Timon of Athens | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Timon of Athens | Context


Shakespeare and Middleton

Doubts about the authorship of Timon of Athens date back to the 1840s, when English publisher Charles Knight began noticing stylistic differences between the play and Shakespeare's other works. Before that time Timon of Athens was sometimes thought to be based on a corrupted version of Shakespeare's original manuscript. Other critics believed the work had simply been left unfinished upon Shakespeare's death. Eventually, however, the two-author hypothesis gained ground as a better explanation for what British scholar Brian Vickers (Shakespeare, Co-Author, 2004) calls the play's "stylistic unevenness." Passages that seemed awkward or heavy-handed, which just didn't fit with what was known of Shakespeare's style, were deemed to be the work of a coauthor.

Scholars throughout the 19th and 20th centuries differed from Knight in terms of which sections they assigned to Shakespeare and which ones to his collaborator. Still Knight's basic idea has been accepted and built upon by critics for most of the past 150 years. In the early 20th century the question was not whether Shakespeare had a coauthor but who it might be. Several of Shakespeare's contemporaries were considered—including English playwright Cyril Tourneur (c. 1575–1626), whose gloomy Atheist's Tragedy (1611) describes the decline of traditional aristocratic values. Ultimately, however, the strongest evidence pointed to Thomas Middleton (1580–1627), an Oxford-educated playwright who himself frequently collaborated on plays in his earlier years. Known for his biting satires, Middleton also had a few signature elements as a playwright that seem to show up frequently in Timon. For example, he was fond—some might say a little too fond—of including snappy, almost fortune-cookie-like couplets at the ends of speeches. Sempronius provides a good example in Act 3, Scene 3 when he says, "And with their faint reply this answer join: / Who bates mine honor shall not know my coin." Couplets like these, as Vickers points out, appear frequently in Timon, even though Shakespeare seldom uses them in his other works of the 1600s.

The themes and characters, too, in Timon of Athens closely fit Middleton's work. Timon, unlike most of Shakespeare's tragic figures, undergoes a decisive transformation about halfway through the play and is then single-mindedly misanthropic for the remaining scenes. This change contrasts sharply with a character such as Shakespeare's Othello, for example, whose growing doubt torments him until eventually he convinces himself to commit a terrible crime. It clashes even more conspicuously with Shakespeare's practice in creating King Lear, whose exile makes him wiser and more sympathetic even as it drives him mad. Like these more dynamic characters, Timon is fond of venting his grief in witheringly sarcastic speeches, yet he lacks the saving introspection of Shakespeare's other tragic figures. Certainly he's not in the same league as the cripplingly self-aware Hamlet or even the proudly villainous Richard III. Only Titus Andronicus (1589–92)—another play whose authorship has been debated for centuries—has a central character as one-track-minded as Timon.

Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy (1607), however, makes it somewhat easier to see where Timon's unrelenting, one-note anger comes from. Like Timon, the protagonist of The Revenger's Tragedy is part social critic and part vigilante. Vindice, whose name literally means "avenger" in Italian, spends virtually the entire play taking revenge on the family of the man who poisoned his sweetheart. By the end he has used disguises and other subterfuge to murder most of the duke's relatives before himself receiving a death sentence from the new duke. Vindice's running commentary on the corruption of the duke's court makes him seem like a close relative to the bitter, brooding Timon after his financial fall.

Sources of the Play

The basic plot of Timon of Athens comes from Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, sometimes called Parallel Lives. Written in the early second century CE, this is a collection of short biographies of notable figures from the classical world. They are called "Parallel" because Plutarch arranged the biographies in pairs, each containing one Greek biography and one Roman. Each pair was then followed by a brief commentary comparing the two figures. Plutarch himself wrote in Greek, but Shakespeare knew the Lives primarily, if not exclusively, through the English translation of Thomas North (1535–c. 1601). He used this volume as a source not only for Timon but also for Julius Caesar (1599–1600), Antony and Cleopatra (1606–07), and Coriolanus (1608).

Unlike several other classical figures who appear in Shakespeare's work, Timon of Athens does not get his own separate "Life" in Plutarch. Instead the material on Timon appears in the "Life of Mark Antony," the Roman general and statesman who ended his career in a civil war against Octavian (later Augustus). At one point in Plutarch's retelling, Antony goes into exile and compares himself to Timon, who is a sufficiently obscure figure that Plutarch feels compelled to introduce him in a side note. Timon, Plutarch explains, was "an Athenian" who "lived about the time of the Peloponnesian War" (431 BCE–404 BCE) and was "represented in [Greek] comedies as peevish and misanthropical." Plutarch then relates an episode to show how much Timon hated his fellow Athenians: "'I have a small building lot,' says Timon, 'and a fig tree is growing in it, from which many of my fellow citizens have already hanged themselves ... As I intend to build a house there, I wanted to give public notice ... in order that all of you who desire to do so may hang yourselves before the fig tree is cut down.'"

In Timon of Athens this startling speech is paraphrased in Act 5 after Timon's patience with his fellow Athenians has been completely exhausted. Another detail mentioned by Plutarch, then included in the play, is the bitter, self-authored inscription on Timon's tombstone. Plutarch gives two different sources for the inscription: one says the dead man shall remain nameless, but the other identifies him as "Timon, hater of men." The authors of Timon of Athens combine the two, creating a seemingly self-contradictory pair of verses in which Timon urges the living to "seek not my name" and then immediately gives it.

