If this play were a person, it would be a person with a lot of mood swings.
One minute we're at a fancy feast with the most amazing food and entertainment you've ever seen, and the next minute, we're stuck in the middle of a tornado of rage and misanthropy. The good times we see in the first few scenes quickly give way to some really depressing events: Timon literally goes off into the woods to die alone; Alcibiades takes down his own city; merchants and Senators try to swindle Timon out of everything he has (and then some); and Apemantus is even grumpier than usual.
Once Timon jets off into the woods, the play becomes sarcastic and cynical about pretty much everything—especially humans. The mocking snark-fests between Timon and Apemantus create an edgy quality to the play: we get the sense that a lot of what they're saying is actually supposed to be about Shakespeare's London, not ancient Athens. Maybe Timon's really looking at you, King James I.
We'd also like to point out that maybe the tone changes a bunch in the play because Shakespeare co-wrote it with Thomas Middleton. When the play shifts from one playwright to the other, so does the tone.
How do we know Timon of Athens is a tragedy? Well, our first big clue is that the title character falls from grace and dies by the end of the play. This could be because of his own fatal flaws of overindulgence or excessive spending, or it could be because of Timon's ruthless cohort—or both. Either way, the dude winds up miserable and very, very dead.
But this play isn't a totally normal tragedy: for one thing, it's the only Shakespearean tragedy where the main character dies off stage (and under mysterious circumstances, at that). We're never really given insight into the circumstances surrounding his death; Timon announces he's working on his epitaph, and then abracadabra, next we hear, he's buried.
It's clear that the play's main interest isn't in fulfilling the all the typical requirements for a tragedy. So what's this play all about, then? Well, some scholars think this is kind of an experimental play for Shakespeare. It's basically a tragedy, but it's got a lot of elements of social commentary and urban satire.
Timon himself is part of that commentary and satire—he's not a totally sympathetic character, after all, and the play is less about him than it is about some bigger issues like the nature of money, power, and justice.
So, this play is about a guy named Timon who's from Athens. Pretty straightforward, right? We couldn't agree more. The one thing we want to point out is that the title begins with "The Life of" instead of "The Tragedy of," as the rest of Shakespeare's tragedies do. Timon of Athens actually the only Shakespearean tragedy that begins this way.
That should probably clue us in to the fact that this play isn't your average, standard tragedy. It's almost as if Timon's death isn't even that important; it's his life that matters here, and the events of his life are linked to a lot of big issues like money, justice, and the nature of friendship. The play may not even be about Timon as much as it's about these big issues.
Head on over to our "Genre" section for more on just what kind of play this is.
Timon of Athens is a tragedy, so we're not expecting a happy ending, but even we are a little disappointed with how it all goes down. In the end, Alcibiades storms (more like waltzes) into Athens and claims it for himself without so much as an argument from anyone. What happens to Timon? Oh, yeah: dude totally dies in the woods, even if we're not really sure how or when. His epitaph is read out, and we're assured he'll be remembered. Sure, he will.
We'll be the first to admit that this doesn't really fit in with the rest of Shakespeare's tragedies, where final-act bloodshed is the name of the game. Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and don't even mention King Lear: they all end with some pretty horrific and gory swordfights, battles, and deaths at the end. But not Timon of Athens.
It's almost as if Timon's death isn't all that important. In all of the other tragedies, we get the sense that the deaths are somehow unavoidable: once the actions of the plot are set in motion, it's very difficult for the characters to escape death at the end.
Timon, however, really brings everything on himself. He has so many opportunities to improve his situation, but he never goes for it. Unlike other Shakespearean victims, he's almost suicidal: he brings his death on himself, and it's pretty much deliberate. The events that lead up to Timon's death may be tragic, but there's something about his death that isn't quite as tragic as it should be—and maybe that's why we don't even get to see it on stage.
Seriously, can you imagine Hamlet or Macbeth buying the farm off stage?
Now, this play does have at least one thing in common with other Shakespearean tragedies. Usually Shakespeare likes to reestablish a sense of political order and continuity at the end of his tragedies, and we certainly get that with Alcibiades bringing a new system of democracy to Athens. As he says: "Make war breed peace, make peace stint war, make each prescribe to other as each other's leech" (5.4.83-84).
We'll leave it to you to decide whether the Athenians actually take his advice.
