William Shakespeare: Timon of Athens
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 2000

William Shakespeare

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997.  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary.   

Overall Impression: In my opinion, this is not a very good or interesting play. It is very pessimistic and bleak, and has little great language.

Per Bevington: Sources include "Life of Marcus Antonius" in North's translation of Plutarch "Lives". Timon's story is referred to in Plato and Aristophanes (neither of which versions survive), and he had the reputation as a famous misanthrope. Fullest surviving early classical record is in dialogue of Lucian of Samosata called "Timon, or The Misanthrope" [also mentioned in Pausanias "Description of Greece" 1.30.4. A Timon is mentioned in Herodotus 7.141 but apparently not the same]. WS may have drawn on the English academic play written at Cambridge c. 1581-1600 or a lost source common to it and his.

Bevington states this is "A relentless study in misanthropy". Dominant mood is futility, satiric mood, preoccupation with dying and sterility, recalls medieval morality plays, crabbed in style, emphasizes human greed and avarice. The characters are depersonalized and social abstractions, close to allegory. The plot is unusually straightforward. There are no villains, only weak and foolish people. Timon is churlish to his creditors, his misanthropy is intemperate. He inveighs against women and sexuality...


Act I

Timon on Athens is a wealthy man, who gives generously of all he has to his fair-weather friends and to obsequious merchants and the sycophantic poet, jeweler, and painter. Timon's servant Lucilius wants to wed an Old Athenian's daughter, and Timon generously provides funds for her dowry. Apemantus is an irascible "churlish" cynic philosopher, who calls Timon's friends knaves and points out their exploitation and the dangers of succumbing to flattery. Alcibiades, an Athenian captain, prepares to depart on a mission and is entertained and shares in the bounty of Timon's table. Ventidius, a false friend, pretends to return money received from Timon, but Timon insists he keep it. Apemantus repeatedly observes their falseness. Timon gives away jewels. Flavius, his servant, tries to tell him the resources are drying up, but Timon will not hear the truth. Lord Lucius gives him 4 horses, and Lord Lucullus 2 greyhounds--in exchange, Timon gives gifts of greater value. Flavius frets about the increasingly empty coffer.

Act II

A senator comments how giving to Timon is like coining money--anything even of minimal value given to him brings back greater rewards. He wants the money owed him by Timon. Flavius worries about all the bills coming in. Servants of the creditors arrive at Timon's to present their bills: Caphis, Varro's servant, and Isordore's servant. Timon is impatient and sees them as a challenge to his honor and puts them off. Apemantus calls usurers bawds between money and want, and abuses the creditors. Timon expresses surprise to hear from Flavius of the poor state of his funds, but Flavius says he would not listen before. Timon wants to sell his land, but it is all mortgaged. He resolves to send his servants Servillius, Flaminius, and another to his friends Lucullus, Lucius, and Sempronius for loans. He recalls the generosity he showed to Ventidius.

Act III

Lucullus is surprised to hear via Flaminius that Timon is asking for help rather than giving for a change, and rejects the request, saying he often counseled him to spend less and that he is unwilling to lend money secured only by bare friendship, calling Flaminius a fool. Lucius hears from 3 strangers that Timon's fortunes are failing, and claims that he would have helped him if he had been asked. But when Servillius arrives to request his help, he says he just made an expensive purchase of land and is out of cash. The 3 strangers comment chorus-like on the monstrousness of man. Sempronius tells the servant from Timon importuning him that he is insulted that the request came to him only after others had turned Timon down, claims to be insulted and angry, and refuses to help Timon. The servants of the creditors show up again at Timon's, one commenting that his own master is wearing jewels given to him by Timon for which he now demands payment of money loaned... Flavius enters disguised in a muffle, but is recognized--he chastises the creditor servants for the falseness of their masters.

In the Senate, the senators have resolved to execute a man for a bloody deed, even though Alcibiades pleads on his behalf, saying he is a valiant warrior (at Lacedaemon and Byzantium), and asks they spare his life so he can serve in battle. They refuse, he insults them, and he is banished forever. A. vows to have vengeance on Athens. 

Timon has planned an angry response to his false friends. He invites them to a dinner as of old, but serves them only warm water and stones. He curses them all as detested parasites and curses Athens as well. A lord thinks he has gone mad. 

Act IV

Timon is departing Athens alone, strips off his garments, and heads to the woods. His servants mourn his departure, and Flavius resolves to find him and share his limited wealth with him and continue to serve him as his steward. 

Timon digs in the dirt in the woods, and finds gold. He keeps a little and reburies the rest. Alcibiades arrives with rebel troops, and Timon gives them gold. They discuss friendship. Timon insults the 2 women mistresses with Alcibiades (Timandra and Phrynia), calling them diseased whores. Alcibiades is kind, and recounts how Timon once served Athens nobly as a leader, accomplishing great military deeds. He tells him how he will now be warring against Athens. Timon is contemptuous even of Alcibiades, though the latter accepts the gold to help his anti-Athenian campaign. The whores also accept gold, and they leave. Apemantus arrives, and Timon tells him he now hates him. Apemantus offers food, but Timon says he would beat him if he could. Apemantus warns him that others will follow to get his gold, then leaves. Bandits show up, and Timon gives them gold. Flavius arrives, marvels at the wretched state of his master, offers his own money. Timon recognizes him to be an honest man, offers gold to him, but refuses to let Flavius stay to comfort him.

Act V

Takes place before Timon's cave in the woods. Painter and poet plot to get the gold. Timon knows they want his gold, and gives them some but beats them as he drives them off. 

Flavius returns with 2 senators. They want to reconcile with Timon and bring him back to Athens to appoint him the leader of their military response to Alcibiades' attack. But Timon expresses indifference as to who is killed and refuses. He is writing his epitaphs and claims to be dying. He suggests that his Athenian countrymen and friends could come to use his nearby tree to hang themselves. He describes the grave by the sea he is preparing for himself. 

Back outside the gates of Athens, the approach of Alcibiades is discussed. A soldier arrives to tell of finding the tomb of Timon and its epitaphs [which are mutually contradictory]--he has copied the epitaphs.. The senators (on the walls) attempt to dissuade Alcibiades from the attack, and offer for him to decimate (kill a tenth of) their inhabitants as a more orderly solution than outright destruction of the city, and Alcibiades throws down a glove apparently indicating his agreement. A soldier messenger arrives to say that Timon is dead, and Alcibiades reads outloud the message on the wax tablet that the soldier messenger rubbed off Timon's gravestone. He prepares to enter the city.