Timon of Athens — Act Two: IOU, you owe me

Previously on Timon of Athens: In the first act of the play, we meet not only our title character–a rich patron, generous to a fault–but also an entire cast of sycophants and hangers-on who take advantage of the man’s foolish giving. We also meet Apemantus–a misanthropic rogue who comments sarcastically on what he sees–and Alcibiades–an Athenian general returned from the wars. 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 short first scene of Act Two, an Athenian senator in soliloquy (the first verse one in the play; Apemantus has a 4-line throwaway at the end of Act One) reveals that Timon’s fancy parties have been funded by borrowings, including those from this senator, and at least three others. The senator calls in his servant and sends him to collect the debt. There’s no malice, only a present need for money by the senator, though he does realize

When every feather sticks in his own wing
Lord Timon will be left a naked gull,
Which flashes now a phoenix.
  • II.i.30-2

This senator know that if all collect their moneys (“every feather”) from Timon, he’ll be reduced to a “naked gull,” but this doesn’t trouble the senator because Timon is a phoenix, a bird who can rise from his own ashes.

Timon will be just fine.

Or will he?

The second and last scene of Act Two (a long scene in a relatively short act) begins with Timon’s servant Flavius, who bemoans the many bills Timon owes. He understands Timon’s kindness, but also knows his master won’t listen to reason until he “feel[s]” (II.ii.7) it. He waits for Timon to return from his hunt. As Flavius steps aside, the senator’s servant along with the servants to two more of Timon’s creditors arrive, all “come for money” (II.ii.10).

Timon enters, returning from the hunt with the general Alcibiades and others. They intend to have a quick meal and return to the hunt. Timon is confronted by the creditors’ servants, and he attempts to hand them off to Flavius. They refuse. Timon tries to put them off to the next day, but they refuse again, saying Flavius “hath put [them] off // To the succession of new days this month” (II.ii.20-1). Timon sends Alcibiades and the other members of the hunting party in for dinner, then calls Flavius aside to ask why these creditors are here to question his honor. Flavius tells the creditors that he will talk to Timon, and the two leave.

The three creditors continue to loiter when Apemantus arrives with a fool. The three decide to pass the time while having “some sport” (II.ii.48) with the misanthrope and the fool. Insults are traded. The fool’s mistress’ page enters with letters for Timon and Alcibiades, but since he cannot read, he doesn’t know which is which (think Peter in Romeo and Juliet). Apemantus clues him in, the page leaves, and Apemantus tells the fool he’ll take him to Timon as well. A few more barbs are traded, and it is implied that the fool’s mistress is a bawd (he tells them that men “enter [his] mistress’ house merrily and go away sadly” [II.ii.102-3]).

Apemantus and the fool leave as Timon and Flavius re-enter (I have no idea how/why they don’t seem to see each other). Flavius tells the creditors to walk about and he’ll be with them shortly (and why they agree to do so, again, I have no idea). Once they leave, Timon reprimands Flavius for not telling him about his financial situation sooner. Flavius claims to have tried to talk to him many times. But he delivers the news again now, and it’s not good: “The greatest of your having lacks a half // To pay your present debts” (II.ii.146-7). So Timon owes more than double the value of his possessions. When Timon suggests selling the land, he learns that, too, is useless as it has been mortgaged.

Timon is stunned. Flavius, without prompting, says,

If you suspect my husbandry of falsehood,
Call me before th’ exactest auditors
And set me on the proof.
  • II.ii.157-9

Then he goes on to praise Timon’s generosity, but the steward fears those to whom Timon has shown such kindness will be “feast-won, fast-lost” (II.ii.173) and abandon him. Timon with have none of it, saying, “You shall perceive how you // Mistake my fortunes: I am wealthy in my friends” (II.ii.185-6).

Timon isn’t George Bailey, though, and this is not a wonderful life. But I get ahead of myself.

Timon calls forth his other servants, and directs them each to go to one of his friends, to ask them for money. Flavius has said that he–acting “bold” (II.ii.201) and on his own initiative–has already tried this, but it hasn’t worked, with them all claiming to be in dire financial straits.

[and what the heck is going on in Athens as that everyone is so short on cash? Did the marble bubble burst?]

Timon sends them out anyway, sure that at least Ventidius, who has just inherited his father’s estate, will sure help Timon.

And it is on that hopeful note that Act Two of Timon of Athens ends.

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