The play takes place in Greece during the classical period—you know, that golden age for literature and the arts. The big writers from this period include all those Greek and Roman guys who wrote epics, like Homer and Virgil. The Greek philosophers Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle also called this period theirs.
So why do all of those big shots matter? Well, when people talk about classicism, they talk about literature that is distinctive for its balance, order, and reason. As a city, Athens in particular was known for all of these traits. Shakespeare's audience would have been clued in to the fact that Classical Greece—especially Athens—was full of order and reason. In fact, we get to see democracy at work when the play gives us a scene in the Senate.
But Athens was also known for some vices. Word on the street was that people in Athens knew how to party. They had a big appetite for excess, spending loads of money on food, wine, and clothing that they didn't really need. Well, we don't see a lot of order and reason in this play—particularly in the Senate—but we sure do see a lot of shallowness, treachery, and excess.
Democracy sure isn't working so well here. How could it, when all everyone wants is money?
Now, not all scholars think that the Athenian setting is that important. A lot of them argue that Athens is just a stand-in for Shakespeare's England, where spending was running wild under King James I. Some critics think that Shakespeare just chose Athens at random, sort of like he did in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
We'll never know exactly what Shakespeare had up his sleeve when he was writing the play, but we think the similarities between Timon's Athens and Shakespeare's England are worth considering.
We'll admit it: Timon of Athens is known to be one of Shakespeare's most difficult plays. The plot itself isn't overly complicated—it's basically: man spends too much money on shallow friends; man is betrayed by all his friends; man goes into woods, becomes super cynical, and dies.
On the other hand, there are a ton of characters with similar names floating around, and the language can be kind of brutal. Some plot twists—like the takeover of Athens or the discovery of gold—seem to come out of left field. But it's worth the climb: Timon of Athens may be super dark and twisty, but it asks us some big questions that still seem relevant today in our credit-card culture.
If that isn't enough, then check out the subtle but really deep way the play talks about human nature. It's worth a read, even if it's just to see what Shakespeare has to say about men, money, and misanthropes.
Timon of Athens, like Shakespeare's other plays, is written in a combination of verse and prose. So far, so good—but unlike most other plays by Shakespeare, this switches back and forth between verse and prose within single speeches. In fact, it's these changes in style that lead scholars to believe that Shakespeare was not alone when writing this play.
In most of Shakespeare's plays, a lot of characters speak in unrhymed iambic pentameter ("blank verse," for you smarty-pantses out there). Don't freak out about those fancy names—this stuff is pretty simply once you get the hang of it.
Let's break it down.
An "iamb" is an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one, like this: ba-DUM. "Penta" means "five," and "meter" refers to a regular rhythmic pattern. So "iambic pentameter" is a kind of rhythmic pattern that's got five iambs per line. It's the most common meter in English poetry, and it sounds like five heartbeats: ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM, ba-DUM.
Let's try it out on these lines from Timon of Athens:
So FILthy! GO, bid ALL my FRIENDS agAIN
LuCIUS, LuCULLus, AND SemPRONius—ALL
Every second syllable is stressed, so this is totally, 100% iambic pentameter. Now, since these lines have no rhyme scheme—"again" and "all" don't rhyme—we call it "unrhymed iambic pentameter," which is also known as "blank verse."
Ever heard someone actually speak in blank verse? Probably not, and that's because it would some way formal. That's why Shakespeare usually reserves it for nobles and for formal situations. He throws a wrench in that pattern with this play, though, because here, we get Timon and Flavius (a servant) speaking in blank verse and the servants and Apemantus (a noble) speaking in prose.
Most scholars think that's probably because two playwrights got their hands on this play. Perhaps the second playwright (ahem… Middleton) didn't know about Shakespeare's verse patterns. Or maybe Shakespeare just wanted to switch it up with this one. Nobody really knows, so just remember this this play is an odd-play-out in the Shakespeare collection.
Characters who don't get to speak in verse just plain talk. Let's take a look at Flaminius's lines when he visits Lucullus to ask for some money:
'Faith, nothing but an empty box, sir; which, in my
lord's behalf, I come to entreat your honour to
supply; who, having great and instant occasion to
use fifty talents, hath sent to your lordship to
furnish him, nothing doubting your present
assistance therein. (3.1.17-21)
See how there is no pattern to the lines? That's because Lucullus is just talking. There's not meter in sight, so this is just plain old Grade-A prose.
