Timon of Athens

Timon of Athens


Date and text

The play has caused considerable debate among scholars. It is oddly constructed, with several lacunae (gaps), 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. The play was not 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. [John Jowett, ed. "Timon of Athens" (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 132-6] A 1917 study by John Mackinnon Robertson posits that George Chapman wrote "A Lover's Complaint" and was the originator of "Timon of Athens." [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.] These claims have been rejected by other commentators, including Bertolt Brecht [Kukhoff, Armin Gerd. "Timon von Athen": Konzeption und Aufführungspraxis." "Shakespeare Jahrbuch" 100-101 (Weimar, 1965), pp. 135-159.] Frank Harris, [Harris, Frank. "On "Timon of Athens" as Solely the Work of Shakespeare] 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. [Soellner, Rolf. "Timon of Athens: Shakespeare's Pessimistic Tragedy." Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1979.]

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. [Jowett, "Timon", p. 144] 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).

None of the theories has a consensus among all scholars, however.

Performance history

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 in the same period. 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 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. [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.]

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. Shadwell added two women to the plot; Melissa, his faithless fiancee, and Evandre, the loyal mistress whom he discards. 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. [F. E. Halliday, "A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964," Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; pp. 237, 495.]


*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 (IPA: /ælsɪ'baɪədi:z/): 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, sometimes spelled Apermantus, 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 his anger 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, also spelled "Ventidgius" 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. The second receives a jewel from Timon, and 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.


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.

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 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 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.

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 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 takes himself to 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, and to his whores to spread disease, and much of the remainder to and 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. In his hesitation it is believed that he neglected to cross one out.Fact|date=October 2007

Themes and motifs

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." [Soellner, 228.]

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.

Adaptations and cultural references

Literary versions

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 allusions

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.

Musical versions

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.

Play Adaptations

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 versions

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, so this is appropriate. It has not been made into a feature film, although several unproduced film adaptations are circulatingFact|date=April 2008.

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.

Popular Culture

The town of Timonium, Maryland is named for this play. According to local history, much of the area of present-day Timonium was once part of a large plantation. Upon the early death of its owner, his widow went into mourning and renamed the estate "Timonium" after the tragic character of Timon of Athens. It is also named for the Timonium, The Timonium was a temple in Alexandria, Egypt built by Mark Antony after his defeat at Actium (September 2, 31 BC). Named after Timon of Athens, an Athenian lord who withdrew to live in the wilderness after being wronged and mistreated by his friends.Fact|date=May 2008

Critical response

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. [Soellner, 193-194.] Frank Kermode refers to the play as "a poor relation of the major tragedies." [Frank Kermode, in "The Riverside Shakespeare," G. Blakemore Evans, textual editor; Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1974; pp. 1441-44.] 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 [ [http://www.eldritchpress.org/nh/hahm.html Hawthorne and His Mosses, by Melville, 1850 ] ] 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 1852 novel he coined the term Timonism to stand for an artist's contemptuous rejection of his audience and of mankind in general.



* 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

* [http://www.gutenberg.net/etext/2262 Timon of Athens] - plain text from Project Gutenberg
* [http://www.maximumedge.com/shakespeare/timon.htm Timon of Athens] - Searchable version of the text

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