Questions on Shakespeare’s Tragedies
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Shakespeare, William. Timon of Athens. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 509-69).
1. In Act 1, Scene 1, what kind of picture of the protagonist is provided by the dialogue between the poet and painter? What is the significance of the poet’s imagined scene in which the protagonist is favored by Lady Fortune?
2. In Act 1, Scene 1, what’s our first glimpse of Timon himself? How does he respond to the Old Athenian’s suit? What seems to motivate him at this early point in the play?
3. In Act 1, Scene 1, the Cynic philosopher Apemantus makes his first appearance. Do a bit of research online and, in your own words, set down the main tenets of the Cynics. Furthermore, how does Apemantus treat Timon — what seems to be the relationship between them?
4. In Act 1, Scene 2, both Apemantus the Cynic and Timon give us much more information about their respective outlooks on life. What more do we learn from Apemantus in that regard? What intentions does he manifest towards Timon — why does he even pay attention to this wealthy nobleman whom he evidently holds in contempt? What’s in it for Apemantus?
5. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does Timon see his own acts of extreme generosity towards others as well as their shows of generosity towards him — i.e. all the gift-giving, feasting and fine words he and his compatriots engage in? What does he apparently believe he’s accomplishing by distributing such largesse? What would the perfect society look like if Timon had his way?
6. In Act 2, Scene 1, why is the Athenian Senator calling in his debts (demanding that Timon pay back the money he has borrowed from the Senator)? What realities about borrowing and extending credit — economic realities, in other words — is the Senator pointing out?
7. In Act 2, Scene 2, Timon’s worthy servant Flavius tries to get him to understand the gravity of his financial situation. What is that situation? What is Flavius’ perspective on it and on what needs to be done now? How does Timon himself process his awful predicament, and where does he think help may be found? How would you assess Timon’s understanding, his state of mind, at present?
8. In Act 3, Scene 1, in hopes of securing loans to get him through his difficulties, Timon has authorized his servant Flaminius to start making the rounds amongst those who have enjoyed his largesse. How does the conversation go between Flaminius and Timon’s supposed friend Lucullus? On what principle and in what spirit does Lucullus refuse to help Timon at such a critical time?
9. In Act 3, Scene 2, it’s time for another of Timon’s servants, Servilius, to ask another friend of Timon, Lucius, for a loan. What’s Lucius’ reason for failing to deliver? Aristotle, who wrote perceptively about qualities such as beneficence, munificence, and magnanimity in the Nicomachean Ethics, offered the insight that those who give assistance nobly find this activity more pleasant than do those who are on the receiving end. Lucius claims to approve thoroughly of Timon’s past generosity, but how does his present attitude bring home a stark truth about the psychology of borrowing and lending?
10. In Act 3, Scene 3, Sempronius takes his turn at disappointing Timon by refusing him assistance in spite of the man’s past generosity towards him. What rationale does Sempronius provide, and what inferences about human nature does Timon’s servant draw from them?
11. In Act 3, Scene 4, servants gather at Timon’s estate to promote their masters’ suits against him, confronting Timon’s Flavius and Flaminius with an ugly scene. What perspective do these disgruntled servants offer us on the unfolding financial tragedy of Timon’s house? In your response, consider the following: echoing Apemantus’ earlier quip, “Men set their doors against a setting sun” (1.2.137), Lucius’ servant says, “a prodigal course / Is like the sun’s, but not, like his, recoverable. I fear / ‘Tis deepest winter in Lord Timon’s purse” (3.4.14-17). What insight do you find in these seasonal-cycle metaphors with regard to human nature and the significance of human economic arrangements and behavior?
12. In Act 3, Scenes 4-5, and then in Scene 7, Timon himself has clearly begun to register the depth of the delusion and betrayal involved in his ruin. How does he respond to his creditors’ servants, and then in Scene 7, how does he try to bring home to his assembled creditors the true nature of their betrayal? At that scene’s end, at what new principle has Timon arrived with regard to his fellow human beings? Does it seem justified, or too broad? Explain.
13. In Act 3, Scene 6, the military captain Alcibiades brings a matter to the Athenian Senate and finds himself not only disappointed in his hopes of obtaining mercy for a soldier who has killed another man, but banished into the bargain for his bluntness in defending his request. What motivates the senators to refuse Alcibiades’ request, and to what resolution does their intransigence drive him?
14. In Act 4, Scene 1, Timon, determined to quit Athens, rages and embraces the coming-on of “confusion” in all human affairs. In Act 4, Scene 2, how do the language and conduct of Timon’s former servant Flavius undercut any tendency an audience might have to be carried along with Timon in his misanthropy? What does Flavius announce as his plan going forward with respect to Timon’s predicament?
15. In Act 4, Scene 3, which consists of a long series of strange confrontations between self-exiled Timon and those who come to visit him outside Athens, Timon first digs for roots to eat and instead discovers — gold! How does he use this gold during his first meeting with Alcibiades and the prostitutes accompanying that banished soldier? How does this false bounty from “mother earth” help Timon advance his misanthropic intentions towards his first visitors?
16. In Act 4, Scene 3, Apemantus visits Timon. What does this Cynic philosopher think of the ruined man’s current living arrangements and conduct? Why doesn’t he accept the notion that what Timon is doing might be a way of curing himself of his despair? How does Timon respond to Apemantus’ taunting criticisms — how does he defend the path of exile and hermit-status that he has chosen to take, and to what extreme apostrophe to “gold” and against all humanity does his angry conversation with Apemantus lead him around lines 374-84?
17. In Act 4, Scene 3, after Apemantus leaves, Timon gives gold to some thieves who visit him, and even offers them examples supposedly proving that even the sun, moon, and earth are thieves. But then his onetime servant Flavius show up. What does Flavius do to try to bring Timon to patience? What effect do Flavius’ efforts have on Timon — how does the latter respond, and how do his remarks at the end of this long scene sum up the resolution at which he has arrived about his fellow human beings?
18. In Act 5, Scene 1, Timon’s old flatterers put in an appearance in front of Timon’s cave. How do they understand his downfall and current condition? What does Timon do when he’s faced with such visitors, and how does this scene help to set up the one that follows, in which the Athenian senators visit Timon to make a pitch for his help against Alcibiades?
19. In Act 5, Scene 2, the Athenian senators visit Timon in hopes of gaining his assistance against Alcibiades, who is set upon attacking Athens for its mistreatment of him when he sought mercy for one of his soldiers. This is the last we are going to hear from Timon alive: what is his parting shot against the senators and indeed all humankind? Why do you suppose Timon not only makes this declaration but cruelly leads the senators on before making it — how does that amount to something like revenge for the pattern of injustice he surely feels has brought him to his ruin?
20. In Act 5, Scene 4, a soldier sent by Alcibiades discovers Timon’s grave, which bears an inscription the soldier can’t read, so he determines to bring a wax copy of it back to his captain. In Scene 5, the Athenian senators try to convince Alcibiades to limit the scope of his wrath. What rationale do they offer for such restraint on their enemy’s part? How does Alcibiades respond, and why does he respond as he does?
21. General question: perhaps the bitter conclusion of Timon of Athens seems less than fully “tragic” when we compare it to Greek tragic endings or to Shakespeare’s other tragedies — Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, etc. Timon’s final insight, that is, may well seem to many readers and viewers more like a sustained misanthropic rant than deep insight into the human condition. What do you think — do you find the play compelling as tragedy or compelling on some other grounds, or not very compelling at all? Explain your reasons for responding as you do.
Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.
Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake