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Table of Contents
Type of Work Composition and Performance Publication Sources Settings Characters Plot Summary
Climax Satirical Undertone Structure Characterization Timon's Curses Figures of Speech
Poetry Themes Timon's Road to Ruin Study Questions and Essay Topics Complete Text.
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003.
Revised in 2010, 2011.©...
Type of Work
Timon of Athens is a tragic stage play. It has characteristics of an allegory, a literary work in which characters, events, objects, and ideas have secondary or symbolic meanings. In regard to the latter, Timon appears to serve as a symbol or an abstraction, first for philanthropy and then for misanthropy.
Date Written: Between 1605
and 1608 (probably
The story of Timon of Athens is an ancient one. The playwright Phrynicus, an important innovator in the development of Greek drama in the fifth century BC, centered one of his dramas on Timon, a legendary misanthrope. (Only fragments of his plays survive.) In addition, the playwright Aristophanes (450-388 B.C.) refers to the Timon story in his popular comedy Lysistrata, when a chorus of old women sing the following lines:
Once there was a certain man called Timon, a tough customer, and a whimsical, a true son of the Furies, with a face that seemed to glare out of a thorn-bush. He withdrew from the world because he couldn't abide bad men, after vomiting a thousand curses at them. He had a holy horror of ill-conditioned fellows, but he was mighty tender towards women. (Anonymous Translator)These stories were handed down to the Greek biographer Plutarch (46?-120?), who refers to Timon in his Life of Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony). The Greek satirist Lucian (125-200) wrote a work entitled Timon, or The Misanthrope. One of Lucian's favorite topics was the inability of people to realize how empty and temporary are wealth and luxury. Shakespeare is believed to have consulted these works by Plutarch and Lucian. In addition, he is said to have read a story about Timon in a collection of tales entitled Palace of Pleasure, by William Painter (1525-1595).
The action in the play takes place in Athens, the walls outside the city, and the city's neighboring woods. Individual scenes are set in rooms of Timon's house, a senator's house, Lucullus's house, Sempronius's house, a public place, the senate house, the environs outside the city, and Timon's cave and the surrounding woods, near the seashore.
’Tis all engag’d, some forfeited and gone;When Timon turns for help to the very people upon whom he showered his favors, they give him only cold shoulders and excuses. Their friendship, it seems, is as empty as Timon’s purse. He then announces a great banquet and invites these same people to partake. Believing he must have come into new wealth, they gladly accept his invitation. However, after they arrive, Timon serves them lukewarm water, throws some in their faces, and says, “Live loath’d and long, / Most smiling, smooth, detested parasites” (3.6.53-54). Throwing dishes at them, he drives them out of his house and then quits Athens, vowing never to return. Turning to look at the wall of the city one last time, he heaps a soliloquy of curses upon Athens and its citizens. Part of the soliloquy, which constitutes all of the first scene of Act IV, follows:
Plagues incident to men,Taking up residence in a cave near the sea, he lives off the land and spends most of his waking hours bitterly denouncing fickle humankind. One day, while digging for roots to eat, he finds gold, a great cache of it. He is rich once again. It so happens that General Alcibiades, who has also been wronged by the Athenians and has been banished from Athens, comes upon Timon in the woods near the cave. Timon greets him rudely: “The canker gnaw thy heart, / For showing me again the eyes of man!” (4. 3.52-53). But Alcibiades treats Timon with respect, telling him he has heard of the wrongdoing done to him. When Alcibiades mentions that he is gathering an army to make war on Athens, Timon sees an opportunity for revenge and gives him gold to finance the venture.
After Alcibiades departs, the pesky philosopher Apemantus arrives at Timon’s cave to offer his annoying advice and wisdom. He urges Timon to “Be thou a flatterer now, and seek to thrive / By that which has undone thee . . .” (4.3.222-223). Timon returns only insults, and soon the conversation becomes a duel of mocks and scorns. “Would thou wert clean enough to spit upon!” (4.3.341) says Timon. Apemantus retorts: “A plague on thee, thou art too bad to curse” (4.3.342).
Word of Timon’s new-found gold spreads, and two bandits descend upon the cave to steal their share. Timon does not shrink from the robbers; nor does he try to protect his cache of gold. Instead, he willingly gives them gold—and a harangue urging them to “take wealth and lives together” (4.3.418) and “cut throats” (4.3.430). His hatred for humankind is so strong that it nearly shocks the bandits into becoming honest men.
After the bandits leave, the good and worthy Flavius arrives at the cave seeking the company and love of his master. At first Timon rebukes him, too. Later, when he realizes that Flavius has come in search of companionship, not gold, Timon praises him as the only honest man on earth, then gives him a large portion of gold and bids him adieu. Next to arrive at the cave are a poet and a painter, whom Timon sends away, and two representatives of the Athenian senate, who praise Timon and then ask for gold to purchase the means to shore up their defenses against the invading army of Alcibiades.
