Man dressed in rags on stage holding a wooden sign

Timon of Athens

William Shakespeare

Timon of Athens is a play unique to Shakespeare as it offers a central character without family or partner; the story of a rich and liberal Athenian whose generosity is exploited until he learns the full extent of man’s greed.

Synopsis

Shakespeare’s tragic tale of a wealthy and generous man’s lavish lifestyle, false friendships and the abuse of generosity. 

Timon, a rich Athenian, is famous for his liberality. As the play opens, a group of people is gathering outside Timon's house, waiting to offer him flattering gifts or beg favours. There is much talk of his generosity and open-heartedness, which is immediately shown when he appears, paying a friend's debts to free him from prison and giving money to a servant to allow him to marry. Only the cynical philosopher Apemantus has doubts about the sincerity of Timon's friends.

The Banquet

The young general Alcibiades is warmly welcomed by Timon, who invites him and other friends to a banquet, at which there is more lavish distribution of gifts. However, Timon's steward Flavius realises what his master doesn't – that Timon's extravagant lifestyle has used up all his money. Timon's creditors start to ask for payment and one by one he asks his friends for help, but is refused by all. He invites them all to a second banquet, where he turns the tables on them.

Banished

Alcibiades pleads in vain with the senate for the life of one of his soldiers who has committed a murder; in anger they banish him from Athens. The disillusioned Timon goes to live as a recluse outside Athens, railing bitterly against mankind. One day, digging for roots to eat, he discovers gold. He gives it away, first to Alcibiades, to pay the army he has raised against Athens, and his two prostitutes, Timandra and Phrynia, then to some bandits. He finally offers some to his steward Flavius.

Flattery

Hearing of this, more false friends come out to flatter Timon but he drives them away, along with the senators from Athens who come to beg for his help against Alcibiades. Alcibiades wins his war against the Athenian senators, at which point news reaches the city that Timon is dead.