Sometime between 1604 and 1608, when Shakespeare had just turned 40, he wrote three plays that share a single theme: of generosity followed by ingratitude, leading to resentment, conflict and death. These three plays are “Timon of Athens” (c.1604), “King Lear” (c. 1606) and “Coriolanus (c.1608). The dates are speculative, but the uniformity of theme is clear.
Timon is noted in Athens for his limitless generosity. Indeed so deep are his pockets that he will not even hear of his debts being repaid. “I give it freely ever” he says of his largesse, “and there’s none / Can truly say he gives if he receives”. But his wealth is an illusion, based on borrowing, and soon he will be the one who needs to receive.
At this point, Timon discovers that giving is the easy part, as he is let down by those who have benefited from his generosity in the past. Here suddenly the scales fall from his eyes and he curses his social circle with a last supper in which he serves up warm water and pebbles before abandoning his former life and heading for the forest.
Timon’s hatred of Athens is matched by similar resentments nursed by one of his many visitors in exile: Alcibiades has seen a friend sentenced to death by the Athenian Senate despite a matchless record of service. His anger parallels Timon’s as he marshals his army and takes over the city, there to announce Timon’s isolated off-stage death.
In retrospect, Timon is unusual among Shakespeare’s leading characters for having almost no inner life, no “interiority”. His decisions are so abrupt and unambiguous, and his change of course in life so devoid of any mental preparation, that the audience is distanced from him and observes his downward spiral with a mix of wonder and dismay.
It’s an axiom of Shakespearean scholarship that we cannot discern the author in his work. He is everywhere and nowhere, speaking through his characters, exploring what it means to be human through their dilemmas and doubts, their joy and despair, and their many conflicts. But Timon’s rage at being abandoned by his “friends” is so visceral, and the playwright’s return to this theme in “King Lear” and “Coriolanus” so striking, that the reader may be forgiven for wondering at a personal motive in his exploration of Timon’s self-destructive rage.
Scene by Scene
Act One Scene One
A poet, a painter, a jeweller and a merchant meet at the wealthy Timon’s house with profit in mind.
The poet tells a tale of a man initially wealthy who, when his luck changes, finds himself isolated.
Timon arrives, agrees to meet Ventidius’s debt, release him from prison and “support him after”.
An Old Athenian complains that Timon’s servant Lucilius has been taking an interest in his daughter.
Timon volunteers to “counterpoise” the old man’s investment in his daughter with the loyal Lucilius.
The painter and jeweller are equally keen to engage Timon in discussing the value of their goods.
Apemantus appears, and derides Timon for his generosity towards painter, poet and merchant.
Two Lords will join Timon at his banquet, dubbing him “The noblest mind / That ever govern’d man”.
Act One Scene Two
Ventidius, released from prison through Timon’s generosity, is now wealthy and tries to repay him.
But Timon refuses, saying “I gave it freely”, then cites “true friendship” as the enemy of formality.
Apemantus disagrees, but Timon organises a separate table for him, so as not to “affect company”.
Apemantus believes humans can’t be trusted, but Timon replies “We are born to do benefits”.
Dancers visit Timon and perform for him, leading one Lord to observe “how ample you’re beloved”.
The servant Flavius is told to bring the casket of jewels, but cannot engage Timon in serious matters.
Gifts are freely exchanged, but Timon is broke, and has mortgaged his land to maintain his giving.
Alone with Timon, Apemantus refuses his charity since that would compromise his criticism of him.
Act Two Scene One
A Senator owed money by Timon can’t believe that his money won’t run out soon: “It cannot hold”.
He tells his servant to go to Timon – “his days and times are past” – to demand repayment of debts.
Act Two Scene Two
Flavius complains that Timon will not hear details of his spending, nor take any steps to rein it in.
When servants arrive from various creditors to ask that debts be settled, Timon procrastinates.
Flavius corners Timon in order to explain confidentially the details of his financial situation.
Apemantus arrives with a Fool, and banters with three servants of usurers or money-lenders.
Timon mistakenly berates Flavius for having failed to tell him about his dire finances before now.
