Timon and Apemantus, by Henry Wallis (1830-1916), from the Imperial Edition of The Works of Shakespere, 1873-1876. Courtesy Emory University.

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The Life of Timon of Athens is a play by William Shakespeare about the fortunes of an Athenian named Timon (and probably influenced by the philosopher of the same name, as well), generally regarded as one of his most obscure and difficult works. Originally grouped with the tragedies, it is generally considered such, but some scholars group it with the problem plays.


  • Timon (/ˈtaɪmən/ Template:USdict): a lord of Athens.
  • Alcibiades /ælsɨˈbaɪ.ədiːz/): Captain of a military brigade and good friend to Timon.
  • Apemantus, sometimes spelled Apermantus, a philosopher and churl, .
  • Flavius is Timon's chief Steward.
  • Flaminius is one of Timon's servants.
  • Servilius is another of Timon's servants.
  • Lucilius is a romantic youth and Timon's servant.
  • Ventidius, also spelled "Ventidgius" is one of Timon's "friends", and in debtors' prison.
  • Lucullus is Timon's "friend".
  • Lucius, Timon's "friend"
  • Sempronius is Timon's most jealous "friend".
  • Poet and Painter are friends; artists who seek Timon's patronage.
  • Jeweller and Merchant appear briefly
  • The Senators of Athens.
  • The Fool is briefly a companion to Apemantus.
  • Three Strangers, one named Hostilius; friends to Lucius.
  • The Old Athenian is the father of the woman Lucilius loves.
  • Four Lords. False friends of Timon.
  • Servants to Timon, Lucullus, Lucius, Varro
  • Timon's creditors - Isidore, Varro, Titus, Hortensius, Philotus
  • Banditti, Soldier, Page, Cupid and Ladies at the Masque.


Timon is not initially a misanthrope. He is a wealthy and generous Athenian gentleman. He gives a large banquet, attended by nearly all the main characters. Timon gives away money wastefully, and everyone wants to please him to get more, except for Apemantus, a churlish philosopher whose cynicism Timon cannot yet appreciate. He accepts art from Poet and Painter, and a jewel from the Jeweller, but by the end of Act 1, he has given that away to another friend. Timon's servant, Lucilius, has been wooing the daughter of an old Athenian. The man is angry, but Timon pays him three talents in exchange for the couple being allowed to marry, because the happiness of his servant is worth the price. Timon is told that his friend, Ventidius, is in debtors' prison. He sends money to pay Ventidius's debt, and Ventidius is released and joins the banquet. Timon gives a speech on the value of friendship. The guests are entertained by a masque, followed by dancing. As the party winds down, Timon continues to give things away to his friends; his horses, and other possessions. The act is divided rather arbitrarily into two scenes but the experimental and/or unfinished nature of the play is reflected in that it does not naturally break into a five-act structure.

Timon has given away all his wealth. Flavius, Timon's steward, is upset by the way Timon has spent his wealth–overextending his munificence by showering patronage on the parasitic writers and artists, and delivering his dubious friends from their financial straits. He tells Timon so when he returns from a hunt. Timon is upset that he has not been told this before, and begins to vent his anger on Flavius, who tells him that he has tried repeatedly in the past without success, and now he is at the end; all Timon's land has been sold. Shadowing Timon is another guest at the banquet; the cynical philosopher Apemantus, who terrorizes Timon's shallow companions with his caustic raillery. He was the only guest not angling for money or possessions from Timon. Along with a Fool, he attacks Timon's creditors when they show up to make their demands for immediate payment. Timon cannot pay, and sends out his servants to make requests for help from those friends he considers closest.

Timon's servants are turned down, one by one, by Timon's false friends, two giving lengthy monologues as to their anger with them. Elsewhere, one of Alcibiades's junior officers has reached an even further point of rage, killing a man in "hot blood." Alcibiades pleads with the Senate for mercy, arguing that a crime of passion should not carry as severe a sentence as premeditated murder. The senators disagree, and when Alcibiades persists, banish him forever. He vows revenge, with the support of his troops. The act finishes with Timon discussing with his servants the revenge he will carry out at his next banquet.