Timon tells the senators that he has been busy writing his epitaph, which “will be seen to-morrow. My long sickness / Of health and living now begins to mend” (5.1. 183-184). When he tells them he will do a kindness for his countrymen in Athens, the senators think Timon has come to his senses and will aid them. But Timon dashes their hopes when he explains that the kindness he has in mind is an invitation to Athenians to come out and hang themselves on a useless tree that Timon plans to cut down. Timon then dismisses the senators. Thus, their only recourse is to prostrate themselves before Alcibiades and beg mercy. Back at the walls of Athens, Alcibiades agrees to spare the innocent and destroy only those who wronged him and Timon. A soldier then arrives with news that Timon has died. He shows the general a wax copy of the inscription on Timon’s gravestone:
Here lies a wretched corse [corpse], of wretched soul bereft:Alcibiades praises Timon as noble and says he will pursue a course of peace in Athens.
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The climax of a play or a narrative work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax in Timon of Athens occurs, according to both definitions, in the final scene of Act 3 in the banquet room of Timon’s house. There, Timon exposes his so-called friends as frauds, drives them away, and denounces the world, saying, “Burn, house! Sink, Athens! Henceforth hated be / Of Timon, man, and all humanity!” (3.6.64-65)..
Timon of Athens has been interpreted as a mockery of the spendthrift ways of England's James I (1566-1625), the first king of the House of Stuart. He reigned from 1603 to 1625. His personal extravangance ate deeply into state coffers, and Parliament was reluctant to approve special appropriations to meet his expenses. However, the skill of his chief advisor, Robert Cecil (who was made Earl of Salisbury in 1605), helped keep the financial ship of state from foundering.Structure and Characterization
Scholars do not include Timon of Athens among Shakespeare's greatest plays. For example, G. B. Harrison says, "Timon is generally regarded as an unsatisfactory play. The characterization is poor and the plot as uneven as the poetry" (Harrison, G. B. Shakespeare: the Complete Works. New York: Harcourt, 1952, page 1317).
Underdevelopment of the characters may leave the audience or the reader in doubt about the motives of the characters. Another problem is the dialogue: At times it jerks back and forth haphazardly between verse and prose. Note, for instance, that in the following passage Apemantus addresses Timon in verse, then answers him in prose.
APEMANTUS: What a coil’s1 here!The play ends abruptly.
Among theories presented to explain deficiencies in the play are the following: (1) It is a copy of an unfinished or unrevised draft; (2) it was unskillfully edited or revised by a theatre company; (3) it was written by another author and rewritten by Shakespeare; (5) it was co-written by Shakespeare and another author—Thomas Middleton has been mentioned as the second author—resulting in stylistic and structural problems; (6) Shakespeare was bored at having to write another tragedy—Timon is the last ascribed to him—and therefore he rushed through his task.
However, the play may be better than many critics believe. If regarded as a fable or an allegory—with Timon serving as a symbol or an abstraction, first for philanthropy and then for misanthropy—Shakespeare's handling of the story seems appropriate.
Live loath’d, and long,In a soliloquy that begins Act 4, Timon calls down curses on the ingrates who drained him of money, then refused to help him pay his debts.
Thou cold sciatica,Later, in the same act, Timon epitomizes his attitude when he tells Alcibiades:
I am Misanthropos,8 and hate mankind.Figures of Speech
Following are examples of figures of speech in the play. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
It grieves me to see so many dip their meatAnaphora
You see how all conditions, how all minds—Metaphor
He [Flavius] pours it out; Plutus, the god of gold,Oxymoron
[M]uch of this will make black white, foul fair,
Your lordship’s a goodly villain. (3.3.31)Poetry
In addition to verse and prose passages, Timon of Athens also contains poetry with end rhyme, which is interjected into conversations. Apemantus, for example, presents the following:
Immortal gods, I crave no pelf;11
One cannot buy friendship. Timon spends lavishly on the citizens of Athens, presumably to earn and preserve their friendship. But when his money is gone, his so-called friends desert him.
"The love of money," as the Bible says, "is the root of all evil." Timon's friends pretend to love him, but it is his money that they love. Their greed brings out the worst in Timon and themselves. Shakespeare also developed this theme in other plays, notably The Merchant of Venice, in which a note in the golden casket says, "All that glitters is not gold." In King Lear, the lust for property and wealth is a key motivation. This lust embitters Lear, just as it does Timon.
Hatred is a fatal disease. We do not know the pathology of Timon's death, perhaps because the cause of it was in his mind—a burning, unremitting hatred that consumed his soul rather than his body.
From the outset of the play, Timon walks the road to ruin, mainly because he is unduly generous. In the first scene of the play, a poet calls attention to Timon's unbridled generosity, telling a painter,
You see how all conditions, how all minds—But liberality of coin is not the only fault that dooms Timon. Another is poor management of his finances, for he keeps no careful account of his assets and debts. When insolvency overtakes him, he tells his loyal steward, Flavius, to sell his lands to pay what he owes. However, Flavius informs him that he has already sold available lands. Timon is down to the change in his pocket. And it lacks jingle.
Still another fault of Timon is his inability to judge people. He gives freely of his money to anyone who wears the mask of friend. But when bankruptcy arrives and Timon asks his friends for help, circumstances unmask them as opportunists. At this point, Timon could fight back. But instead he resigns himself to his fate, alienates himself, and chews the bitterroot of hatred.
1....coil: Ado, fuss