of knaves. Alcibiades, a great military leader, comes with a troop of followers to dine with Timon. As all prepare to feast at Timon’s bounteous table, Apemantus curses them roundly.
A great feast is served to the accompaniment of music. Ventidius, freed from jail, offers to repay the money spent on his behalf, but Timon declares that friendship will not allow him to accept Ventidius’s money. When Apemantus warns Timon that men will readily slay the man whose food and drink they consume, Timon expresses his gratitude at having so many friends with which to share his generosity. He wishes, however, that he might be poorer so that these good friends might know the joy of sharing their largess with him. Timon’s eyes fill with tears, so overcome is he by the sentiments of friendship, as a group of costumed Athenian ladies present lavish gifts to him from men of wealth. Timon then presents rich gifts to his departing friends. Flavius, his steward, observes that his master’s infinite generosity almost emptied his coffers. Timon tells Apemantus that he will give him gifts, too, if he will cease railing at these felicities of friendship.
Before long Timon is reduced to insolvency and to near beggary. A senator to whom he owes a great sum of money sends his servant to collect. Other servants of Timon’s creditors also gather in front of his house. Timon, who never gave Flavius a chance to explain that he, Timon, has no more money, asks the steward the reason for the crowd outside. When Flavius tells him the truth, Timon orders the sale of all of his lands. Flavius discloses that his lands are already sold or mortgaged. Refusing to share Flavius’s alarm, Timon declares that he now has a chance to test his friends. He directs his servants to borrow money from Lucius, Lucullus, and Sempronius; the servants are then to go to the senators and borrow more. Flavius discloses that he already tried without success to borrow from these sources. Timon makes excuses for them, however, and suggests that the servants try Ventidius, who recently came into a large fortune.
The servant who goes to Lucullus is told that times are difficult and that Timon’s friendship alone is not sufficient security for a loan. When Lucullus offers the servant a bribe to say that he was unable to see Lucullus, the horrified servant throws down the bribe money and departs in disgust. Lucius claims that he, needing money, hoped to borrow from Timon. A third servant goes to Sempronius. Upon learning that Lucullus, Lucius, and even Ventidius deny Timon loans, Sempronius pretends to be hurt that Timon did not send to him first, and he also refuses.
As Timon continues to be importuned by his creditors’ servants, he goes out in a rage and bids them cut out of his heart what he owes their masters. Still enraged, he directs Flavius to invite all of his creditors to a feast. Alcibiades, meanwhile, pleads in the senate for the remission of the death sentence on a veteran soldier who committed murder. The senators, deaf to arguments that the man killed in self-defense, persist in their decision. When Alcibiades continues to plea, the senators sentence him, on pain of death, to be banished from Athens.
At Timon’s house, tables are arranged as though for a great banquet. Apologizing profusely for being unable to honor his requests for money, Timon’s guests appear at his house expecting a lavish banquet. When Timon bids them eat, however, they discover that the covered dishes are filled only with warm water. Timon then curses them, throws the water in their faces, and drives them out of his house.
Now a confirmed misanthrope, Timon leaves Athens. For the moment he focuses all of his hatred on Athens and its citizens, but he predicts that his curses will eventually encompass all humanity. Flavius, meanwhile, announces to his fellow servants that their service in Timon’s house comes to an end. After sharing what little money he has with his fellows, Flavius pockets his remaining money and declares his intentions of seeking out his old master.
One day Timon, who is living in a cave near the seashore, digs for roots and discovers gold. As he is cursing the earth for producing this root of all evil, Alcibiades appears, accompanied by his two mistresses. Timon curses the three and tells them to leave him. When Alcibiades discloses that he is on his way to besiege Athens, Timon gives him gold and wishes him every success. He also gives the two women gold, after exhorting them to infect the minds and bodies of all men with whom they come in contact. When Alcibiades and his troops march away, Timon continues to dig roots for his dinner.
Apemantus appears to rail at Timon for going to the opposite extreme from that which caused his downfall. He declares that wild nature is as cruel as men, that Timon, therefore, would do well to return to Athens and flatter men who are still favored by fortune. After Apemantus leaves, a band of cutthroats, having heard that Timon possesses a great store of gold, goes to the cave. When they tell Timon that they are destitute, he throws gold at them and orders them to practice their malign art in Athens. So bitter are Timon’s words that they leave him, determined to abandon all violence.
Flavius, finding the cave, weeps at the pitiful state to which his master has fallen. Timon, at first rude to his faithful steward, is almost overcome by Flavius’s tears. He gives Flavius gold, wishes him well, and admonishes him to succor only dogs.
After reports of Timon’s newly found wealth reaches Athens, the poet and the painter go to his cave. Timon greets them sarcastically, praises them for their honesty, and gives them gold to use in destroying other sycophants and flatterers. Flavius returns, accompanied by two senators, who apologize for the great wrongs done to Timon and offer to lend him any amount of money he might desire. They also promise him command of the Athenian forces in the struggle against Alcibiades; Timon, however, curses both Athens and Alcibiades. His prescription to the Athenians for ending their troubles is that they come to the shore and hang themselves on a tree near his cave. When he retreats into his cave, the senators, knowing their mission fruitless, return to Athens.
In Athens, the senators beg Alcibiades to spare the city because its importance transcends the petty griefs of an Alcibiades or a Timon. Alcibiades agrees to spare Athens only on the condition that those who offended Timon and him should be punished. As the city gates open to the besiegers, a messenger reports that Timon is dead. Alcibiades reads Timon’s epitaph, copied by the messenger. It reaffirms Timon’s hatred of humanity and expresses his desire that no one pause at his grave.
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