Timon has a much smaller party, intended only for those he feels have betrayed him. The serving trays are brought in, but under them the friends find not a feast, but rocks and lukewarm water. Timon sprays them with the water, throws the dishes at them, and flees his home. The loyal Flavius vows to find him.


Cursing the city walls, Timon goes into the wilderness and makes his crude home in a cave, sustaining himself on roots. Here he discovers an underground trove of gold. The knowledge of this spreads. Alcibiades, Apemantus, and three bandits are able to find Timon before Flavius does. He offers most of the gold to the rebel Alcibiades to subsidize his assault on the city, which he now wants to see destroyed, as his experiences have reduced him to misanthropy. He gives the rest to his whores to spread disease, and much of the remainder to Poet and Painter, who arrive soon after, leaving little left for the senators who visit him. Accompanying Alcibiades are two prostitutes, Phrynia and Timandra, who trade barbs with the bitter Timon on the subject of venereal disease. When Apemantus appears and accuses Timon of copying his pessimistic style, the audience is treated to the spectacle of a mutually misanthropic exchange of invective.

Flavius arrives. He wants the money as well, but he also wants Timon to come back into society. Timon acknowledges that he has had one true friend in Flavius, a shining example of an otherwise diseased and impure race, but laments that this man is a mere servant. He invites the last envoys from Athens, who hoped Timon might placate Alcibiades, to go hang themselves, and then dies in the wilderness. Alcibiades, marching on Athens, then throws down his glove, and ends the play reading the bitter epitaph Timon wrote for himself, part of which was composed by Callimachus:

"Here lies a wretched corpse of wretched soul bereft:
Seek not my name: a plague consume you wicked caitiffs left!"
Here lie I, Timon, who alive, all living men did hate,

Pass by, and curse thy fill, but pass and stay not here thy gait."

While both couplets appear in the Folio text, he cannot have intended them both to be ultimately included due to their contradictory nature, unless he was seeing Timon himself as being self-contradictory.

Date and textEdit

The play has caused considerable debate among scholars. It is oddly constructed, with several lacunae (gaps) and for this reason is often described as unfinished, multi-authored, and/or experimental. No precise date of composition can be given and, while most place it as close but prior to the late romances, theories posited have ranged broadly from Shakespeare's first work to his last. It is usually grouped with the tragedies (as in the First Folio), though some scholars have placed it with the problem comedies despite the death of its title character. Source material includes Plutarch's "Life of Alcibiades" and Lucian's dialogue, Timon the Misanthrope. The play had not been published prior to its inclusion in the First Folio (1623).



Since the nineteenth century, suggestions have been made that Timon is the work of two writers, and it has been argued that the play's unusual features are the result of the play being co-authored by playwrights with very different mentalities; the most popular candidate, Thomas Middleton, was first suggested in 1920.[1] A 1917 study by John Mackinnon Robertson posited that George Chapman wrote "A Lover's Complaint" and was the originator of Timon of Athens.[2] These claims were rejected by other commentators, including Bertolt Brecht,[3] Frank Harris,[4] and Rolf Soellner, who claimed that the play was a theatrical experiment. They argued that if one playwright revised another's play it would have been "fixed" to the standards of Jacobean theatre, which is clearly not the case. Soellner believed the play is unusual because it was written to be performed at the Inns of Court, where it would have found a niche audience with young lawyers.[5]

In the past three decades, several linguistic analyses of the text have all discovered apparent confirmation of the theory that Middleton wrote much of the play. It contains numerous words, phrases and punctuation choices that are common in the work of Middleton and rare in Shakespeare. These linguistic markers cluster in certain scenes, apparently indicating that the play is a collaboration between Middleton and Shakespeare, not a revision of one's work by the other.[6] The evidence suggests that Middleton wrote around one third of the play, mostly the central scenes. The editor of the Oxford edition, John Jowett, states that Middleton,

wrote the banquet scene, the central scene with Timon's creditors and Alcibiades' confrontation with the senate, and most of the episodes concerning the Steward. The play's abrasively harsh humour and its depiction of social relationships that involve a denial of personal relationships are Middletonian traits.[6]
Jowett stresses that Middleton's presence does not mean the play should be disregarded, stating "Timon of Athens is all the more interesting because the text articulates a dialogue between two dramatists of a very different temper."[6]