Things get really interesting in this play when both verse and prose come together in one speech. Now, that's unusual for Shakespeare: he might not be a rule-follower by nature, but when he starts a speech a verse, he usually finishes it that way, too.
Thomas Middleton, on the other hand, loved to play fast and lose with verse and prose. What do we mean by that? Let's look at Apemantus's speech at the banquet:
I scorn thy meat; 'twould choke me, for I should
ne'er flatter thee. O you gods, what a number of
men eat Timon, and he sees 'em not! It grieves me
to see so many dip their meat in one man's blood;
and all the madness is, he cheers them up too.
I wonder men dare trust themselves with men:
Methinks they should invite them without knives;
Good for their meat, and safer for their lives.
There's much example for't; the fellow that sits
next him now, parts bread with him, pledges the
breath of him in a divided draught, is the readiest
man to kill him: 't has been proved. If I were a
huge man, I should fear to drink at meals;
Lest they should spy my windpipe's dangerous notes:
Great men should drink with harness on their throats. (1.2.37-51)
See how he mixes prose, verse, and a rhyming couplet ("notes" and "throats") at the end for some fun? Yep, that's a jumbled style, all right. Any ideas why Shakespeare (or Middleton) might do that? We'll leave that one to you.
Cover Lassie's ears, because dogs are not our furry friends in Timon of Athens. In fact, they're not our friends at all. Calling someone a dog is a huge insult—just ask Apemantus. The Painter calls him a dog (1.1.202), and Timon says he'd rather hang out with a dog than the philosopher (4.3.200). But don't feel too sorry for the guy: he makes a comeback by calling the Painter's mother a dog (1.1.204)... and by calling Timon a poser.
So forget everything you know about dogs, and just accept that the characters in this play have some different ideas about man's best friend. Here, dogs are a unique insult: they come to signify the worst traits of mankind. Just as dogs bite and snarl, so do people; dogs are selfish and take for themselves before others can get anything... just like people. It's not a pretty picture.
Now, Timon, as we know, is barking up the wrong tree when he accuses Apemantus of being like a dog: it's his other companions who are the real dogs. He figures that out eventually, of course, so it's fitting that this is the insult he hurls at them after he's unveiled the dishes of stones and water at his banquet: "Uncover, dogs, and lap" (3.6.85).
Timon says it right to his friends' faces: they are nothing more than dogs. Want to take it further? Timon sure does: his friends are also "detested parasites, courteous destroyers, affable wolves, meek bears" (3.6.94-95). Ouch. Looks like his bite is worse than his bark.
First, Apemantus notices, "[T]he strain of man's bred out into baboon and monkey" (1.1.254-255). He can't believe that men are no longer courteous to each other; instead, they're acting like animals (baboons and monkeys, to be exact, neither of which are famous for their genteel manners). That's our first clue that there will be loads of beastly imagery in this play.
We know we can always count on Timon for some animalistic imagery. He laments that "the unkindest beast more kinder than mankind" (4.1.36). Sadly, it's true in this play: everyone treats everyone else savagely, and no one really seems to care about anyone but himself. Don't believe us? Take a look at that Senate scene again to see just how savage the Senators are when a guy's life is at stake.
When Apemantus tells Timon "Athens is become a forest of beasts" (4.3.350), we have to wonder where the real wilderness is: outside the city, or inside the city?
Get out your oxygen tanks, because people can't stop talking about breath in this play.
That's right: the focus on breath is a little apocalyptic in Timon of Athens. Timon kicks it off by declaring: "Breath infect breath, that their society, as their friendship, may be merely poison" (4.1.30-32). He wants everything to be infected—just one infected part of society isn't enough for him. The very breath people inhale should be destructive.
But he doesn't stop there: Timon goes on to tell the courtesans, "And he whose pious breath seeks to convert you—Be strong in whore, allure him, burn him up" (4.3.141-142). Let's break this down. Breath is supposed to be a sign of life; if you look at it one way, it's the very thing giving you life.
Timon wants Athens to be corrupted even at that level. He doesn't just want some people to suffer; he wants the very thing that gives life to be destroyed. That's intense.
Alcibiades picks up the significance of breath and includes it in his speech outside of Athens. He declares that they
Have wandered with our traversed arms and breathed
Our sufferance vainly. Now the time is flush,
When crouching marrow in the bearer strong
Cries of itself 'No more:' Now breathless wrong. (5.4.5-10)
The imagery Alcibiades creates with this speech makes us think of someone having difficulty breathing. Try as they might, they just can't get those breaths to fill their lungs with oxygen. Alcibiades is saying the same about the city.
