Timon of Athens — Act Five: 2 epitaphs

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 criticizes Flavius for not telling him about the debts, but Flavius says that he has tried. Learning he owes more than twice what his possessions are worth, Timon decides to send his servants out to his followers and sycophants to see if they can get any money from them. In the third act, we see each of the flatterers refuse to help Timon, and Athens refuse mercy for Alcibiades’s soldier. The general vows war on Rome. Timon gives the flatterers one last feast–of stones and water–then rages at the world, and calls for hatred and destruction for all. In the fourth act, Timon goes full Misanthropos, railing on all who visit him in the wilderness (it doesn’t sound like it could fill and entire act…but there’s a whole lotta rage).

The fifth and final act of the play begins like an abbreviated version of the play itself: the Poet and the Painter enter, looking to find Timon, who they have learned is now rich again (news of his finding of gold in the wilderness has spread fast). They plan to offer him their future creations.

Timon enters, and in a series of asides, reveals that he knows what they are up to, and plans to treat them accordingly. He comes forward and greets them as “two honest men” (V.i.54), and they say they’ve come to comfort him since his friends have abandoned him. Timon repeatedly, mockingly calls them honest while he gets them to admit they know he has gold.

He offers them gold, but under one condition:

Rid me these villains from your companies,
Hang them or stab them, drown them in a draft,
Confound them by some course, and come to me,
I’ll give you gold enough.
  • V.i.99-102

When they ask who the rogues are, Timon tells them: each other. He gives them gold, then “beat[s]” them away (V.i.114 stage direction), only to retreat himself to his cave.

Once they leave, Flavius returns with two Athenian senators. Flavius tries to dissuade them from trying to speak with Timon, but they say they must, for Athens.

Timon re-enters, and despite his insults of them, they ask that he return with them to Athens. They’ve been sent, they say, by the citizenry to make amends for how they treated Timon. There’s that, but they also want something else:

Therefore, so please thee to return with us
And of our Athens, thine and ours, to take
The captainship, thou shalt be met with thanks;
Allowed with absolute power, and thy good name
Live with authority.
  • V.i.158-162

It seems they want Timon to defend the city against Alcibiades. But “Timon cares not” (V.i.170), no matter the cruelties the general has in store for Athens.

When Timon says that he was writing his “epitaph…[to] be seen tomorrow” (V.i.184, 185), the senators realize they’ve come in vain and begin to leave. Timon stops them, though, telling them he can show them how to “prevent wild Alcibiades’ wrath” (V.i.201). The senators are duped, and Timon then gives them the solution:

I have a tree, which grows here in my close,
That mine own use invites me to cut down,
And shortly must I fell it. Tell my friends,
Tell Athens, in the sequence of degree
From high to low throughout, that whoso please
To stop affliction, let him take his haste,
Come hither ere my tree hath felt the ax,
And hang himself. I pray you, do my greeting.
  • V.i.204-11


He then tells them that he plans to make “his everlasting mansion” (V.i.214) in the salt flood, implying that he’s planning to drown himself. And with a statement of “Timon hath done his reign” (V.i.222), he exits.

Permanently. Really. Those are the last words we hear him speak.

In the very short second scene of the act, two more senators enter with news. Alcibiades has sent Timon a message asking for him to join the general in his war on Athens.

In the even shorter third scene, this soldier/messenger seeks out Timon’s cave and finds it, and a scroll with his final message: “Timon is dead, who hath out-stretched his span. // Some beast read this; there does not live a man” (V.iii.3-4). There is a second epitaph carved into the stone of the cave, but it’s in another language, one the soldier doesn’t know. He takes an imprint of it with wax so that Alcibiades can translate it.

The fourth and final scene of the final act takes us back to the gates of Athens where Alcibiades enters with his army. Athenian senators arrive for a parley. They tell of sending for Timon’s help, and–receiving none–they have realized they cannot prevent the sacking of Athens. To avoid absolute destruction, they promise to surrender to Alcibiades on the condition that he kill only “by decimation and a tithéd death” (V.iv.34). In other words, we surrender; enter the city but don’t kill everyone, just one tenth of the populace.

Alcibiades accepts, and says that he won’t even kill a tenth of the people, only “those enemies of Timon’s and mine own” (V.iv.56). As the gates open, the soldier/messenger arrives and gives Alcibiades the wax imprint of the epitaph from the cave, which he translates:

Here lies a wretched corse, of wretched soul bereft.
Seek not my name. A plague consume you, wicked caitiffs left!
Here lie I, Timon, who, alive, all living men did hate.
Pass by and curse thy fill, but pass and stay not here thy gait.
  • V.iv.70-3

Alcibiades praises dead Timon, then announces that his rule over Athens will be a careful balance of “olive with [his] sword” (V.iv.82), of peace and war.

And with that promise of future balance, the play ends.

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