Themes and motifsEdit

Major motifs in the Shakespearean play include dogs, breath, gold (from Act IV on), and "use" in reference to usury (so called because it takes payment for the "use" of money). One of the most common emendations of the play is the Poet's line "Our Poesie Is as a Gowne, which uses From whence 'tis nourisht," to "our poesy is as a gum, which oozes from whence 'tis nourished" (originated by Pope and Johnson). Soellner says that such emendations erode the importance of this motif, and suggests a better emendation would be "from" to "form," creating a mixed metaphor "revelatory of the poet's inanity."[7]

One odd emendation that often appears near the end of the play is Alcibiades commanding his troops to "cull th' infected fourth" from the Senate, as if he intends to destroy a fourth of the Senate. The word in the folio is, in fact, "forth," suggesting that "th' infected" are simply the ones who argued strongly against the cases of Timon and Alicibiades's officer, and that the troops are to leave alone those who just went along with it.

Banquets and FeastingEdit

Banquets and feasting in Shakespeare are dramatically significant; besides sometimes being of central and structural importance, they often present dramatic spectacles in themselves.[8] The first banquet of Timon of Athens reflects contemporary understandings of lavish Athenian entertainment at which Timon celebrates friendship and society. All the citizens are welcome to the banquet, as in accordance with the democratic principles of Athens. The second banquet functions as a parody of the first, as Timon uses it to exact revenge on his false friends, before abandoning feasting and the city completely by exiling himself. The senses are absent from this feast: Timon mocks the insatiable appetite of his guests as he uncovers dishes of smoke and water. Timon is misled by facades of friendship, and so inflicts apropos revenge: misleading those that had misled him by having them suffer the disillusionment of mortal senses with the mere spectacle of a banquet.[8]

Feasting had political importance both in Ancient Greece and early modern England. The accession of James I, however, brought to it a new level of hedonism. Excessive and riotous pageantry and feasting stirred anxiety about man's unbridled appetite and difficulty in keeping desire in check. It is likely that Shakespeare’s audience would have been influenced in their perception of feasts by the religious precept of penitence. Fasting was a key feature of penitent behavior.[8]

Two Biblical banquets in particular resound in the language and themes of the play. The story of the Last Supper offers a model for sociable eating which unites and yet anticipates betrayal. The story of the Prodigal Son, on the other hand, serves to illuminate the moral ambiguities of gluttony and excessive feasting.

Shakespeare includes the character of Alcibiades, in the play, the ultimate redeemer of iniquitous Athens. He would have been known among the educated of the audience for his presence at the Greek banquet in Plato’s Symposium at which he gets the last word on the nature of love, proposing that it cannot be found in superficial appearance.[9]

Robert Weimann notes how the stage directions in the play inform us that the men of elevated status sit down at the main table in the middle of the stage, but Timon orders Apemantus to sit at a table by himself downstage from the main table. From this positioning, a contrast is created between Timon and his guests giving eloquent speeches from the area around the table and Apemantus who is situated so as the audience can hear him, but the other characters behind him cannot. He instructs us to “Look at them, and at what their feasting really means.” His remarks comment critically on the pomp and ceremony without destroying the theatrical effect of the banquet itself. The dual perspective that results acknowledges the sensuous attraction of a dazzling theatrical occasion, but also penetrates the showy surface[10]; for in it there is “a huge zest for life and the moral strength to see through it its glitter, its hypocrisies, its shame and its rewards.”[11]

Feasting in Timon of Athens illustrates a tension between individual desire and common humanity, and the interdependence of good self-government and good social government. Eating together can act as social bonding; sharing food reinforces community and is often celebratory. However, individual and selfish appetites can also break down the relationships between man and man.[12]

Performance historyEdit

“Timon of Athens” is believed to have first been performed between 1607 and 1608, whereas the text is believed to have first been printed in 1623 as a part of the First Folio.

