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One of the major Themes of the play, Timon of Athens, is the theme of betrayal. Shakespeare has presented the hero as naïve and innocent of the corruption existing in the world. It is because of this naivete that, one day, he has to face the hard facts of life. From the beginning itself the readers are aware of the hidden nature of the society. Shakespeare hints at the theme, at the very beginning of the play. It is a statement on the nature of most people. Selfishness is the rule rather than the exception in this play.
When the play opens the readers find Timon as a man of benevolent, kind and generous nature. It is this nature of his that attracts many ‘friends.’ But, unfortunately for him, none of them are true friends. They are like bees, which fly where they find honey. The reader sympathizes with him in Act II, Scene 2, when he is aware of his debt but has full faith that his friends will come to his assistance.
The lords, Lucullus, Lucius, Sempronius and Ventidius enjoyed at Timon’s expense. They greedily accepted the gifts offered by Timon. Ventidius especially had a lot to be grateful for. Timon gave him a huge sum of money, to settle all his debts and therefore he was released from prison. But when Timon asks for help, they all refuse. Timon is absolutely shattered by betrayal, that is, their refusal to help him. He is shocked by their attitude. His unshakable confidence in his so-called friends prepares for the moment of tragic recognition.
Another important theme of the play is misanthropy. It is all the more startling because it marks a major change in his character. From extreme generosity towards mankind he swings to the opposite, intense hatred for all mankind. His misanthropy is the result of the betrayal of trust. When his friends refuse to help him in need, his attitude towards mankind undergoes a drastic change. He wishes and prays that all men should turn into beasts. His changed attitude and hatred for mankind can also be seen in the case when, he spots Apemantus and shouts, ‘Plague plague.’
His hatred is an active one; he actually plots for the destruction of mankind. He gives away his gold to spread ruin and hasten the destruction of mankind. He gives some to the two prostitutes Phrynia and Timandra, who accompany Alcibiades, and tells them to spread venereal diseases. He incites the two bandits, who come to rob him, with gifts of gold and asks them to continue with their profession. He advises them not only to steal but take the lives of their victim, to break open and rob the shops of Athens. When Alcibiades comes to see Timon in the forest, Timon advises him that when he attacks Athens, he should not even spare the lives of babes and virgins. He tries every possible way to bring ruin in the community. He rails on humanity and takes satisfaction in it. Apemantus does not realize the real ground of Timon’s misanthropy. When Alcibiades attacks the city of Athens, the Senators come to meet Timon in the woods in order to seek his help and to make amends for what they had done. Timon could have accepted it but he was adamant and therefore dies a misanthrope.
Shakespeare presents Timon as a symbol of misanthrope a hater of mankind and not of a man.