Timon of Athens: Theme
Fickleness of Fortune
The theme of the fickleness of fortune is sounded early in the play when the Poet, in Act 1, scene 1, describes his latest piece of work. It shows the personified figure of Fortune atop a hill. Many men look up to her, and a figure that resembles Timon is in receipt of her grace, as indicated by a wave of her hand. Many other men cling to him because of his good fortune. But then fortune changes her mood, scorns the one she formerly blessed, and he tumbles down into misfortune. Those who gained from his earlier good fortune, however, do nothing to ease his situation when he has fallen. Coming so early in the play, before Timon has even made his first appearance, this passage is an allegorical foreshadowing of what will occur in the play. Timon’s fortunes are great but his fall is also rapid, and no one will come to his aid. The fickleness of fortune was a common theme in medieval and early modern literature. Often fortune is depicted as a revolving wheel. For those at the top, it is only a matter of time before they are at the bottom, and vice versa.
The second half of the play is dominated by the misanthropy of Timon, who carries it to the most extreme level imaginable. Misanthropy simply means hatred of mankind. Timon adopts this attitude after he has been disappointed by the refusal of his friends to come to his aid when he needs financial help. He condemns not only them but all mankind, and he does so in speech after speech in Act 4, as if it is the only thing that now occupies his mind. In Act 4, scene 1, for example, he rages against Athens and hopes that everyone in it gets stricken by the plague. He implores the gods that there should be no limit to his hate, as there had formerly been no limit on his love: “And grant, as Timon grows, his hate may grow / To the whole race of mankind, high and low!” (line 39-40). He never alters his position from this point on, and shuns human company, living in a cave in the woods.
Timon is not the only misanthrope in the play, however. The theme of misanthropy is introduced early, while Timon is still in his benevolent frame of mind. This happens through the presence of Apamantus, who seems to have no more love for mankind than does the later Timon. He is cynical about everything, and insists that there is not a single honest man in Athens, an idea that will later be taken up by Timon. The difference between the two men is that Timon’s misanthropy results from a crushing disappointment that changes his personality. He reacts to it in a very passionate, emotional kind of way. His misanthropy is fueled by great anger. Apemantus, on the other hand, is not an emotional man. It seems that he has had no sudden reversal of fortune to make him bitter. He acts more the role of the detached observer, casting a jaundiced eye on the whole human charade. Unlike Timon, it seems that he has never expected much of life, or of people.
Materialism and Money
As depicted in the play, Athens is a society that revolves around wealth and materialism. Money has corrupted everyone, and what counts about a person is how much wealth he has. A man’s character and his worth is therefore decided by his material status, not his intrinsic merits as an individual. Everyone plays the game of flattery, gathering around the ones who have money, like Timon, and getting as much of it as they can for themselves. Friendship means nothing, since insincerity is the coin of personal relationships. Fine words may be exchanged, but they all have a purpose—to curry favor with those who can keep the money supply going. Deeper values are absent. The problem for Timon is that in the first part of the play, in his mind and heart he lives in a completely different world than those around him, but he does not realize it. For him, money is like love. There is an infinite supply of it, and it should circulate freely and not be hoarded. Sharing one’s bounty with one’s friends is simply the law of life, as Timon understands it. As he says at the banquet: “We are born to do benefits: and what better or properer can we call our own than the riches of our friends? O, what a precious comfort ’tis, to have so many, like brothers, commanding one another's fortunes!” But this network of obligation, freely entered into as a sign of love and benevolence, is not the world his materialistic, shallow friends inhabit, as Timon finds out to his cost. Their attitude to money is: what we have, we hold.
While everyone else continues to play the game of flattery with whomever they can find, Timon retreats to the woods, where he rails against the corrupting influence of money. This is particularly apparent, for example, in the speech with which he begins act 4 scene 3. The worship of gold results in an inversion of true value, in which “The learned pate / ducks to the golden fool” (lines 17-18). (That is, the man of learning, who should be honored, has to bow deferentially to the person who has money, even if that person is a fool.) Timon repeats the idea later in the same speech, when he says gold will make “black, white; foul, fair; wrong, right; / Base, noble; old, young; coward, valiant” (lines 29-30).