Licensed, Feb. 18. 1677/8. Ro. L'Estrange. LONDON, Printed by J. M. for Henry Herringman, at the Blue Anchor, in the Lower Walk of the New Exchange, 1678.

Performance history in Shakespeare's lifetime is unknown, though the same is also true of his more highly regarded plays such as Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, which most scholars believe were written in the same period. The play's date uncertain, though its bitter tone links it with Coriolanus and King Lear. John Day's play Humour Out of Breath, published in 1608, contains a reference to "the lord that gave all to his followers, and begged more for himself" – a possible allusion to Timon that would, if valid, support a date of composition before 1608. It has been proposed that Shakespeare himself took the role of the Poet, who has the fifth-largest line count in the play.[13]

In 1678 Thomas Shadwell produced a popular adaptation, The History of Timon of Athens, the Man-Hater, to which Henry Purcell later composed the music. Shadwell added two women to the plot: Melissa, Timon's faithless fiancee, and Evandre, his loyal and discarded mistress. James Dance made another adaptation in 1768, soon followed by Richard Cumberland's version at Drury Lane in 1771, in which the dying Timon gives his daughter Evadne, not present in Shakespeare's original, to Alcibiades. Further adaptations followed in 1786 (Thomas Hull's at Covent Garden) and 1816 (George Lamb's at Drury Lane), ending with an 1851 production reinstating Shakespeare's original text by Samuel Phelps at Sadler's Wells.[14]

It has played once on Broadway, in 1993, with Brian Bedford in the title role.[15] This was a production of The Public Theater, which revived the play in February 2011, citing it as a play for the Great Recession.

Adaptations and cultural referencesEdit

Literary versionsEdit

Peter Brook directed a French language production in the sixties in which Timon was portrayed as an innocent idealist in a white tuxedo, ripped and disheveled in the second part. His cast was primarily young, and Apemantus was Algerian. Commentators who admire the play typically see Timon as intended to have been a young man behaving in a naïve way. The play's detractors usually cite an oblique reference to armor in Act IV as evidence that Timon is a long-retired soldier.

Literary allusionsEdit

Vladimir Nabokov borrowed the title for his novel Pale Fire from this quote of Timon's in Act IV, Scene III:

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...

A copy of Timon of Athens features variously in the plot of Pale Fire and, at one point, the quotation above is amusingly mistranslated from the fictional language of Zemblan, a trademark prank of the polyglot Nabokov. The theme of thievery to which Timon is alluding is also a principal theme of Pale Fire, referring to Charles Kinbote's misappropriation of the poem by the deceased John Shade that forms part of the novel's structure.

Charles Dickens alludes to Timon in Great Expectations when Wopsle moves to London to pursue a life in the theater.

Charlotte Brontë includes an allusion to Timon in Villette. Ginevra Fanshawe affectionately nicknames Lucy "Timon," which highlights Ginevra's role as a foil for Lucy.

Thomas Hardy alludes to Timon in his short story, "The Three Strangers."

Australian novelist Robert Gott takes the title for his third William Power mystery, Amongst the Dead, from Act I of Timon of Athens:

". . . Alcibiades / Thou art a soldier, therefore seldom rich / It comes a charity to thee, for all thy living / Is 'mongst the dead, and all the land thou hast / Lies in a pitched field."

Ralph Waldo Emerson alludes to Timon in Essays: Second Series (1844)in an essay entitled "Gifts." Emerson says, "This giving is flat usurpation, and therefore when the beneficiary is ungrateful, as all beneficiaries hate all Timons...I rather sympathize with the beneficiary, than with the anger of my lord Timon."

