Act 4, scene 1
This scene consists entirely of one speech by Timon. He is now outside of the walls of Athens. In his anger and rage, he calls for the overturning of all the natural laws of life and society. Children should become disobedient, slaves take over the senate, and sons kill their fathers, for example. Justice and truth and other traditional virtues should be transformed into their opposites. He hopes Athens is destroyed by the resultant confusion. He wants fevers and diseases to be rampant. For himself, he says he will go to the woods where he thinks he will find animals to be kinder than men. His only desire is that his hatred for the entire humanity should continue to grow.
Timon is a man of extremes. Before, his love knew no limits. Now, his hatred knows none. Readers who are familiar with Shakespeare’s King Lear, a play probably written at about the same time as Timon, will see some parallels here with that play. Lear also is rejected by those who should love him, and he too suffers a massive disillusionment with all mankind. Alone on a barren heath, he also rages against the inhumanity of man. Like Timon here, who declares he is leaving Athens naked and strips off his clothes, Lear does the same on the heath. Both men formerly had power and both believed they were loved. But they end up isolated, bitter, and alone. (King Lear, unlike Timon, does effect a reconciliation with one of the characters who had disappointed him—his daughter, Cordelia.) Some commentators over the years have felt that Timon’s reaction in hating all mankind is out of proportion to the wrongs he has suffered. Others point out that his entire view of what life is all about has been shattered, so it is not surprising that he should now adopt a completely different view, but one that is just as extreme as the previous one.
Act 4, scene 2
Flavius enters with several servants. He confirms to them that their master has left and they are left with nothing. More servants enter. First Servant says that they are all still loyal to their master. He compares Timon to a sinking ship, while they are left stranded on the deck. Flavius says he will share what he has left with them. He gives each man some money. After the servants exit, Flavius shows he is still loyal to Timon. He calls him an honest man undone by his own virtues. He declares that it is not good for men to have wealth, since no good comes from it. He says he is still Timon’s steward and will seek him out.
This is one of the most touching scenes in the play. It takes up what has been apparent several times earlier: the loyalty and honesty of Timon’s servants, who are quite the opposite of Timon’s false friends. Flavius’s actions in sharing what he has with the rest of the men shows that generosity still can be found in Athens. Unlike Timon’s friends, he sees a need and tries to fill it. In that sense, he follows his master’s example but in a more responsible fashion.
Act 4, scene 3
Timon is now in the woods, a kind of wilderness outside of Athens. He continues his rant against humanity. He despises a world in which money determines how men treat one another. Flattery rules, and those that have the money are flattered by others seeking favor. Timon says he rejects all society based on these concepts.
He digs in the ground, trying to find a root to chew on. He finds some buried gold and lambasts the society that values it so much. Gold is also the cause of war between nations, he says.
Alcibiades enters. He is on a march with his men. He has two prostitutes with him, Phrynia and Timandra. Timon is not pleased to see him, and Alcibiades asks him what happened to him, and why he is now expressing sentiments that are so different from the way he was before. Timon alludes to his misfortune and Alcibiades asks him what he can do for him. Timon asks for nothing. He has a brief, acrimonious dialogue with Timandra, and then Alcibiades reveals that he has heard something of Timon’s misfortunes. He says that he, too, has little money at the moment, and his men get rebellious because of it. He also mentions how Timon had helped Athens in wars, both financially and militarily, and Athens is now cursed because it has forgotten that service. He expresses friendship toward Timon, but Timon is not interested and tells him to go away. Alcibiades offers him some gold, but Timon refuses it. After Alcibiades reveals that he is about to make war on Athens, Timon tells him to wreak destruction on the city and show no mercy to anyone. He gives Alcibiades some gold. Alcibiades accepts the gold but rejects Timon’s advice. Timon curses him.
Phrynia and Timandra ask Timon for gold. He give them what they ask for while continuing to call to the gods for the destruction of all men. He hopes the gold he is giving them leads to damnation for those who receive it, including the two prostitutes.
Alcibiades continues on his march to Athens. He wishes Timon well but Timon says he hopes he never sees him again. Alcibiades protests, saying that he never did Timon any harm, and Timon admits that is true.
Timon continues to dig in the earth for a root to eat, while addressing the earth itself. He speaks of how the earth brings forth all kinds of venomous life, as well as “ingrateful man.” Surely the earth can produce one root for him? He eventually finds one.
