Timon of Athens – Act One: foolish generosity

Act One, Scene One of Timon of Athens begins outside of the title character’s house, where a number of merchants and artisans have congregated. The stage directions make reference to a poet, a painter, a jeweler, a merchant and a mercer–this last one is supposedly a trader in fabrics, but we never know for certain as he never speaks, nor spoken to or even referenced, not in this scene or elsewhere in the play.

They talk to each other of the creations they’ve brought to give to Titus…well, maybe “give” isn’t quite the right word. There certainly seems to be some expectation of generosity from the “great lord” (I.i.20) and his “large fortune…and gracious nature” (I.i.55, 56). As he enters, the stage directions refer to these all as “suitors” (I.i.94 stage direction), and we catch Timon in mid-conversation regarding the imprisonment of Ventidius for owing debt. We immediately see what kind of man Timon is, as he says,

I am not of that feather to shake off
My friend when he must need me. I do know him
A gentleman that well deserves a help,
Which he shall have. I’ll pay the debt and free him.
  • I.i.100-03

He tells the servant to bring Ventidius to Timon once freed. And before we can think that this visit will concern repayment, Timon removes all doubt: “’Tis not enough to help the feeble up, // But to support him after” (I.i.107-08).

Next, an old man asks for an audience with Timon. It begins to feel like the opening scene in The Godfather where Don Corleone/Timon cannot refuse a request on his daughter’s wedding day…only this is every day (or so it appears). The old man complains that Lucilius, Timon’s servant, has been wooing the man’s daughter, and the man wants the servant to stop as he has no fortune. Once Timon has determined that it is a love-match, he then tells the father,

This gentleman of mine hath served me long.
To build his fortune, I will strain a little,
For ’tis a bond in men. Give him thy daughter.
What you bestow, in him I’ll counterpoise,
And make him weigh with her.
  • I.i.142-46

And off go father and future son-in-law, happy as clams.

Timon then turns his attention to the suitors, and tells them they will dine together that night. In the midst of Timon perusing what the suitors have brought him, Apemantus enters. Earlier, the poet had described Apemantus as one who “few things loves better // Than to abhor himself” (I.i.59-60). The list of characters describes him as a “churlish philosopher” and the shoe fits.

He is a disagreeable churl, insulting the suitors and Timon, saying that he himself is proud he is “not like Timon” (I.i.190). It’s obvious, however, that Timon enjoys Apemantus’ company because instead of sending the misanthrope on his way, or even ignoring him, Timon brings Apemantus into the discussion and appraisal of the suitors’ goods. To say it’s a critical eye is understating it. Apemantus, though, sees all this for what it is and how Timon encourages it, saying, “He that loves to be flattered is worthy o’ th’ flatterer” (I.i.226-27). After additional Apemantian commentary, a trumpet sounds the arrival of Alcibiades and some twenty soldiers on horses.

Timon reiterates his dinner invitation, including to Alcibiades, who seems very happy to see Timon. Then all leave…save for two entering lords, from whom we learn what we should have inferred during the last 15 or so minutes: Timon is generous to a fault, and “repays // Sevenfold above” (I.i.280-82) any gift given. And the suitors make greedy sense now. Thus ends the first scene.

The second and last scene of Act One is another long one. It’s the feast Timon had promised. The newly released Ventidius is there with repayment of his bail and “doubled with thanks and service” (I.ii.7), but Timon refuses it, saying,

 and there’s none
Can truly say he gives if he receives.
If our betters play at that game, we must not dare
To imitate them. Faults that are rich are fair.
  • I.ii.10-13

These good feelings are tempered by the ever-insulting Apemantus. When allowed to sit by himself, he becomes a commentator on the scene, and something of an oracle, too: “What a number of men eats Timon, and he sees ‘em not!” (I.ii.37-8). We hear Timon talking with the lords and we learn that Alcibiades has just returned from the field of battle, where he wishes to return.

Timon gives a first-world-problems speech of how helping his friends is helping himself, questions why we have friends if we never need them (ironic foreshadowing alert), finally (and most gallingly for me) saying, “Why, I have often wished myself poor, that I might come nearer to you” (I.ii.96-8)…so says the rich man (in another bit of ironic foreshadowing–watch out what you wish for, Timon). The speech brings himself to tears. Needless to say, Apemantus is not buying what Timon is selling.

Into this scene, a masker dressed as Cupid brings ladies in, and the feast turns into a dance, for which–if I’m reading this right–Timon himself wrote the music (“mine own device” [I.ii.146]). He sends them off to a banquet of their own. Timon sends his steward Flavius out to get a box for his guests; Flavius–before leaving the stage–tells us in an aside how he worries over Timon’s exuberant spending.

Another man’s servant arrives with a gift of Timon, four white horses; the giver Lucullus requests they be used in a hunting trip the next day. Flavius returns to hand out more gifts, only to let us know in another aside that Timon’s is “an empty coffer” (I.ii.190), and that he is now in debt. Ironically (and unknowingly) Timon continues to give out gifts until the party-goers have left with their parting gifts.

The party over, only Timon and Apemantus remain, and the misanthrope tries to warn Timon of false friends. Timon responds only that if Apemantus “were not sullen” (I.ii.233), he’d give Apemantus gifts as well. Apemantus can only respond with his own fear: “I fear thou will give away thyself” (I.ii.238). When Timon refuses to hear and leaves, Apemantus ends the scene and Act One, bemoaning, “O that men’s ears should be // To counsel deaf but not to flattery!” (I.ii.246-7).

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