Danish author Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) has a story within the tale titled "The Deluge of Norderney" in her Seven Gothic Tales. It tells about a Hamlet-like figure, called Timon of Assens [sic] who comes from the Danish town of Assens.

In ArtEdit

The English artist and writer Wyndham Lewis produced one work of art, a portfolio of drawings titled "Timon of Athens" (1913), a preliminary example of the style of art that would come to be called Vorticist. Like Timon, Lewis's own life was shaped by a war, a reputation for misanthropy, and alienation from his peer group. In this respect the work may be seen as a self-portrait of sorts, albeit one that utilizes the fractured aesthetic of early-20th century avant-garde painting.

Musical versionsEdit

Shadwell's adaptation of the play was first performed with music by Louis Grabu in 1678. More famously, the 1695 revival had new music by Henry Purcell, most of it appearing in the masque that ended Act Two. Duke Ellington was commissioned to compose original music for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's first production of Timon of Athens in 1963. Stephen Oliver, who wrote the incidental music for the BBC television version, composed a two-act opera, Timon of Athens, which was first performed at the Coliseum, London, on May 17, 1991. Singer/songwriter Ben Patton wrote and recorded a song named "Timon of Athens" in 2006 which is included on his album Because the Heart.

Play AdaptationsEdit

British playwright Glyn Cannon wrote a short adaptation of the play called Timon's Daughter. It premiered in May, 2008 at the Old Fitzroy Theatre in Sydney. Cannon's play revisits the major themes of charity and giving in the original work, with a story that follows the adventures of Timon's daughter (named "Alice" in Cannon's play) when she is taken in by Flavius (renamed "Alan").

Television versionsEdit

Rarely performed, Timon was produced for TV as part of the BBC Television Shakespeare series in 1981 with Jonathan Pryce as Timon, Norman Rodway as Apemantus, John Welsh as Flavius, and John Shrapnel as Alcibiades, with Diana Dors as Timandra, Tony Jay as the Merchant, Sebastian Shaw as the Old Athenian, and John Fortune and John Bird as Poet and Painter. The production, directed by Jonathan Miller is done in Jacobean dress rather than in Greek costuming, but Shakespeare's Greece in this play is as fictional as his Illyria.


In the Gary Blackwood book Shakespeare's Spy, the main character Widge writes the play trying to impress Shakespeare's daughter Judith. He is given the play by Shakespeare and Widge rewrites the play using Athenians rather than Catholics, which is what the play is originally about in the book.

Critical responseEdit

Template:SectOR Many scholars find much unfinished about this play including unexplained plot developments, characters who appear unexplained and say little, prose sections that a polished version would have in verse (although close analysis would show this to be almost exclusively in the lines of Apemantus, and probably an intentional character trait), and the two epitaphs, one of which doubtless would have been canceled in the final version. However, similar duplications appear in Julius Caesar and Love's Labour's Lost and are generally thought to be examples of two versions being printed when only one was ultimately used in production, which could easily be the case here.[16] Frank Kermode refers to the play as "a poor relation of the major tragedies."[17] This is the majority view, but the play has many scholarly defenders as well. Nevertheless, and perhaps unsurprisingly due to its subject matter, it has not proven to be among Shakespeare's popular works.

An anonymous play, Timon, also survives. Its Timon is explicitly hedonistic and spends his money much more on himself than in Shakespeare's version. He also has a mistress. It mentions a London inn called The Seven Stars that did not exist before 1602, yet it contains elements that are in Shakespeare's play but not in Plutarch or in Lucian's dialogue, Timon the Misanthrope, the other major accepted source for Shakespeare's play. Both Jacobean plays deal extensively with Timon's life before his flight into the wilderness, which in both Greek versions is given little more than one sentence each.

Soellner argues that the play is equal parts tragedy and satire, but that neither term can adequately be used as an adjective, for it is first and foremost a tragedy, and it does not satirize tragedy; rather, it satirizes its subjects in the manner of Juvenalian satire while simultaneously being a tragedy.