It turns out Timon's wish for Athens has come true: everyone is choking on the infectious lifestyle that Athens has produced. This society is corrupt at the level of its breath—translation: it's totally corrupt, all the way down to the core.
But Alcibiades, unlike Timon, wants to restore the breath to the people by giving them pure oxygen—translation: he wants to give them justice. Back when Alcibiades was trying to plead his buddy's case to the Senate, they told him: "You breathe in vain" (3.5.60). At that time, he was helpless, just wasting his breath. Now, he wants the whole city to have a breath of fresh air.
Timon wants to destroy, but Alcibiades wants to foster a rebirth.
Timon is totally a gold-digger—but not in the way that you think: Timon literally digs and finds gold in the ground.
Long before our main guy strikes it lucky, it's clear that gold is important in Timon of Athens. Money pervades the play: everyone is interested in it, and no one wants to give it up. Sounds like real life, doesn't it?
We first learn that Timon "pours" money out on people, and he's thought to have a servant that is a "god of gold" (1.1.281). The lords in the first scene take it one step further by saying that Timon is actually made of money. Now, that might just be their observation, but it's a really accurate portrayal of how everyone sees Timon: this guy's rollin' in dough.
It takes Timon a while to figure out that not all of his friends are worth their weight in gold. In fact, gold changes from being something he uses to give his friends gifts to a "yellow slave" (4.3.34) that ruins friendships and makes society turn corrupt at its very deepest levels.
Now, Timon might realize that gold weighs him down, but even in the woods, he uses it to his advantage. His motives have changed, but his methods haven't. He gives the courtesans and thieves gold in order to make them bring destruction to Athens. He has the Midas touch, even out in the middle of nowhere.
So what should we take from all of this? Well, you could think Timon uses gold to get what he wants. It's just his way of making sure he's happy (or miserable). Or, you could see gold as a symbol of materialism: Timon will always be used by other people, just as long as he has gold.
He'll also be able to manipulate people as long as he has gold. Yeah, yeah: he's always complaining about how friends betrayed him, but he's the one who bought their affection in the first place. He wanted friends, so he showered them with gold to make them like him. Later, when he wants to destroy Athens, he showers people with gold to make them do that. What's the difference?
Call up Ariel, Flounder, and Sebastian, because we're going under the sea for this one. After Alcibiades reads Timon's epitaph, he states:
Though thou abhorredst in us our human griefs,
Scornedst our brain's flow and those our droplets which
From niggard nature fall, yet rich conceit
Taught thee to make vast Neptune weep for aye
On thy low grave, on faults forgiven. (5.4.75-79)
So Neptune, a.k.a. Poseidon, will cry forever on Timon's grave. Sounds pretty straightforward, right?
Well, not quite. Let's unpack this a little more: Neptune is a pretty angry and vengeful kind of guy. Sure, he has his calm moments, but at other times, he sends the waves crashing with his malice. All tempest, hurricanes, and other sea storms are his fault; we might say the god of the sea has some anger management issues.
Nevertheless, that's the god that Shakespeare has picked to cry over Timon's graves. Okay, that may have a lot of do with the fact that tears flow, and tears are water. But we're also interested in the fact that Neptune is the god of some seriously big, vast oceans. We think that means that Alcibiades is commenting not just on how huge Timon's rage was but also on just how much people should weep over Timon.
Neptune is a symbol of the enormousness of the ocean, and he's also a symbol the tempestuous relationship everyone has with the ocean—just like the tempestuous relationship people have with Timon. Maybe Timon wasn't perfect, but the stuff he said about how nasty people are is pretty much true, and people should seriously be ashamed of themselves.
He's a poet, and he knows it: in the beginning of the play, the Poet tells the Painter about the poem that he's written especially for Timon. This nifty little piece of poetry is a mini-allegory of the play itself. Now, allegories have two levels of meaning, so let's figure out both from what the Poet tells us.
When Fortune in her shift and change of mood
Spurns down her late beloved, all his dependants
Which labour'd after him to the mountain's top
Even on their knees and hands, let him slip down,
Not one accompanying his declining foot. (1.1.87-91)
It looks like Fortune it totally okay with giving out wealth to people and then one deciding that—whoops—she's just gonna stop doing that. A person who's had wealth and lost it isn't going to get anything from anybody; he'll just slip off a mountain, and no one will lift a finger to help him. Uh-oh.
