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Timon of Athens

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

For other uses, see Timon (disambiguation).

The Life of Timon of Athens is a play by William Shakespeare about the legendary Athenian misanthrope Timon, generally regarded as one of his most obscure and difficult works.

The play has caused considerable debate among scholars. It is oddly constructed, with several lacunae, and for this reason, it is often described as unfinished, multi-authored, and/or experimental. As a result, no precise date of composition can be given, to the point that some scholars have proclaimed it his very first or very last work, while most place it as close but prior to the late romances. 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. Its source materials include Plutarch's "Life of Alcibiades" and Lucian's dialogue, Timon the Misanthrope, both of which are excerpted in the Arden Shakespeare edition.

Performance and Publication

The play was not published prior to its inclusion in the First Folio (1623). It has no certain performance history in Shakespeare's era—which is also true of more highly regarded plays like Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, which most scholars believe were written around the same period as Timon. The play's date is far from certain, 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 prior to that date.

In 1678 Thomas Shadwell produced an adaptation, The History of Timon of Athens, the Man-Hater, that proved popular; Henry Purcell later composed music for it. James Dance made another adaptation ninety years later (1768), which was soon followed by Richard Cumberland's version at Drury Lane (1771), in which the dying Timon gives his non-Shakespearean daughter Evadne to Alcibiades. Yet other adaptations ensued in 1786 (Thomas Hull's at Covent Garden) and 1816 (George Lamb's at Drury Lane). The string of adaptations ended with an 1851 production of Shakespeare's text by Samuel Phelps at Sadler's Wells.[1]


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.[2] A 1917 study by John Mackinnon Robertson posits that George Chapman wrote "A Lover's Complaint" and was the originator of Timon of Athens.[3] These claims have been rejected by other commentators, including Bertolt Brecht[4] Frank Harris, [5] and Rolf Soellner, who claim that the play was an experiment. They argue that if one revised the other's play it would have been "fixed" to the standards of Jacobean theatre, which it clearly is not. Soellner believes the play is unusual because it was performed at the Inns of Court, where it would have found a niche audience with young lawyers.[6]

Nonetheless, in the past three decades, several linguistic analyses of the text have all discovered apparent confirmation of the earlier theories: the play contains numerous words, phrases and punctuation choices that are common in the work of Thomas Middleton and rare in Shakespeare. These linguistic markers cluster in certain scenes, apparently indicating that the play is by Middleton and Shakespeare, and that it is a collaboration rather than a revision of one by the other.[7] The editor of the Oxford edition, John Jowett, describes this evidence and stresses that Middleton's presence does not mean the play should be disregarded: "Timon of Athens is all the more interesting because the text articulates a dialogue between two dramatists of a very different temper" (p. 2).

It has been speculated that Shakespeare himself performed the role of the Poet.[8]


  • Timon (Tī'ˑmən): a lord of Athens, and at one time, an unusually wealthy one. Some scholars think him an old retired soldier, based on an ambiguous reference to armor in Act IV, and comparison with the play to King Lear. Others consider Timon to be a young man whose wealth is largely generational. The text states that the bulk of his wealth was in land. Peter Brook's French language production in the 1960s presented Timon as a young idealist in a white tuxedo. Paul Scofield played him as an old soldier in the Royal Shakespeare Company production in 1981.
  • Alcibiades: Captain of a military brigade and good friend to Timon. Often seen in the company of two prostitutes, Phrynia and Timandra. Based on the historical Alcibiades, but not necessarily historical in depicting him
  • Apemantus, a philosopher and churl, very influential on Timon, but also critical of him. His speeches frequently begin in poetry, switch to prose, and end in poetry, as if he feels poetry is a wasted effort for those he might generate it for. Most productions present Apemantus as an old man regardless of Timon's age, though Brook's production presented him as a young Algerian and likely homeless.
  • Flavius is Timon's chief Steward. He handles all of Timon's accounts and manages his household. He genuinely cares about Timon, and is unfazed when Timon vents at him.
  • Flaminius is one of Timon's servants. His name may be derived from a hot temperament he displays with Lucullus.
  • Servilius is another of Timon's servants. He is passive and perhaps illiterate.
  • Lucilius is a romantic youth and Timon's servant. He is in love with a woman above his station.
  • Ventidius is one of Timon's "friends", and in debtors' prison.
  • Lucullus is Timon's "friend". He would rather bribe Flaminius than help Timon.
  • Lucius, Timon's "friend", and the most brazenly hypocritical.
  • Sempronius is Timon's most jealous "friend".
  • Poet and Painter are friends; artists (and implicitly not very good ones) who seek Timon's patronage. They appear several times in the play and always together, but the play's opening dialogue says they have not met in some time. A Jeweller and a Merchant appear briefly in their company (also a Mercer, a ghost character).
  • The Senators of Athens. There are numerous unnamed senators in the play, some with rather large roles, but all of them turn their backs on Timon and Alcibiades. One has a servant named Caphis. Athens had no Senate in the time of the legendary Timon.
  • The Fool is briefly a companion to Apemantus and is employed by a prostitute. Likely he was written to give Robert Armin something to do in the play, as his appearance is quite brief.
  • Three Strangers, one named Hostilius; friends to Lucius.
  • The Old Athenian is the father of the woman Lucilius loves. Some productions have put his daughter on stage as well, but Shakespeare does not note her appearance.
  • Four Lords. False friends of Timon. One of them receives a jewel from Timon, and the same numbered lord references it later. Productions typically conflate these characters with Timon's named false friends.
  • Servants to Timon, Lucullus, Lucius, Isidore, Varro (2), Titus, Hortensius, Philotus (the latter five being the names of Timon's creditors)
  • Banditti, Soldier, Page, Cupid and Ladies at the Masque.


