Introduction & Overview of Timon of Athens by William Shakespeare

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Timon of Athens Summary & Study Guide Description

Timon of Athens Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

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The historical characters in Timon of Athens lived nearly 2,500 years ago. Almost four hundred years have passed since the play was written. Yet the issues it raises are timeless—applicable to every period in history when materialism and corruption overwhelm humane social values. In 1973, at a small theater in Paris, a production of Timon crossed cultural, historical, and racial boundaries. Timon was played as a golden-haired, northern European youth; at the first banquet, entertainers performed a Middle Eastern-inspired dance to Arabian music; Apemantus was played by a black actor, costumed in a way to suggest that he was a native of northern Africa. This production, directed by Peter Brook, underscored the universality of the play.

Timon of Athens depicts a society corrupted by greed. Many of its citizens are in debt to moneylenders. Conspicuous consumption—to use a twentieth- century term—leads Timon to bankruptcy. His natural inclination to entertain lavishly and dispense freely what he thinks is a limitless fortune leaves him at the mercy of his creditors. In the late twentieth century, personal indebtedness is at an all- time high. Persuaded by advertisers that happiness means new cars, new technologies, fashionable clothes, etcetera, many people charge purchases on credit cards and trust that they'll be able to pay for these things sometime in the future. As a result, an increasing number of people find themselves in bankruptcy court.

In modern society, materialism is criticized on several fronts, and basic values are asserted. But which values are impermanent and which ones endure? Timon imagines a society in which each person treats his assets as if they belonged to his friends as well as himself. This seems unrealistic. But what are the alternatives? When confronted with the truth, an idealist such as Timon may respond with bitterness and disillusion. On the other hand, a pragmatic approach to life may lead to Apemantus's attitude of empty cynicism. One can withdraw from society, rejecting its values, as Timon does; attempt to force it to conform to one's own views, as Alcibiades does; or take on the role of perpetual critic, like Apemantus.

When cynics such as Apemantus speak out, how do people generally respond? In the history of human society, truth-tellers have seldom been listened to. Their messages are unappealing. It's difficult to admit that we may be at fault—or that what we value has no intrinsic worth. Timon's refusal to listen to Apemantus and his steward is not so hard to understand.

Timon's generosity is problematical. On the one hand, he seems motivated by genuine openhandedness, a willingness to share his good fortune with everyone else—his servants as well as his friends. But his generosity is publicized; he demonstrates it in front of others, who cannot help but be aware of his gifts. If the highest level of charity is to give anonymously, to an unknown recipient, Timon falls short of the ideal. Is his generosity his servant Lucilus—true charity?

Timon expects a return of some kind for his bounty, and he is devastated when he doesn't receive it. To give without wanting or expecting something in return requires an extraordinary degree of unselfishness. What is our response when we give time, or money, or something else of value to others—perhaps some charitable institution— and the result isn't what we had hoped it would be? What happens if the gift is used in ways we hadn't anticipated?

Finally, the play raises the question of how to respond when we are mistreated. Timon curses everyone who betrays him—and every other human being as well. There is no evidence that he under stands human frailties, or that he forgives the people who have wronged him. This rigidity alienates him from his fellow human beings and leaves him physically and emotionally separated from society. But is the biblical injunction to turn the other cheek appropriate when friends betray us? Timon appears to have no doubts about how to respond. The rest of us may not be so sure.

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This section contains 663 words
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Timon of Athens from Shakespeare for Students. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.