Timon recommends selling off his land but Flavius reports that it has already been mortgaged.
Timon reassures Flavius that he will not want for support: “I am wealthy in my friends”, he tells him.
Flavius tells him that further borrowing is impossible, but Timon is confident Ventidius will lend.
Act Three Scene One
Flaminius visits Lucullus to ask for fifty talents but is given “three solidares” – which he rejects.
He derides Lucullus as a “disease of a friend”, and hopes Timon’s generosity does not benefit him.
Act Three Scene Two
Lucilius is told that Lucullus rejected Timon’s plea for a loan and says he would never turn him down.
Servilius arrives from Timon with a request for help, which Lucilius regrets he is unable to meet.
Strangers overhearing this conversation distance themselves from “the monstrousness of man”.
Act Three Scene Three
Sempronius feels Timon might have asked others before himself, then angers when he hears he has.
He fears he’ll be seen as a fool by others, and suspects his dignity has been undermined by Timon.
The servant believes Sempronius is a “villain” and senses that Timon’s “best hope” has been lost.
Act Three Scene Four
Servants of Timon’s creditors criticise the habit of wearing his jewels while agitating for repayment.
Flaminius says Timon has not “come forth” while Flavius rages at creditors “false” and “gluttonous”.
Servilius reveals that Timon’s mood is no longer “comfortable” and that he “keeps his chamber”.
Timon appears in a rage, to be confronted with bills from various creditors, and seeming suicidal.
Timon instructs Flavius to prepare a banquet for all his old friends where he will “feast the rascals”.
Act Three Scene Five
To the Senate, where the death penalty is imposed on “a friend” of Alcibiades, despite his pleas.
This friend was an honourable and sober man who killed another in defence of his good reputation.
But the first Senator believes that insults should be worn patiently, not used as fuel for conflict.
But Alcibiades says there is no dignity in being insulted, and argues that the Senate should show pity.
But despite his heroic record in battle, the Senate confirms the sentence much to Alcibiades’s anger.
Having lost the fight to save his friend, Alcibiades is banished from Athens and vows to gain revenge.
Act Three Scene Six
In Timon’s banqueting-room, two Lords regret they could not help Timon with loans when asked.
When Timon appears they beg his forgiveness, but their anxieties are brushed aside by the host.
Timon delivers an elliptical speech, noting that if gods borrow from men, men will forsake gods.
He describes his “present friends” as “to me nothing” and adding “to nothing are they welcome”.
He shows his “mouth-friends” dishes of steam and lukewarm water, which he throws at his guests.
He denounces them as “detested parasites” and “courteous destroyers” and drives them away.
He concludes with a curse for Athens, and adds “henceforth hated be / … man and all humanity”.
Four guests conclude that Timon is “mad” and, collecting their belongings, rush to get away.
Act Four Scene One
In a passionate soliloquy, Timon hopes that all civilised custom and practice in Athens will wither.
He prays confusion will abound and plague prosper, and that all standards and hierarchies collapse.
He will head to the woods where he will make friends of animals and nurse his hatred of humans.
Act Four Scene Two
Timon’s servants lament the break-up of their household and regret the fate of “So noble a master”.
Flavius offers to share his wealth with other servants, and hopes future encounters will be friendly.
Alone, Flavius believes Timon was deceived by “varnish’d friends”, “ingrateful” and “monstrous”.
He believes Timon’s chief crime was that “he does too much good”, his money “thy chief afflictions”.
Act Four Scene Three
Timon in the forest curses humanity and craves to be free of “feasts, societies and throngs of men”.
Digging for roots to eat, he discovers gold, but curses his discovery of so damaging a material.
Alcibiades appears “in warlike manner” accompanied by two prostitutes to renew acquaintance.
Timon encourages the prostitutes to infect their clients with diseases, and demands to be left alone.
When he hears the plan to invade Athens, Timon encourages Alcibiades to be ruthless and pitiless.
He gives the prostitutes gold while encouraging them to “be whores still” and cause untold damage.
