Study Guide

The Life of Timon of Athens City vs. Country

By William Shakespeare

City vs. Country

It comes not ill; I hate not to be banish'd;
It is a cause worthy my spleen and fury,
That I may strike at Athens. I'll cheer up
My discontented troops, and lay for hearts.
'Tis honour with most lands to be at odds;
Soldiers should brook as little wrongs as gods. (3.5.112-118)

Alcibiades doesn't let a little thing like banishment get him down; he figures he'll just use it to fuel a war against Athens. Check out how quickly he turns on the city that he calls home: something tells us he's been feeling discontent there for some time. Maybe he's more faithful to Athens than the Senators are. Unlike them, he wants what's best for the city, and he's less concerned with lining his own pockets.

O thou wall,
That girdlest in those wolves, dive in the earth,
And fence not Athens! Matrons, turn incontinent!
Obedience fail in children! slaves and fools,
Pluck the grave wrinkled senate from the bench,
And minister in their steads! to general filths
Convert o' the instant, green virginity,
Do 't in your parents' eyes! bankrupts, hold fast. (4.1.1-8)

As Timon takes one look back at Athens, he has a series of curses for the city and its people. We'd like to point out that while he's talking about city-folk, he uses a bunch of wild, beastly imagery to make his point. It's a jungle in there.

TIMON:Timon will to the woods; where he shall find
The unkindest beast more kinder than mankind.
The gods confound—hear me, you good gods all—
The Athenians both within and out that wall. (4.1.35-38)

Just blasting the city wasn't enough for Timon. Now he turns his focus to the people inside and thinks about what his new life will be like in the woods. His contrast here of the two places tells us a lot about his thoughts on men, beasts, and the wild. It seems like the city is the real wilderness in this play.

O blessed breeding sun, draw from the earth
Rotten humidity; below thy sister's orb
Infect the air! Twinn'd brothers of one womb,
Whose procreation, residence, and birth,
Scarce is dividant, touch them with several fortunes;
The greater scorns the lesser. Not nature,
To whom all sores lay siege, can bear great fortune,
But by contempt of nature. (4.3.1-8)

This is the first time we see Timon in the woods, and boy, is he different. He's no longer interested in lavish meals or obsequious gifts; all he can think about is how awful everyone is.

Be as a planetary plague, when Jove
Will o'er some high-viced city hang his poison
In the sick air: let not thy sword skip one:
Pity not honour'd age for his white beard. (4.3.109-112)

Something tells us that when Timon backs Alcibiades's bid to take over Athens, it has nothing to do with the guy leading the march and everything to do with the city itself. Timon wants to kill Athens and everything it stands for: corruption, injustice, greed, excess, you name it. He has a harder time understanding his own role in making Athens just such a corrupt place.

How has the ass broke the wall, that thou art out of the city? (4.3.351-2)

Oh, snap. Timon still doesn't like Apemantus, even when after he's become just as cynical (even more cynical?) as Apemantus. We get that Timon won't ever resolve his issues with Apemantus, but what does that have to do with the city? Perhaps it's about the fact that Apemantus, the only guy Timon didn't like before, is one of a handful of people who will even leave the city to see him.

The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea: the moon's an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun:
The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears: the earth's a thief,
That feeds and breeds by a composture stolen
From general excrement: each thing's a thief:
The laws, your curb and whip, in their rough power
Have unchecked theft. (4.3.438-446)

One thing's for sure: Timon shouldn't be a motivational speaker. Here he explains how the sun, moon, sea, and earth are all thieves. We'll admit he's got a point. But then again, if everything in nature is robbing something, why is it so bad that the people in the city do it? Why does Timon keep thinking solely in terms of money and robbery?

Be men like blasted woods. (4.3.534)

We've had a lot of comparing men to the city of Athens, so why not compare men to the woods? In his final advice to Flavius, Timon tells his old steward to be as malevolent as the woods are. Are the woods actually that bad? They seem kind of nice from over here.

Come not to me again: but say to Athens,
Timon hath made his everlasting mansion
Upon the beached verge of the salt flood, […]
Sun, hide thy beams. Timon hath done his reign. (5.1.212-214, 221)

The final time we see Timon, he says this to the Senators. The fact that he wants Athens to fall and crumble tells us what he thinks of the whole city—but we're also interested in the fact that he pictures his home in nature. Why is nature a better home for him than the city? Why are there fewer vices in the country? Is this an accurate assessment?

With my more noble meaning, not a man
Shall pass his quarter, or offend the stream
Of regular justice in your city's bounds,
But shall be render'd to your public laws
At heaviest answer. (5.4.59-63)

As Alcibiades stands outside Athens, ready to conquer, he reasons with the people about what his reign will be like. Unsurprisingly, justice is now described as an element of nature (a stream) instead of something that is hard and fast, like it was before. Could nature and metropolis finally form a union?