Bits and pieces of other Plutarch Lives, including the "Life of Alcibiades," are helpful for understanding the context of Timon of Athens. As Plutarch points out in the "Life of Antony," Timon lived during the Peloponnesian War—that is, at the end of the fifth century BCE. This war was fought between Athens and Sparta, the two major city-states in Greece during that period, along with their various allies and colonies. Alcibiades, who appears in Timon of Athens as a friend of Timon's, was an Athenian politician and military leader famous for his unprincipled cunning. According to Plutarch, he defected from the Athenian cause after his political enemies in the Athenian assembly attempted to have him executed. He then joined the side of the Spartans before eventually "re-defecting" to Athens later in life. Timon of Athens simplifies much of the politicking, but the background events of Acts 3–5 still center on a feud between Alcibiades and Athens.

In addition to Plutarch, Shakespeare and Middleton are sometimes thought to have consulted Timon the Misanthrope (100 CE–200 CE), a dialogue by the Greek satirist Lucian. This long, semidramatic work has little directly to do with the plot of Timon of Athens, but it does fill in details of his character by showing his misanthropy and rejection of people in action. As in the later play, Timon in the dialogue is made bankrupt by his own generosity, with none of his friends helping him in his poverty. He thus prays to the gods to punish the wrongdoers but grows angry and jaded at their seeming lack of response. At last the gods Zeus and Hermes conspire to "bless" Timon with new wealth, and he finds himself mobbed once more by people seeking a share of his gold. The dialogue, like the play, does draw a moralistic conclusion from Timon's suffering: it might seem, Hermes says, Timon was "ruined by kind-heartedness and philanthropy." In fact, however, "it was senselessness and folly and lack of discrimination in regard to his friends" that brought him down.

What Makes Timon a Tragedy?

Timon of Athens is an unusual tragedy by Shakespearean standards. Nobody gets stabbed (Macbeth), poisoned (King Lear), maimed (Titus), or suffocated (Othello's Desdemona), and although a few people are wronged nobody ultimately has the nerve to enact a violent revenge. Alcibiades threatens to do so, but he seems to be talked out of it at the very end of the play. Timon dies, it's true, but he expires offstage of unknown causes. Ultimately, when compared to the bloodbath at the end of Hamlet (1599–1601), Timon of Athens seems anticlimactic and a bit tame.

The low-key ending is even more surprising when the tastes of Shakespeare's contemporaries are taken into account. In general, Elizabethan audiences seem to have loved so-called Senecan dramas, named after the first-century CE Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger. These plays tended to feature grisly scenes of revenge, an element seen in both Shakespeare's most celebrated works—Hamlet, for example, and his more dubious achievements such as Titus Andronicus. Yet again Timon contains none of the usual Senecan trappings. Not only is there no revenge but also there are no ghosts or visions (Macbeth, Hamlet) and no exciting swordfights (King Lear, Hamlet, Coriolanus). In fact, part of what makes Timon seem so odd is its rejection of Senecan conceits and its relatively close adherence to the more thoughtful Aristotelian concept of tragedy.

According to the definition offered by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, a tragedy is far more than a play in which sad things happen. It is a drama in which heroic figures suffer terribly, at least partly because of their own actions. In the exemplary classical tragedy by Greek playwright Sophocles, Oedipus the King (430 BCE–426 BCE), for instance, a powerful ruler turns his city upside down looking for the murderer who has brought a plague upon Thebes. He gradually comes to realize the killer is himself. Thus Oedipus unwittingly ends up exposing his own past crimes and sentencing himself to exile. Other key features of Aristotelian tragedy include:

  • Reversal of fortune: the hero starts off in a position of great power or prestige and then loses it all. The happier the hero is at the start the more emotionally devastating the fall will be.
  • Hamartia, or "tragic flaw": a character defect hastens the protagonist's downfall. The traditional tragic flaw is hubris, meaning "excessive pride" or "presumptuousness."
  • Catharsis, or a "purging" or "clearing away" of emotions after the climax of the play: tragedies arouse emotions of pity and fear in the audience. Catharsis allows those feelings to be swept away.

Some of these elements appear throughout Shakespeare's work, even when Senecan features are also in play. Most of Shakespeare's tragic protagonists, for instance, have a clear flaw: Othello is excessively jealous, and Titus is hell-bent on revenge no matter who suffers as a result. King Lear and Richard III both seem to suffer from clearly defined hubris, believing themselves superior to those around them. Nearly all the tragic characters start out as powerful figures—typically kings or generals—and most expire pitifully onstage.

Timon, too, has a tragic flaw, and it isn't just poor money-management skills. Arguably, his hamartia is his naive overreliance on his friends, what Hermes in Lucian's Timon the Misanthrope calls Timon's "lack of discrimination." Because of his blind, untested faith in his friends' good intentions, Timon feels emboldened to squander his wealth. This flaw leads, in turn, to a sharp reversal of fortune when he goes from being loved and admired (and rich) to being ignored and despised (and poor). It's hard not to pity Timon when this happens because he seems to be learning a terrible lesson at a great personal cost. Whether the ending comes through as cathartic, however, is largely up to the actors and director in how well they can draw the audience in for self-reflection and perhaps self-recognition or growth.

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