At that point Apemantus enters. He says he was told where Timon was and that Timon was now behaving more like Apemantus. He asks why Timon is in the woods. He should go back to Athens and thrive by flattering those who have wealth, just as others used to do toward him.
Timon denies that he has become like Apemantus, but Apemantus calls him a fool. Out there in the woods, nature will not flatter him or provide for him. Timon responds that it is Apemantus who is the fool. He tells him to go away. Apemantus contrasts Timon’s wretched state, which has been forced upon him, with those that choose poverty voluntarily, who are more content. Timon replies by pointing out that Apemantus has never been favored by fortune, unlike Timon, who was once favored and then rejected. He therefore carries quite a burden. Timon continues, saying that Apemantus has no reason to hate men, since they never flattered him.
Timon eats a root, and Apemantus offers him food, but Timon does not accept it. He once again tells him to go away and says he can tell Athens that Timon has gold. Out here in the woods, he says, the gold sleeps and does no harm. Apemantus comments that Timon is a man of extremes, either one way or the other. He has never pursued a moderate course.
Timon asks Apemantus what he would do with the world, if he had the power. Apemantus replies that he would leave it to the beasts and get rid of humanity. He says he would remain and be a beast along with the others, but Timon replies that he would still end up a victim because all beasts are preyed upon by other beasts. The two men part with an exchange of insults. Timon directly addresses the gold that causes conflict between men.
Three bandits enter. They have heard that Timon has gold. They approach Timon, denying that they are thieves. They call themselves men in need. Timon tells them that everything they need—food and water—is available from nature, right where they are. They reply that they cannot live on grass and berries. Timon says he knows they are thieves and offers them gold. He tells them to go off and do some villainy, like cutting throats and robbing stores in Athens. Timon withdraws, and the thieves exit.
Flavius enters. At first he cannot believe that the man he sees is Timon. It grieves him to see his former employer brought to such a low state. He resolves to serve him anyway.
Timon refuses to recognize him at first (perhaps refusing even to look at him). Flavius says he is an honest servant, to which Timon replies that he has never had an honest man serve him. Flavius says he still wants to serve him. Timon takes a close look at him, sees it is Flavius, and has to admit that there is one honest man in the world. But everyone else he still curses. Then he expresses doubt about Flavius, wondering whether his kindness is just a cover for some desire to gain at Timon’s expense. Flavius says he wishes Timon could have entertained such doubts earlier, about his false friends. As for himself, he is there only to offer love. Timon takes him at his word and gives him some gold. He tells him to live apart from other men, to curse everyone and show charity to no one. Flavius begs to be allowed to stay, but Timon says no. He does not want to see Flavius again.
This long scene of over five hundred lines has little action in it. Timon remains where he is in the woods and a succession of characters either come to visit him on purpose (Apemantus, the bandits) or run into him by chance (Alcibiades, Flavius). Timon finds time with all his visitors to expound his new, nihilistic philosophy, which, in a nutshell, might be described as a plague on everything. Flattery, knavery, thievery, is everywhere, and there is no honest man anywhere. Timon even attributes thievery to the natural world: “The sun’s a thief, and with his great attraction / Robs the vast sea. The moon’s an arrant thief, / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun” (lines 429-31). There is no virtue anywhere, so he will have as little to do with life and the world of men as he can.
However, the dramatist is at pains to show that Timon is not entirely accurate in his denunciations of all men. Alcibiades points out that he never did anything to harm Timon, and Timon admits that Alcibiades spoke well of him. The point is made several times in the play that Alcibiades has little wealth, so Timon never approached him for money. From what we see of Alcibiades character, however, it seems likely that he would not have scorned Timon the ways his other friends have done. The same is true of Flavius, the loyal steward, and Timon is forced to acknowledge that there is one honest man in the world. But this does not seem to have any larger effect on him. Flavius’s loyalty does not encourage him to rethink his position at all. He acknowledges Flavius’s virtue but does not see that as invalidating his hatred of humanity.
It is of course ironic that Timon discovers gold buried in the woods. When he needed gold, in Athens, none came his way, but now, out in the woods having renounced all society and therefore having no need of gold, he finds what seems to be quite a lot of it. Offering gold to his visitors, though, is not in his eyes doing them any kindness, since he is convinced that money is the root of all evil and corrupts all who touch it.