Alone again, Timon digs for roots to sustain him, while hoping to see no more of “ingrateful man”.
Apemantus appears and calls on Timon to follow the example of those who have impoverished him.
He regards Timon as “a madman so long, now a fool”, but Timon derides him as “the worst of men”.
Apemantus notes that Timon was never average but always drawn to the “extremity of both ends”.
Their conversation descends into insults, closing when Timon throws a stone at him as he departs.
Bandits arrive, to be given gold by Timon, and encouraged to head to Athens to “Break open shops”.
As the bandits leave, Flavius arrives to lament the sight of the “despised and ruinous man my lord”.
Timon finally recognises him and questions his motives, but Flavius claims “love, / Duty and zeal”.
Timon accepts his explanation, gives him gold and encourages him to “Go, live rich and happy”.
Act Five Scene One
The Poet and the Painter appear, doubting Timon’s integrity but keen to benefit from his largesse.
They have nothing to offer but have heard convincing reports he is wealthier than they supposed.
Timon discovers that they have heard “that I have gold”, but he beats them and chases them away.
Flavius appears with two Senators who convey the city’s regret that Timon’s fortunes have fallen.
But “Timon cares not”, and offers Athens’s citizens the use of his tree on which to hang themselves.
Timon pronounces his own epitaph inviting visitors to come only to see his grave after his death.
Act Five Scene Two
Three Senators, having lost hope of Timon’s help, anxiously await the arrival of Alcibiades’s forces.
Act Five Scene Three
A soldier searching in the forest for Timon, discovers his grave and struggles to decipher the legend.
Act Five Scene Four
Alcibiades approaches Athens to be met by two Senators keen to absolve the city of its past crimes.
They beg him to promise to abandon past grievances and to govern the city rather than destroy it.
Alcibiades agrees to restrict his punitive activities to “Those enemies of Timon’s and mine own.”
The soldier arrives from the previous scene to present Timon’s epitaph to Alcibiades to read aloud.
The contradictory message marking one whom “all living men did hate” brings events to a close.
In many ways “Timon of Athens” is (like “The Merchant of Venice”) a play about money – in all its forms, including its absence. Timon’s first appearance on the stage in 1.1 suggests that he has not only generous instincts but also insight into poverty: it’s not good enough, he says after paying Ventidius’s debts, “to help the feeble up, / But to support him after”. The presentation of Timon in this play may be somewhat one-dimensional, but his kindness is the key theme in the opening scenes.
The Old Athenian who arrives in 1.1 to complain to Timon that his unnamed daughter’s romantic instincts have begun to get out of hand is the latest in a long line of Shakespearean daughters who have fallen in love behind their father’s backs. Other examples include Jessica (who fools Shylock), Desdemona (who hoodwinks Brabantio) and of course Juliet, whose father Capulet is hopelessly deceived. In Shakespeare’s last play “The Tempest” (1611), Prospero employs his magic to manage the love affair that blossoms between Miranda and Fernando. But even then, control is elusive. Shakespeare, famously, was father to two daughters.
Timon’s confidence that he is surrounded by friends is countered by Apemantus’s cynicism. A mark of Timon’s idealism is his description of his friends in 1.2 as being “like brothers”. Naturally this analogy is a hostage to fortune, because once the money runs out, Timon’s friends will quickly earn their inverted commas and disappear. Nonetheless it’s a reminder that Timon appears to have no family – no wife or partner, no sons or daughters, and no brothers or sisters. So his friends are all he has. The critic Harold Bloom summarises this isolation as “Timon’s uniqueness in Shakespeare: he has no family connections”, and he adds “Timon also has no origins”.
Most of the characters who appear in this play might reasonably be described as caricatures designed to meet the needs of the plot. The nameless Senator in 2.1, for example, makes four speeches in this scene and then is heard no more. His brief appearance satisfies the needs of the playwright to reflect a general loss of faith in Timon, especially among the classes that count (in both senses of the word). The servant, incidentally – dignified with a name – reappears in the next scene as he discharges his duties before disappearing.
