Speech study: Timon’s torrent of rage

Act Four, Scene One of Timon of Athens is one of those strange scenes, one where there is but one character on stage, delivering but a single speech.

Timon has just booted his guests from his home in Act Three, Scene Six, and then fled Athens himself. And just fourteen lines later, we find Timon now outside the walls of his city. And he releases a forty-one line torrent of rage, a prayer of misanthropy:

Let me look back upon thee. O thou wall
That girdles in those wolves, dive in the earth
And fence not Athens! Matrons, turn incontinent!
Obedience fail in children! Slaves and fools,
Pluck the grave wrinkled Senate from the bench
And minister in their steads! To general filths
Convert o’ th’ instant, green virginity!
Do ’t in your parents’ eyes! Bankrupts, hold fast!
Rather than render back, out with your knives
And cut your trusters’ throats! Bound servants, steal!
Large-handed robbers your grave masters are,
And pill by law. Maid, to thy master’s bed!
Thy mistress is o’ th’ brothel. Son of sixteen,
Pluck the lined crutch from thy old limping sire;
With it beat out his brains! Piety and fear,
Religion to the gods, peace, justice, truth,
Domestic awe, night rest, and neighborhood,
Instruction, manners, mysteries, and trades,
Degrees, observances, customs, and laws,
Decline to your confounding contraries,
And yet confusion live! Plagues incident to men,
Your potent and infectious fevers heap
On Athens, ripe for stroke! Thou cold sciatica,
Cripple our senators, that their limbs may halt
As lamely as their manners! Lust and liberty,
Creep in the minds and marrows of our youth,
That ’gainst the stream of virtue they may strive
And drown themselves in riot! Itches, blains,
Sow all th’ Athenian bosoms, and their crop
Be general leprosy! Breath infect breath,
That their society, as their friendship, may
Be merely poison! Nothing I’ll bear from thee
But nakedness, thou detestable town!
Take thou that too, with multiplying bans!
Timon will to the woods, where he shall find
Th’ unkindest beast more kinder than mankind.
The gods confound—hear me, you good gods all!—
Th’ Athenians both within and out that wall,
And grant, as Timon grows, his hate may grow
To the whole race of mankind, high and low!


That’s pretty intense… in other words:

Let me look back on you (but since it’s “thee,” it’s a less respectful “you”). Oh, you wall that circles the wolves that live there, you wall, dive into the the ground and protect not Athens! Married women, turn promiscuous! Children revolt against your parents! Servants and fools, pull out the old senators from their seats and take over in their places! To the common whores, instantly convert the virgins to your career. Have sex in front of your parents! Those of you who owe money, hang on! And cut the throats of your lenders! Slaves, steal! Your masters are robbers anyway and the law protects their robbery of you. Young virgin maids, go your master’s bed! His wife is working at the brothel. Teenage boy, pull the crutch from your old limping father, then use it to beat his brains in! Leave pity, fear, and religion to the gods. Peace, justice, truth, respect for parents, night rest, being a good neighbor, instruction, manners, crafts and trades, ranks, observances, customs, and laws–reverse yourselves to your opposites, and let confusion reign! The plagues that are natural to men, you strong and infectious fevers (from sexually transmitted diseases), these should be piled onto Athens, which is ripe for being struck. You old sciatica, cripple our senators, so that their arms and legs are as lame as their manners! Lust and promiscuity, infect the brains and bones of our young, so that they go against virtue and engage in riot! Rashes and blisters of venereal disease, get into the heart of Athenians, and let them grow to leprosy! Let this all spread, breath to breath, so that their friendship and society be only poison! I’ll take nothing from you but nakedness, you detestable town! Take this piece of clothing (as he strips), too, with more curses! Timon will go to the woods, where he shall find the most the cruelest animal to be kinder than mankind. May the gods defeat–hear me you good gods all!–the Athenians both within and outside that wall, and let, as Timon flourishes (in being away from men), his hate grow as well, so that he hates the entirety of mankind, both high and low! Amen.



And that’s just what is being said. How it’s being said is interesting as well. There are 23 sentences before his single word ending of “Amen.” Of them, a whopping 19 end in exclamation points, only four with periods. And the sentences are an interesting bunch:

  • “Let me look back upon thee.” (about you; you’re in my rear-view mirror; I’m leaving)
  • “Large-handed robbers your grave masters are, // And pill by law.” (about your father, whose thieving ways are sanctioned by law)
  • “Thy mistress is o’ th’ brothel.” (about your mother, who is a whore)
  • “Timon will to the woods, where he shall find // Th’ unkindest beast more kinder than mankind.” (about me, leaving all this behind)

Of the forty-one lines of the speech (forty, really, since the “Amen” can barely be considered a poetic line), only seventeen are purely iambic; the rest are peppered with trochees (18) and spondees (15); of the 24 irregular lines, ten had more than one irregularities.

Exclamations. Irregular meter. This is a man who can barely get his words and ideas out. And can’t get out of town fast enough.