Act I

Timon gives a large banquet, attended by nearly all the characters. Timon gives away money wastefully, and everyone wants to please him to get more, except for Apemantus, a philosopher whose cynicism Timon cannot yet appreciate. He accepts the art from Poet and Painter, and a jewel from the Jeweller, yet even that he has given to one of his friends by the end of the act. An Old Athenian is angry that Timon's servant, Lucilius, has been wooing his daughter, but Timon pays him three talents, because the happiness of his servant is worth the price. When he first makes his appearance at the party, he is told that his friend, Ventidius, is in debtors' prison. He sends money to pay Ventidius's debt, and Ventidius soon arrives at the party. Timon gives a speech on the value of friendship, and the friends view a masque followed by dancing. As the party winds down, Timon is giving away his horses (in preparation for a hunt the next day) and other possessions to his friends. 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.

Act II

Flavius is upset that Timon has spent all his wealth, overextending his munificence by showering patronage on the parasitic writers and artists, and delivering his dubious friends from their financial straits. Timon, returning from the hunt, is upset that he has not been told this before, and begins to vent on Flavius, who tells them that he has tried repeatedly in the past without success, and now he is at the end; all of his land has been sold. Shadowing Timon is his opposite number, the cynic philosopher Apemantus, who terrorizes Timon's shallow companions with his caustic raillery. Along with a Fool, he attacks Timon's creditors when they show up to make their demands for immediate payment. Timon 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.

Acts IV and V

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

Cursing the city walls, Timon takes himself to the wilderness and makes his rude home in a cave, sustaining himself on roots. Here he discovers an underground trove of gold. The knowledge of this spreads, and Poet and Painter, 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. 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:

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."


This section may contain original research or unverified claims.
Please help Wikipedia by adding references. See the talk page for details.

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.[9] Frank Kermode refers to the play as "a poor relation of the major tragedies."[10] This is the majority view, but the play has many scholarly defenders as well. Nevertheless, 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 that did not exist before 1606, 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.

Major motifs in the Shakespearean play include dogs, breath, gold (from Act IV on), and "use" in the sense of using a person, then seen as a euphemism for usury. 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."[11]

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.

The play in performance

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 is done in Jacobean dress rather than in Greek costuming, but Shakespeare's Greece in this play is as fictional as his Illyria, so this is appropriate. It has not been made into a feature film, although several unproduced film adaptations are circulating.

Appreciation of the play often pivots on the readers' 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, 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.

Timon of Athens in music

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. 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.


  1. ^ F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; pp. 237, 495.
  2. ^ John Jowett, ed. Timon of Athens (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 132-6
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Kukhoff, Armin Gerd. "Timon von Athen: Konzeption und Aufführungspraxis." Shakespeare Jahrbuch 100-101 (Weimar, 1965), pp. 135-159.
  5. ^ Harris, Frank. On "Timon of Athens" as Solely the Work of Shakespeare
  6. ^ Soellner, Rolf. Timon of Athens: Shakespeare's Pessimistic Tragedy. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1979.
  7. ^ Jowett, Timon, p. 144
  8. ^ Lomonico, Michael. The Book of Shakespeare Lists. New Page Books, 2001.
  9. ^ Soellner, 193-194.
  10. ^ Frank Kermode, in The Riverside Shakespeare, G. Blakemore Evans, textual editor; Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1974; pp. 1441-44.
  11. ^ Soellner, 228.
  • Butler, Francelia. The Strange Critical Fortunes of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1966.
  • Oliver, H.J., ed. Timon of Athens. The Arden Shakespeare. Surrey: Methuen and Company, 1959.

External links

Wikisource has original text related to this article:
The Life of Timon of Athens
  • Timon of Athens - plain vanilla text from Project Gutenberg
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