When Timon berates Flavius in 2.2 for hiding his financial situation from him until now (“wherefore ere this time / Had you not fully laid my state before me?”), the audience recognises that he is being unreasonable in deflecting the blame away from himself: in practice, Flavius has tried to alert him to his precarious situation in Act One (Timon “commands us to provide … / And all out of an empty coffer: / Nor will he know his purse”) and again in Act Two, Timon is described as “so senseless of expense, / That he will neither know how to maintain it, / Nor cease his flow of riot”. Hitherto the audience has had a high opinion of Timon, but his cavalier generosity regardless of his ability to meet his debts is harder to admire.
The first three scenes of Act Three present three different responses to Timon’s requests for support. Every potential donor has his own special excuse not to help. For Lucullus there is a problem with “security”; for Lucilius, the timing is “unfortunate”; Sempronius, meanwhile, has issues of self-importance to contend with. The most striking feature of these three scenes is the way Shakespeare gives the last word to servants or casual observers: in 3.1, Flaminius condemns a friendship that has “such a faint and milky heart”; strangers observing the events of 3.2 condemn “the monstrousness of man”; and in 3.3 Timon’s unnamed servant dismisses Sempronius as “foul”.
The sub-plot, introduced in 3.5, shows Alcibiades pleading with the Senate for the life of his friend. At first the sub-plot seems incongruous, as if it has mistakenly turned up in the wrong play, but the connection with Timon seems to be a psychological state sometimes called a “credit deficit”. Here the individual believes they have been rewarded less generously than they merit. There is general agreement that Timon has not been blessed with the friends he deserves; similarly, Alcibiades argues in the Senate that his friend fought bravely for Athens and might at least expect mercy in return. A comparable psychological state, as mentioned in the Introduction, is explored in “King Lear” and “Coriolanus”. In the latter, the eponymous hero – a Roman general – almost goes to war with Rome in pursuit of his self-respect.
The banquet in which Timon repays his “mouth-friends” with a feast of warm water and pebbles is a memorable conclusion to his life in Athens. Shakespeare’s plays often find the formality and ritual of banqueting a suitable location for the dramatic. Most famous is Macbeth’s feast for his old friend and rival Banquo, whom he has had murdered: in the midst of a formal dinner, the ravaged ghost of his victim suddenly appears. The most grotesque feast in Shakespeare occurs in “Titus Andronicus”, in which the title character kills and cooks two young men in a pie that he then serves up to their mother. Naturally, he doesn’t reveal the secret of his recipe until she has eaten her fill.
“Timon of Athens” is famously a play of two halves, and 4.1 introduces the second half, in which the forest replaces the town, and Timon’s misanthropy displaces his previous reckless generosity. In the process, as he says in 4.1, let everything change to its “confounding contraries” – including himself. Shakespeare often uses soliloquies to illustrate the interior world of the character – their doubts, their dilemmas, their groping after certainty – but these forty lines reflect not a divided sensibility but a complete change of heart which the rest of the play will explore.
The second half of the play presents a debate about the real value of material wealth. First, in 4.2, Flavius argues that in general “riches point to misery”, and that specifically Timon was “brought low by his own heart, / Undone by goodness”: a paradox, glossed later as “thy great fortunes / … made thy chief afflictions”. In the following scene, Timon discovers gold while digging for roots, and his attitude to what he has found is more nuanced: gold is a material that “will make black white [and] foul fair”. But it does also have the ability to bring revolutionary change: it will “break religions”, but also “bless the accursed”.
When in 4.3 Alcibiades encounters Timon in the forest and asks him to identify himself, he is told “I am Misanthropos, and hate mankind”. This lengthy scene throws up a range of themes but highlighted most frequently is Timon’s desire to be alone. Yet he is besieged by a sequence of visitors, frustrating his purpose. In the process, his life now recalls his time in Athens, which was notably social. A further echo of a former life is his generosity, which, for all his determination to change, remains intact: far from renouncing his old ways, then, it seems Timon cannot escape his own generous instincts. Further visits feature in the following act.
