Study Guide

The Life of Timon of Athens

By William Shakespeare

The Life of Timon of Athens Introduction

Read the full text of The Life of Timon of Athens with a side-by-side translation HERE.


There are some things money can't buy. For everything else, there's Timon of Athens.

Long before there was MasterCard or Visa, there was Timon: a rich, generous dude from Athens who loved to throw lavish parties and pay people's debts for them. But before you go trying to friend Timon on Facebook, you should know he turns into a hater of just about everyone and everything before the play is up.

Shakespeare wrote about this big-hearted optimist-turned-pessimist sometime between 1605 and 1608. That means that The Life of Timon of Athens, as the play is imaginatively titled, was written around the same time as some of Shakespeare's other dark tragedies: King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus.

So, what separates this play from those better-known tragedies? Well, for one thing, Shakespeare probably had help writing it. How do we know? Well, scholars believe the writing style in the play is inconsistent and choppy; Shakespeare probably got together with fellow playwright Thomas Middleton to write this one. Collaborating on plays was pretty common in Shakespeare's day, so it makes sense that he would have co-written some of his plays.

But that's not the most controversial thing about the play: Timon of Athens might have been a commentary on what was happening in England at the time. King James I and his nobles liked fancy stuff. They spent a lot of money and exchanged really expensive gifts. They even tried to outspend one another on their gifts. (Um, where can we get friends like that?) Money was no object, and they wanted to make sure people knew it.

But they didn't really check how much was in their wallets, and they overspent. You can guess what happened next: there was a deficit in the royal bank, and the country found itself in a lot of debt. Then along comes a play about a spendthrift who finds out who his real friends are when he overindulges. Coincidence? We think not.

What is The Life of Timon of Athens About and Why Should I Care?

Many of Shakespeare's plays are filled with fantasy and stuff that would probably never, ever happen in real life. If you don't believe us, head on over to read about a shipwrecked cross-dressing long-lost twin, or a fate-driven king-killer who takes his advice from witches, or a marooned wizard who controls fairies and monsters on a remote island. But this play is different.

Timon of Athens is about debt, overspending, and finances. Timon lives the high life and loves to show it: he parties hard, he gives his buddies jewels and horses as gifts, and he pays off everyone's debts. There's no doubt he loves living it up, and nothing is gonna hold him back.

Sound familiar? These days, our world is full of credit-card commercials and people trying to make a quick buck. It seems like every election features a debate about the national deficit. And then there's that 1% spending like there's no tomorrow, just because it can.

We think there's no better time to read this play than right now. There's talk of money all around us.

But the play's about more than just balancing checkbooks. A good friend is hard to find, and that's a lesson Timon learns the hard way. He doesn't know how to tell the difference between his friends and the posers who are just after his money.

Whether you've got a lot or a little, we're willing to bet you've dealt with one or two people who were just pretending to be your friend for whatever reason. Maybe it wasn't even about money; maybe it was just about getting in with the popular girls or the football jocks. But everyone has come across a fake friend (or two) before.

So instead of magical cures, bed tricks, and lawyer fake-outs, Shakespeare keeps it real in this play. And we're betting you can relate to that.

The Life of Timon of Athens Resources

Websites

The Bard's Words
The full text of the play, along with footnotes and definitions.

All the Shakespeare You Want
And possibly more. The BBC has a slew of Shakespeare resources.

Movie or TV Productions

BBC's Timon of Athens
The BBC's version of the play stars Jonathan Pryce (Keira Knightley's dad in The Pirates of the Caribbean) as the title character.

Timon Goes to San Francisco
A modern-day retelling of the play with a playboy as the main misanthrope.

Articles and Interviews

Alcibiades by Plutarch
Chances are Shakespeare read this before writing his version of events.

Timon the Misanthrope by Lucian
If this was good enough for Shakespeare to read, then it's good enough for us.

Stage History
The stage history is no longer a mystery after reading Gary Jay Williams's take on it.

Let's Work Together
An article on how, when, and why Shakespeare collaborated on his plays with other dramatists.

Video

Behind the Scenes
Learn the secrets from the director and actors in the making of The National Theatre's production of the play.

Undiscovered Country
Chicago Shakespeare Theater Artistic Director Barbara Gaines talks about the difficulty of putting on the play.

Audio

Acoustic Performance by LibriVox
Here's a performance of the entire play.

Images

First Folio
The first printed edition of Timon of Athens (and many of Shakespeare's other works), published in 1623.

Cave Painting
Timon and Flavius chillaxin' in the cave.

Infecting the Air
Timon figures: Hey, I don't want to live in Athens anymore.

Leaving the City
Timon thought, "I'll show them by putting my hands up in the air!"