Now that we've got the literal meaning out of the way, let's figure out the figurative meaning. It looks like—surprise—the character in the poem is Timon himself. In case we don't immediately pick up on that, the Poet lets us right in on it: "One do I personate of Lord Timon's frame," he tells the Painter (1.1.72). And here's a nifty piece of foreshadowing: Timon will lose all his money, and none of his friends will come to help him.
Shakespeare gives us a little wink-wink, nudge-nudge with this one by letting us in on what's going to happen. It's like a big spoiler alert. Too bad Timon doesn't catch it—he's just too blind to see what pretty much everyone around him can see coming a mile away.
Timon is pretty happy with his life in the beginning of the play… or is he? We see him party with his friends like it's 1999, all the time. He's got friends and cash to go around, but then he throws a wrench in it when he says: "I have often wished myself poorer, that I might come nearer to you" (1.2.97-99). Wait, what? It seems like even Timon wants more out of life. We're not sure he'll get it by being poorer, though, and we're going to tell you why.
Looks like being rich and having friends is easy: all you have to do is borrow money from everyone else. Timon gets money from Lucius, Lucullus, Ventidius, Sempronius, Isidore, and Varro—to name a few—in order to bankroll his extravagant lifestyle. Maybe he sincerely doesn't realize how much he owes on his credit cards, but we have to wonder whether this is the best business plan.
When the bills start rolling in, Timon loses it. He's astounded his buddies don't come to his rescue, and he's shocked that creditors are knocking down his doors when they just ate his food and took his gifts that very week. He wonders: "Have I been ever free?" (3.4.81). He goes into a rage and even throws stones at his so-called friends.
Timon's life quickly becomes a nightmare. After he kicks his friends out, he has nowhere to go; even his house has been promised to someone else. He finds himself out of luck, with no food, no friends, and no hope. Yikes. Off to the woods he goes.
Timon can leave Athens, but Athens never really leaves him. A slew of characters—Apemantus, Alcibiades, Flavius, the Poet and Painter, bandits, and Senators—visit him in the woods, where he says he just wants to be alone. He focuses on writing his epitaph—talk about a death wish. All Timon can focus on is his own end. Which, soon enough, comes.
In the beginning, we meet Timon, who is crazy generous with his money. He showers his friends with jewels, expensive gifts, and elaborate dinners for no reason at all. Timon loves his friends more than anything else in the world.
Timon thinks he's filthy rich, but his steward Flavius isn't so sure; he wants Timon to cut the over-the-top spending. Timon will have none of it: he wants to show his buddies how much they mean to him. We learn that bills are rolling in, but money is not. Uh-oh.
A bunch of Timon's debtors start coming around to collect. Timon wants to pay them, but he can't stretch his dollars far enough. When he asks his friends to spot him, they all refuse. He's in way over his head with loans, and he can't pay up. He loses everything, including his friends.
Timon retreats to a cave in the woods where he finds gold. (Yeah, it's as random as it sounds.) Timon, however, is not excited: instead, he laments the fact that gold just brings out the worst in people. He decides to give some gold to people who are either (1) loyal and honest or (2) ready to take down Athens. It turns out that the list of people who meet these criteria isn't a long one.
Alone, cynical, and spiteful, Timon focuses on the only thing left that can give his life meaning: his epitaph. Meanwhile, Alcibiades surrounds Athens and makes his and Timon's enemies surrender. He promises to bring a new kind of law and order to Athens. He reads aloud Timon's epitaph and claims that Timon will be remembered.
Timon throws wild parties and gives out way too many pricey gifts, only to realize that he is in huge debt to just about everybody. He tries to fix his spending habit by borrowing from his friends, but nobody wants to lend anything to him.
With nothing to do and nowhere to go, Timon heads off to the woods in exile. He just wants to be alone and forget that he—or anyone else—ever existed. He's not totally successful: he camps just outside of Athens, where people come to visit him in his cave. He wants disease and misery to be brought on everyone in Athens, so he helps Alcibiades with his bid to take over the city.
Timon mysteriously dies in the woods and leaves a grim and cynical epitaph for the world to see. The upside? Alcibiades takes over Athens and promises to restore order and peace, with a side order of justice.