Act 1, scene 1
Timon of Athens begins with a gathering at the wealthy Timon’s house in ancient Athens. Four characters enter: a Poet, a Painter, a Jeweller, and a Merchant. The Jeweler and the Merchant agree on what a fine man Timon is, and the Jeweler mentions that he has a piece of jewelry with him which he hopes to sell to Timon. The Poet is about to have a book published, and the Painter assumes that it must be about or dedicated to Timon. The Painter has with him a flattering portrait of Timon, and the Poet praises it.
Some Senators enter, and the house becomes crowded. The Poet explains to the Painter what his new publication is about. He has depicted a man like Timon, who is rich and is generous to everyone. Everyone seeks out Timon’s company and returns the richer for it. The poet also has described the figure of Fortune sitting on a throne at the summit of a hill. Timon is the recipient of her grace. But Fortune is fickle, and when she turns against Timon, and he falls, none of those who formerly were dependent on his favor offers him any help. The Painter agrees that such turns of fortune are common.
Timon enters and speaks courteously to everyone. A messenger from Ventidius says that Ventidius is in prison for debt, and Timon pays the five talents needed to free him.
An Old Athenian enters, saying that Lucilius, a servant of Timon, has been courting his daughter and wants to marry her. He is opposed to the match because he thinks a servant is an unsuitable match for his daughter. Timon asks some questions of the servant and finds out that he and the girl are in love, and that she has accepted his proposal. Timon then says that he will bestow some money on his servant, equal to the amount of her dowry (whatever wealth she brings to her husband). The Old Athenian is grateful and says he will allow the match.
Timon then turns to the Poet and the Painter. The Painter asks Timon to accept his work, and Timon says he likes it. He tells the Painter to wait until he hears further from him. Timon exchanges some good-natured remarks with the Jeweller, saying that the item the Jeweler has for sale has been so praised by others that it wouldruin his finances to purchase it.
The churlish Athenian Apemantus enters and engages Timon in conversation. Apemantus expresses his negative view of humanity, saying that not a single man is honest. Apemantus and the Painter exchange insults, and then Apemantus calls the Poet a liar, meaning that his poetry does not show the truth. He claims that the Poet’s positive depiction of his subject in his last work (perhaps the work the Poet earlier discussed with Timon) was only a piece of flattery.
The soldier Alcibiades enters. Timon welcomes him and promises to entertain him well. The two men appear to be friends.
Everyone exits except for Apemantus. Two lords enter, and Apemantus manages to annoy them both with his cynical remarks about how all the attendees at Timon’s upcoming feast will be either fools or knaves. Apemantus exits, leaving the two lords to sing Timon’spraises, especially his kindness, generosity, and nobility.
The opening dialogue involving the Poet and the Painter serves to reveal straightaway the sort of values that prevail in the Athens depicted in the play. Flattery and insincerity are the order of the day. Everyone tries to curry favor with the rich Timon.
The description the Poet gives of his latest work serves as a foreshadowing of the plot that will soon unfold: some men are favored by fortune, but fortune is fickle and changes quickly. Then those who were formerly blessed by fortune find themselves on the downward path, but no one who observes this, including those who benefited from his generosity, does anything to help them.
The first scenecharacterizes Timon. His actions show him to be generous and kind. He pays Ventidius’s debt to get him out of prison and bestows wealth upon his loyal servant so he can marry. Everyone speaks well of Timon. This opening scene also shows the contrast between the generosity and grace of Timon and the cynicism of Apemantus, who has an opinion of humanity that is the opposite of Timon’s. Apemantus is not a pleasant character and no one likes him, but as later events will reveal, he does have more of a sense of the true character of these Athenian lords than does Timon.
Act 1, scene 2
At Timon’s banquet, Ventidius says that his father has recently died, leaving him a large inheritance. He praises Timon and gratefully repays the money that Timon had spent in freeing him from prison. Timon says he gave it out of love and does not need it back. Apemantus makes a sour remark but Timon welcomes him anyway. Apemantus says he has no intention of being agreeable, and Timon at first says he should sit on his own somewhere, but then relents and says he can stay as long as he doesn’t speak. Apemantus goes to sit on his own, anyway. Apemantus, in a speech heard only by the audience, not the other characters, comments on how the other lords use Timon, flattering him, and Timon does not even know it. He continues to speak about the treachery of men. He does not trust anyone, and he says that Timon is not well served by the lords who toast his health. It will not go well for Timon, or for Athens, he says.
Timon makes a speech about friendship, in which he expresses his noble ideals. He says that friendship is a blessed thing and that friends will always need each other and be generous with each other when any need arises. “We are born to do benefits,” he says. A couple of lords remark on how they empathize with his thoughts and were moved by them—remarks received with contempt by Apemantus.
Someone dressed as Cupid enters and announces that some Amazon ladies have arrived. The women enter with lutes in their hands, and they dance. The men get up and dance with the women, although not before Apemantus has made some disparaging remarks about dancing and the general depravity of humanity.
After the dancing, Timon thanks the ladies, and they and Cupid exit.
Timon tells Flavius, his steward, to fetch a little casket. In an aside, Flavius indicates that not all is well with Timon’s finances. Flavius returns with the casket, which contains some jewelry. Timon gives it to one of the lords. The lord says he has already received so much from Timon, and other lords agree that they have, too.
Flavius tries to have a word with Timon, but Timon is not interested. A servant announces that Lucius has given four horses with silver harnesses to Timon. Another servant says that Lucullus has sent two brace of greyhounds and a request that Timon join him for the hunt the next day.
In an aside, Flavius provides more details of Timon’s financial affairs. His wealth is exhausted and he is deeply in debt. Flavius is distressed by the situation.
Timon gives a racehorse to another lord, just because the lord expressed a liking for it. He says he could never grow weary of giving to his friends. Two lords express their appreciation of Timon and say they are bound to him.
Everyone except Apemantus and Timon exits. Apemantus makes some cynical remarks about friendship. He asks Timon why he keeps giving all these feasts and banquets. But Timon takes no notice of him.
The evidence of Timon’s generosity continues to build up. He seems to be dispensing gifts and largesse all the time. In his own eyes, he seems to live in a paradise in which wealth is inexhaustible, friends always love one another and willingly meet one another’s every need or whim. There are no dark shadows in Timon’s world, at least none that he perceives. But in this scene the true picture starts to emerge. In addition to the cynicism of Apemantus, which has more than a small amount of truth in it (at least as applied to the lords that Timon values so highly), Flavius the steward reveals that Timon, far from being wealthy, has given away so much that all he has left are debts. Dramatic tension builds as the audience becomes aware that there is a huge discrepancy between the society Timon thinks he lives in and the actual truth about it. The lords flatter him shamelessly as long as there is something in it for them.
Timon has a very lofty view of human nature. He seems to be living in a world he has imagined for himself, in the sense that he believes that every man is as generous and noble as he is. He seems to think that he lives in an ideal society. He does not stop to think that his kindness and fullness of heart may be misplaced because others do not share his vision of mutual love and generosity. Nor does it occur to him for a moment that he is not being responsible with his own wealth by giving away so much so frequently. He seems to think that his wealth is boundless and will continue forever. Obviously, he is not a practical man of affairs. He lives in his idea of the way things are between men, not in the actuality. He is out of touch with reality, both regarding his assessment of human nature and of the men whom he calls his friends, and of his own financial situation.