Shakespeare’s portrait of the poet as a shameless deceiver and charlatan in 5.1 is obviously of special interest. Other depictions of poets in his work are less damaging: in “Julius Caesar”, for example, Cinna the poet, a blameless bystander, is murdered by the mob in fit of ferocious herd mentality. Even so, teachers of poetry come off less well in these plays: in “The Taming of the Shrew” Lucentio has mixed motives – he is in love with his pupil – and in “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, the Holofernes has plenty to say about poetry, much of it mistaken. There are good reasons to believe that Shakespeare himself may have worked as a schoolmaster, possibly in Stratford, when a young man.
The concluding scene of the play, in which Timon’s epitaph is declaimed, is widely regarded as unsatisfactory. First, the epitaph contradicts itself, encouraging the reader not to seek out the name and then supplying it; second because in claiming that “all living men did hate” Timon, it misleads – at worst, his acquaintances were indifferent, while his servants were respectful and loyal; and finally because as a conclusion to the play – in the inflated mode of “Hamlet” perhaps – the epitaph as conclusion does not earn its keep. The Alcibiades sub-plot is peremptory and the song of praise to Timon is not justified: he was, after all, ultimately a hermit – no family, few friends, no desire for human contact – so this public encomium strikes a jarring note on which to close.
Who’s Who / Characters
Apemantus gives the most concise description of Timon when he says “The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends”. In Athens his generosity was reckless and cavalier, in some ways disingenuous, since he was running out of liquidity and his lands were mortgaged. Moreover he refused to allow the devoted Flavius to tell him how desperate his situation was becoming. In the forest, by contrast, he renounces worldly wealth, though cursed by the chance discovery of gold. Thereupon his life resumes something of its old pattern as a stream of visitors assails his isolation.
Give the name of the imprisoned debtor released by Timon’s generosity in 1.1.
What is the Old Athenian’s complaint against Lucilius?
Who sends his servant to Timon to demand debt repayment in 2.1?
Who accompanies Apemantus in 2.2?
How much does Timon seek to borrow from Lucullus in 3.1?
Which punishment does the Senate impose on Alcibiades in 3.6?
Who volunteers to share his wealth with Timon’s servants in 4.2?
Who accompanies Alcibiades on his visit to the woods in 4.3?
What offer does Timon make to the people of Athens in 5.1?
Who does Alcibiades pledge to punish in the closing scene of the play?
That he has been romancing his daughter despite his poverty
Banishment from Athens
The use of his tree to hang themselves from
The “enemies of Timon’s and mine own”
Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed. He was a shareholder first in The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, then in the King’s Men, theatre companies that made a lot of money through performance rather than publication. His plays did not appear in a single volume until 1623, when the First Folio appeared, seven years after his death.
“Timon of Athens” seems to have been included in this volume as an after-thought. It seems there were copyright issues surrounding “Troilus and Cressida”, and “Timon of Athens” was published instead. Without the legal complications, as Frank Kermode explains in “Shakespeare’s Language”, it seems “Timon” would not have appeared here.
Doubts about whether Shakespeare was the sole author of this play began to emerge in the 19th century, and were accepted as legitimate in the 20th, so that it is now acknowledged that the play has two authors. Thomas Middleton was born in 1580 when Shakespeare was 16, and emerged as a dramatist after two years at Oxford in around 1600.
Shakespeare was not given to collaboration, so how did his connection with Middleton develop? It is possible that he took part in a performance of Middleton’s “Revenger’s Tragedy”, and was drawn to the author. Perhaps he meant to learn from the younger playwright, or maybe he wanted to encourage younger talent. “Conceivably” (as Stanley Wells suggests in “Shakespeare and Co”), he “was ill and needed help”.
Whatever the explanation, Middleton is now accepted as the co-author of the play, probably responsible in particular for the third act. Wells notes that he specialised in writing about legal and financial conflicts with urban settings, and “Athens here stands in for London”. Wells adds that though the collaboration with Shakespeare ended here, Middleton continued to write for the King’s Men after Shakespeare’s death in 1616.