Timon of Athens — Act Three: debts paid

Previously on Timon of Athens: In the first act of the play, we meet Timon–a rich patron, generous to a fault–and an entire cast of sycophants and hangers-on who take advantage of the man’s foolish giving. We also meet Apemantus–a misanthropic rogue–and Alcibiades–a returning Athenian general. We witness one of Timon’s extravagant parties, and learn from his steward Flavius what Timon himself doesn’t yet know–that he has given all away and is now in debt. In the second act, Timon’s creditors begin to call on Timon to pay his debts. Timon tries to get them to give him more time, or to at least talks to his steward Flavius, but they refuse. While Timon and Flavius confer, Apemantus arrives to insult the creditors. Timon criticizes Flavius for not telling him about the debts, but Flavius says that he has tried. Flavius also gives Timon more bad news: he owes more than twice what his possessions are worth and all his lands have been mortgaged. Timon then decides to send his servants out to his followers and sycophants to see if they can get any money from them.

At the start of the first scene of Act Three, Timon’s servant Flaminius waits to meet with Lucullus, one of the sycophants that Timon has patronized in the past; he is there to ask on Timon’s behalf for funds to help in Timon’s financial difficulties.

When Lucullus arrives, his first words in an aside are expectation of a new “gift” (III.i.5) from Timon. Needless to say, when Flaminius then asks for money, Lucullus is surprised, and his immediate response feels very contemporary: “La, la, la, la!” (III.i.20). The only thing missing is a stage direction for Lucullus to plug his ears with his fingers. The lord blames Timon’s situation on his own extravagance, and claims to have told Timon to “spend less” (III.i.24); he goes on to state, “This is no time to lend money, especially upon for bare friendship without security” (III.i.39-40). Lucullus doesn’t even consider a gift, only a loan to Timon; and again we learn of dire Athenian financial straits. Still, he doesn’t want Timon to know of his refusal, offering Flaminius a bribe for silence: the servant refuses. When Lucullus exits, Flaminius fumes and curses the lord.

The second scene begins with another of the flattering lords, Lucius, learning–from three strangers–of Timon’s fall and Lucullus’ refusal. I guess word travels fast in Athens. He even goes so far as to say, “I should ne’er have denied his occasion so many talents” (III.ii.23-4). You can probably see where this is going. Timon’s servant Servilius arrives, and–like Lucullus before him–Lucius’ first thought is of a gift received. When Servilius makes Timon’s request known, Lucius’ response is both hypocritical–given his earlier statement–and not surprising: “I have no power to be kind. And tell him this from me: I count it one of my greatest afflictions, say, that I cannot pleasure such an honorable gentleman” (III.ii.55-7). When both lord and servant exit, the three strangers comment on the situation; there is pity for “his right noble mind, illustrious virtue, // And honorable carriage” (III.ii.80-81)

The third scene tells a similar story with another sycophant–Sempronius–stating first to another of Timon’s servants that he can’t believe Timon is sending a request to him (before asking others). The servant responds by saying that those others–and the list now includes the recently released Ventidius–have been asked and have clearly refused Timon. Sempronius then says he’s insulted by being Timon’s “last refuge” (III.iii.11), and he too refuses the request.

Act Three, Scene Four returns us to Timon’s house, where many servants of creditors have gathered to collect money from Timon: “Timon in this should pay more than he owes, // And e’en as if your lord should wear rich jewels // And send money for ‘em” (III.iv.23-5). The irony is not lost on these men, and even they are “weary” (III.iv.26) of this act.

Timon’s steward exits Timon’s house, entering the scene cloaked. Easily discovered and confronted, Flavius can only tell the creditors that he has “no more [money] to reckon, [Timon’s] to spend” (III.iv.56). Another of Timon’s servants, Servilius, enters and asks all to leave because they don’t want to see Timon now: “My lord leans wondrously to discontent. His comfortable temper has forsook him; he’s much out of health and keeps his chamber” (III.iv.70-2). And within moments, Timon enters “in a rage” (and that is an explicit stage direction [III.iv.78 stage direction]). He is accosted by the creditors, and he exclaims curses…mostly upon himself. And when he is taken back into the house by servants, the creditors leave. Timon returns with Flavius, whom he tells to invite his flatterers to one more feast.

The fifth scene of the act takes us away from Timon’s tale to that of Alcibiades. He meets with three senators, with whom he tries to negotiate a reduced sentence for one of his soldiers. He pleads for “pity…the virtue of the law” (III.v.8). He says that the man has had his reputation stained (“touched to death” [III.v.19]), and the ensuing argument ended with “a noble fury” (III.v.18).

And “manslaughter” (III.v.27), according to a senator. Alcibiades argues in favor of the soldier, talking of his valor in war where he “might have died” (III.v.75) for Athens. For his argument, Alcibiades is banished from Athens, and the soldier “executed presently” (III.v.102). With that, the senators exit, and Alcibiades decides to take his army and “strike at Athens” (III.v.113).

The sixth and final scene of Act Three takes the action back to Timon’s house where the guests have arrived for the feast. Some even believe that Timon “did but try” (III.vi.3) or test them earlier. They make excuses to each other over why they refused Timon. Timon enters, apologizing for “this long stay” (III.vi.33) or delay, and saying the meal won’t make up for it. They attempt to apologize for their denial of him, but he disregards them.

The meal, in covered dishes, is brought in, but before allowing them to eat, Timon provides a prayer. And what a prayer it is:

You great benefactors, sprinkle our society with thankfulness. For your own gifts make yourselves praised, but reserve still to give, lest your deities be despised. Lend to each man enough, that one need not lend to another; for, were your godheads to borrow of men, men would forsake the gods. Make the meat be beloved more than the man that gives it. Let no assembly of twenty be without a score of villains. If there sit twelve women at the table, let a dozen of them be as they are. The rest of your fees, O gods, the Senators of Athens, together with the common lag of people, what is amiss in them, you gods, make suitable for destruction. For these my present friends, as they are to me nothing, so in nothing bless them, and to nothing are they welcome.
  • III.vi.71-85

There’s some interesting stuff in there, that we’ll tackle later in the discussion, but suffice to say, the guests should then have been prepared for what comes next. The meal is uncovered and found to be warm stones and water.

He throws the water at the guests, cursing their “reeking villainy” (III.vi.93). After a finely insulting rant, Timon drives them away. But it is not just them he curses: “Burn house! Sink Athens! Henceforth hated be // Of Timon man and all humanity!” (III.vi.104-5). He’s ready to hate everything, ready to burn everything to ground, including Athens.

And on that cheery note, Act Three ends.