A tragedy, in five acts,.
Probably first performed 1607-08 and published in the First Folio of 1623,
from "foul papers," probably unfinished. It belongs to Shakespeare's
late experimental period, when he explored a new kind of tragic form.
Unlike the plots of his great tragedies, the story of Timon of Athens
is simple and lacks development
Timon is a kind and generous aristocrat in
Athens with one major fault-he is a spendthrift. However, the result is
that everyone loves him because of his generosity as a host. The first
half of the play shows Timon's thoroughly unrealistic assessment of the
people and events around him and makes it clear that he is out of touch.
As the audience watches, reality begins to intrude.
A Poet, Painter, and Jeweler come to Timon's
house, hoping to sell him their wares, for Timon is a man known for his
great and universal generosity. Timon enters. He learns from a messenger
that his friend Ventidius is in jail, so he sends money to pay for his
freedom. He helps several other citizens in need, and gladly accepts the
works of the Poet and Painter and the jewels of the Jeweler. Apemantus
comes to Timon's house, refuses a greeting, and scorns Timon's flatterers.
Alcibiades arrives, and Timon greets him.
Timon throws a feast at his home, and all
his friends attend. Apemantus declares he has come merely to be an observer
of the villainous flatterers who fill Timon's house. Timon speaks of his
fondness for his friends and the pleasure he finds in giving them gifts,
all without expectation of a return, though, Timon's servant Flavius worries
that Timon will run out of money if he keeps being so generous. Most of
Athens's citizens are amazed that Timon continues to be so generous, as
it seems to them that Timon must have some magical power to possess such
an unending bounty.
Three creditors, friends of Timon who lend
him money, call their debts due, and send servants to Timon's door with
bills in hand. Timon tries to dismiss them, but they won't be sent away.
Timon asks Flavius why he has creditors at the door, and Flavius, his
steward can do little more explain that Timon has no money and is in debt.
Timon orders him to sell his land, but it is already mortgaged. Timon
asks why Flavius never told him about the state of his affairs before,
and Flavius insists that he had tried, but Timon always refused to listen.
Flavius says that everyone loved Timon, but when his finances are gone,
those who praised him will abandon him too. Timon doesn't believe him,
and sends servants to ask his friends for loans, but Flavius says he has
already tried that, and no one would lend him anything.
Each of three of Timon's servants arrives at the houses of a friend of
Timon, to ask for a loan, but each man refuses. Servants ask the newly
released Ventidius for a loan also, but he refuses. Creditors' servants
swarm around Timon's house. They note how strange it is that their masters
wear Timon's gifts, whilst they demand re-payment of loans, to Timon,
in order to purchase the gifts. Timon is enraged to be trapped in his
house by groups of creditors' servants, and plans a last dinner party.
The second half of the play is a simple series
of interviews between Timon and his Athenian visitors that seem arranged
solely to allow Timon to vent his rage.
Timon invites all his friends and other Lords.
Timon says grace over the covered dishes, asking the gods to be sure to
never give too much to mankind, always hold something back, and to never
ask for anything back, for mankind will abandon them. Then he reveals
stones and boiling water. Timon curses not only his former comrades but
mankind as a whole, and leaves Athens.
In the meantime, Alcibiades, a captain of
Athens, has been pleading against a death sentence given to one of his
men by the Senate sentenced to death for having killed a man in a rage.
Alcibiades tries to save his friend, but ends up annoying the senate so
much that they banish Alcibiades. Alcibiades leaves, planning to raise
an army to attack Athens.
Timon sets off into the wilderness. His servants
mourn his departure, sad that someone could fall so far from being so
generous. Flavius shares out his last money and sets off to serve Timon
in the wilderness. Alcibiades hears about Timon, who has fled Athens to
live a hermit's life. Timon searches for food in the forest, only to discover
a hidden cache of gold. Struck by the irony of his discovery now that
he no longer needs it, Timon takes some, before reburying the gold.
All manner of men then visit Timon in the
woods, starting with Alcibiades, who tries to befriend Timon, even offering
him money. Timon, however, counters with offers of gold to Alcibiades,
if he will sack Athens. Alcibiades accepts a portion of the treasure to
pay his men, then marches on Athens.
Apemantus comes to Timon's cave in the forest
and scorns him, remarking that his fall came about from being so generous
to a bunch of no-good flatterers. The two insult each other, and then
Timon remarks that he is so miserable to have fallen because he never
knew suffering, but Apemantus has, though he has never known such a horror
as base flattery--so why does he hate humanity? Timon is the one who really
has reason for such a response. The two men discuss their desires to turn
the world over to the beasts, but end in insults, and Apemantus departs.
Then Flavius arrives, offering Timon his
last money and weeping. Impressed at this show of pity, Timon realizes
Flavius was the one honest man he came in contact with in Athens, and
he is the one man who is able to escape his enthusiastic cursing of humanity.
Timon gives him gold and orders him to leave.
The Poet and Painter have heard Timon has
gold, so they arrive to ingratiate themselves to him. Timon sends them
off on a wild goose chase. Later Flavius returns with two senators who
announce that the people have determined Timon's treatment was unfair
and they want him to return to Athens. Timon refuses. The senators believe
Timon's presence in Athens will somehow halt Alcibiades's invasion, but
they can't shift Timon.
Alcibiades arrives at the gates of Athens
and enters Athens with little resistance; the Athenians beg Timon for
help, but the only help Timon offers is a tree outside his cave-upon which
he says they can hang themselves, each according to his or her will.
Senators ingratiate themselves with Alcibiades
explaining that not everyone in Athens insulted Alcibiades and Timon,
and by giving up his enemies and those that refused to help Timon when
he was in debt. Alcibiades agrees, Alcibiades agrees, and punishes only
those who have slighted himself and Timon, Vowing peace in Athens, however,
a soldier enters with the sad news that Timon has died in his cave, alone
at the end.
Alcibiades reads his epitaph. Though he died
thinking everyone hated him, Alcibiades honours Timon, a man much more
admired in Athens than he believed.
Of the various explanations put forward for
the uneven quality of the writing in this play, the most probable is that
this is Shakespeare's rough draft of a play. It has many elements of composition
in common with the great plays of the few years to which its composition
belongs: iterative words and imagery, ironic preparation and anticipation,
"chorus" statements by disinterested observers, plot and subplot
parallel, both complementary and contrasted.
If it is a rough draft, then it presents a unique opportunity of getting
close to Shakespeare's method of writing. It would prove that he put structure
before composition; that he went straight ahead drafting the structure
of a play, unifying it by means of theme, imagery, and ironic preparation,
and paying less attention to prose-verse form and to the characterization
of minor personages. It would indicate that he wrote speeches quickly,
not wasting much time at first about verse form, putting down the gist
of what the character had to say, sometimes with imagery that came to
him on the spur of the moment, incorporating lines or half lines of blank
verse and even occasionally rhymed couplets--all to be "worked up"
later. Nor, by judging the play "unfinished," are its worth
and importance diminished: it may be that certain parts written roughly,
but the imaginative conception has a wholeness that the imperfect composition
does not obscure.