Herman Melville considered Timon to be among the most profound of Shakespeare's plays, and in his 1850 review "Hawthorne and His Mosses"[18] writes that Shakespeare is not "a mere man of Richard-the-Third humps, and Macbeth daggers," but rather "it is those deep far-away things in him; those occasional flashings-forth of the intuitive Truth in him; those short, quick probings at the very axis of reality:–these are the things that make Shakespeare, Shakespeare. Through the mouths of the dark characters of Hamlet, Timon, Lear, and Iago, he craftily says, or sometimes insinuates the things, which we feel to be so terrifically true, that it were all but madness for any good man, in his own proper character, to utter, or even hint of them." In his 1590 Greene's Mourning Garment, Robert Greene used the term "Timonist" to refer to a lonely misanthrope. In his 1852 novel Pierre, Melville used the term "Timonism" about an artist's contemptuous rejection of both his audience and mankind in general.

Appreciation of the play often pivots on the reader's perception of Timon's asceticism. Admirers like Soellner point out that Shakespeare's text has Timon neither drink wine nor eat meat: only water and roots are specifically mentioned as being in his diet, which is also true of Apemantus, the philosopher. If one sees Timon's parties not as libations but as vain attempts to genuinely win friends among his peers, he gains sympathy. This is true of Pryce's Timon in the television version mentioned above, whose plate is explicitly shown as being perpetually unsoiled by food, and he tends to be meek and modest. This suggests a Timon who lives in the world but not of it. Other versions, often by creators who regard the play as a lesser work, involve jazz-era swinging (sometimes, such as in the Michael Langham/Brian Bedford production (in which Timon eats flamingo) set to a score that Duke Ellington composed for it in the 1960s), and conclude the first act with a debauchery. The Arkangel Shakespeare audio recording featuring Alan Howard (with Rodway reprising his television role) also takes this route: Howard's line readings suggest that Timon is getting drunker and drunker during the first act; he does not represent the moral or idealistic figure betrayed by the petty perceived by Soellner and Brecht the way Pryce does.

References Edit

Notes Edit

  1. John Jowett, ed. Timon of Athens (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 132-6
  2. Robertson, John Mckinnon. Shakespeare And Chapman: A Thesis Of Chapman's Authorship Of A Lover's Complaint, And His Origination Of Timon Of Athens (1917). Reprint Services Corporation, 1999.
  3. Kukhoff, Armin Gerd. "Timon von Athen: Konzeption und Aufführungspraxis." Shakespeare Jahrbuch 100–101 (Weimar, 1965), pp. 135–159.
  4. Harris, Frank. On "Timon of Athens" as Solely the Work of Shakespeare
  5. Soellner, Rolf. Timon of Athens: Shakespeare's Pessimistic Tragedy. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1979.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 John Jowett, The Life of Timon of Athens, Oxford University Press, 2004, p.2; 144
  7. Soellner, 228.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Wood, Penelope. “Lavish Spread and Barmecide Feast." Timon of Athens programme, Shakespeare’s Globe Oct. 2008. 14–16
  9. Plato, The Symposium, trans. by Robin Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-19-283427-4.
  10. Weimann, Robert. 1978. Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-3506-2
  11. S.L. Bethell, Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition (London, 1944), p. 81.
  12. Wood, Penelope. “Lavish Spread and Barmecide Feast”. Timon of Athens programme, Shakespeare’s Globe Oct. 2008. 14–16
  13. Michael Lomonico. The Shakespeare Book of Lists: The Ultimate Guide to the Bard, His Plays, and How They've Been Interpreted (And Misinterpreted) Through the Ages. p. 165. He attributes the list of roles played by Shakespeare to a professor at Brandeis University.
  14. F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; pp. 237, 495.
  16. Soellner, 193–194.
  17. Frank Kermode, in The Riverside Shakespeare, G. Blakemore Evans, textual editor; Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1974; pp. 1441–44.
  18. Hawthorne and His Mosses, by Melville, 1850

External linksEdit


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