Timon of Athens

William Shakespeare edited by Anthony Dawson and Gretchen Minton

DOI: 10.5040/9781408160138.00000009
Acts: 5. Scenes: 19. Roles: Male (28) , Female (4) , Neutral (0)

Timon of Athens combines de casibus tragedy and urban satire, and ends in fury and bitter pathos. This probable collaboration between Thomas Middleton and Shakespeare produces a virulent and allegorical critique of the barrenness of economic relations, mocking greed and social pretension with a corrosive irony. First appearing in the ‘Tragedies’ section of the 1623 Folio, it is thought that the play was originally composed around 1606-7.

The brief story of Timon appears in one of Shakespeare’s most frequently used sources, Plutarch’s Lives (translated into English by Thomas North in 1579), in the ‘Life of Antony’, Shakespeare’s principal source for Antony and Cleopatra. It is unknown whether the anonymous Inns of Court revel Timon, based on Lucian’s dialogue on ‘Timon the Misanthrope’ (whose Latin translation by Erasmus was widely used as a school text in early modern England) pre- or post-dated Shakespeare and Middleton’s work. The play’s focus on the destructiveness of economic relations in fifth century Athens simultaneously explores the burgeoning world of transaction, credit and debt in the nascent capitalist society of early modern London; the play’s key themes of money and alienation have ensured that the play has interested Marxist and psychoanalytic criticism throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Timon is the most generous man in the city of Athens, handing out expensive gifts and loans to all who befriend and flatter him. He gives a banquet for the Athenian lords, as well as the cynic Apemantus, who mocks Timon and his fawning companions, and Alcibiades, a military captain.

Timon’s steward Flavius is beset by Timon’s creditors, who are calling in the many loans he has taken out; Timon has been spending far beyond his means, despite Flavius’ warnings. Timon sends to Lucius, Lucullus and Sempronius, but all of them refuse to lend him money, finding various excuses. Timon invites his ‘friends’ to a second banquet, but serves only lukewarm water, and accuses them. He leaves the city in disgust. Alcibiades begs the Senators for mercy for a fellow soldier who is condemned to death; they refuse to revoke the sentence and banish Alcibiades.

In the woods outside Athens, Timon digs in the ground for food and discovers a cache of gold. He gives some away to Alcibiades, who is going to attack Athens, to the whores Timandra and Phrynia, and to some thieves. Apemantus and then Flavius find him in the woods. Having heard the rumour of his wealth, the Poet and the Painter, and then the Senators hoping for help against Alcibiades, seek out Timon, but he drives them away.

A soldier in the woods finds Timon’s tomb. The senator’s surrender to Alcibiades, who promises justice.

There is no record of a performance of Timon contemporary to its authors, and its loose ends and unrefined structure may suggest that it never appeared on the early modern stage. A series of adaptations operatized the tragic pathos of Timon’s situation in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, until George Lamb restored much of the original play in the early 1800s. The twentieth century’s onstage response to Timon was manifold: it has, in different decades, been performed as theatre of the absurd, as a response to various banking crises, and as an apocalyptic nightmare.