|When every feather sticks in his own wing|
Lord Timon will be left a naked gull.
Act 2, scene 1, lines 31–32
Sun, hide thy beams. Timon hath done his reign.
Act 5, scene 2, line 255
The real Timon of Athens lived there in the fifth century BCE, making him a contemporary of Socrates and Pericles. Shakespeare presents Timon as a figure who suffers such profound disillusionment that he becomes a misanthrope, or man-hater. This makes him a more interesting character than the caricature he had become to Shakespeare's contemporaries, for whom "Timonist" was a slang term for an unsociable man.
Shakespeare’s play includes the wealthy, magnificent, and extravagantly generous figure of Timon before his transformation. Timon expects that, having received as gifts all that he owned, his friends will be equally generous to him.
Once his creditors clamor for repayment, Timon finds that his idealization of friendship is an illusion. He repudiates his friends, abandons Athens, and retreats to the woods. Yet his misanthropy arises from the destruction of an admirable illusion, from which his subsequent hatred can never be entirely disentangled.
Many scholars believe that Timon of Athens is an unfinished play—one that Shakespeare never polished into final form—and that it was not performed during his lifetime. He is thought to have written it in 1605–08, and it was published in the 1623 First Folio. Among Shakespeare’s sources was North's translation of Plutarch’s Lives.
Adapted from the Folger Library Shakespeare edition, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. © 2001 Folger Shakespeare Library
Francelia Butler. The Strange Critical Fortunes of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1966.
Janette Dillon. The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare’s Tragedies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Rolf Soellner. Timon of Athens: Shakespeare's Pessimistic Tragedy, with a stage history by Gary Jay Williams. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1979.
I. Taylor after H. Howard. Timon of Athens. Act 4. Scene 1. Without the Walls of Athens - Timon. Engraving, 1803
Inside the Collection
Folios from the Collection: Timon of Athens
Michael Kahn on His 2000 Timon of Athens
Lesson plan: Famous Death Lines