Play Of The Month: Timon Of Athens



Period In Context

Timon Of Athens  takes place in the 5th century BC. This was the twilight period of Athens where, when it was starting to lose to Sparta, its political and economic influence

Greek Politics

  • Areopagus- the council of elders of the city, similar to the Roman Senate. Like the Senate, its membership was restricted to those who had held high public office, in this case that of Archon (Wikipedia). After the reforms of Perikles, the Aeropagus still appointed Archons, but their power over laws was restricted to the trying of murder cases. Perhaps Shakespeare is thinking of the pre-Solon Aeropagus which had more power, and is made up of the rich.
  • Archon- the governor of a city state. Athens had Archons for war, peace
  • Assembly- The entire landowning group of Athens.

Greek Economics 101

  • Athens is essentially a commercial economy, that is, since the land of Athens is not ideal for wide-scale farming, different parts of Greece would trade with Athens for various goods. This meant that merchants could become very wealthy and powerful in Greece.
  • The people making the laws, the senators of Athens operated basically under an organized Plutocracy, a rule by wealth. The name is based on Plutus, the god of Gold. The great Greek lawmaker Solon organized the Greek senate so that the people with the most money had the most political power. However, the senate, which was made of 400 men, was answerable to the assembly of all landowning Greek males. This means there was an inherent conflict between the people making the laws and the poorer people who were able to veto them. 

Repeated words

Gold- 37 + times

God- 49 times

Amen- 5 times

Friends- 60+




  • Friendship
  • Honesty
  • Usury
  • Beggary
  • Bounty
  • Whoredom
  • Feasting- Jacobean & Athenian


  1. Philosopher- Timon of Philus
  2. Plutarch‘s “Life of Alcibiades” 
  3. Lucian‘s dialogue, Timon the Misanthrope.

Production History

Production History

Commentary- Isaac Asimov’s guide to Shakespeare pp 133-145

  • Claims that the play was set in the Golden Age of Athens, yet he admits that the historical Timon lived during the decline after the Pelloponesian War. 
  • “To All the sociable Greeks, to whom conversation and social intercourse were the breath of life, there was something monstrous in this {Timon}.” (134)
  • Claims Shakespeare knew little about Greek society and government, treating Athens more like Rome.
    • “Shakespeare has the rulesrs of Athens act like the stern, irascible, grasping Roman aristocrats, rather than the gay, impulsive, weather-cock democrats they really were.”
    • Almost every character in the play has a Roman name (134). 
  • Feigned Fortune (134-135).
    • “The poet is not fooled by the appearance of wealth and happiness that surrounds Timon. He speaks of his poetry by saying:
      • I have upon a high and pleasant hill Feigned Fortune to be throned”.
      • In other words, the poet is aware of the fact that Fortune will some day pull down Timon and his friends like Sysiphus and his boulder.
    • Fortune was popular in the 5th century, especially since she was a convenient scapegoat during the misery and shame of Alexander’s conquests.
      • “The individual Greek cities came to be helpless in the grip of generals and armies; culture decayed as materialism grew and the rich grew richer while the poor grew poorer.”
  • Timon’s treatment in fiction
    • Asimov quotes Plutarch as saying that “For the unthankfullness of those he had done good unto and whom he took to be his friends, he was much angry with all men and would trust no man” (135).
    • Lucian the Syrian’s Timon the Misanthrope
      • One of his best essays, according to Asimov.
      • Timon hates ingratitude and in his rage he satirizes Jupiter and the God Plutus.
        • “Mankind pays you the natural wages of your laziness; if any one offers you a victim or a garland nowadays, he does it not because he thinks it any good, but because he may as well keep up an old custom.”
      • Like Plutarch, Lucian’s Timon was also once wealthy (135).  
      • “Shakespeare adopted this notion, but removed all the fun and humor in Lucians dialogue and replaced it with savagery.”
  • More commentary on Timon.
    • Like Auden, Asimov points out that Timon, though he loves to give, also refuses that pleasure to others, which seems like an attempt to deify himself.
      •  “It is almost as though Timon were divorcing himself from mankind through the act of giving without receiving. He will not condescend to be human. Perhaps Shakespeare meant to show that a man does not become a misanthrope unless he has been one all along. Perhaps he meant to show that Timon did not pass from benevolence to misanthropy, but merely changed from one form of misanthropy to another” (137-138).
  • Apemantus
    • Source: (136)
      • “About 400 BC, a philosopher named Antisthenes taught that virtue was more important than riches or comfort and that, indeed, poverty was welcome, for luxury was corrupting. One of his pupils was Diogenes, who lived near Corinth around 350 BC, and who carried Antisthenes’ teachings to an extreme. He lived in the greatest possible destitution to show one needed no belongings and derided social customs as hypocrisy. 
      • These grating philosophers seemed to bark and snarl at all that made life pleasant. They were called kynikos (doglike) because of their snarling, and this became “cynic” in English.
      • When people call Apemantus “Dog” it is really a compliment. He is true to his philosophy.
      • Act IV, scene iii is inspired by Plutarch, who wrote of Timon and Apemantus arguing about how they would love to live without mankind.
        • Timon answered Apemantus by saying “It would be, if you were not present.”
        • “When Timon turns misanthrope, Apemantus is not fooled. He was not impressed by Timon playing god, and he is not impressed by Timon playing dog” (143)
  • Alcibiades (136).
    • According to Asimov, the only reason he’s in this play is because Plutarch mentions him.
      • Plutarch mentions that Timon gave Alcibiades gold so that he would “Do great mischief unto the Athenians.”
    • There is also an undeveloped connection in Alcibiades to Timon, in that he is also a victim of ingratitude, sort of a proto- Kent (139).
    • He fights against Lacedaemon, (Sparta) 
    • The real Alcibiades wasn’t banished on a whim, he was banished after he suggesting that Athens end the war with Sparta by invading Sicily and capture Syracuse (140).
      • This would have made Athens more wealthy and give them a strategic outpost in the west. 
      • Asimov says it would’ve worked had Alcibiades done it, but the general they appointed, Nicias, was incompetant (140).
        • They lost the fleet, and Alcibiades was banished.
      • Alcibiades was also an agnostic, and was suspected of destroying statues of the gods (141).
      • After his banishment, the historical Alcibiades fought on the side of Sparta. He never actually lay siege to Athens or invaded it, but he did (look up in more historical texts) (Asimov 142).
      • In 407 BC, Alcibiades left the Spartans. He was reportedly too familiar with the Spartan queen, and came back to Athens to fight once again for them. 
      • One year later, he was banished again for life (145).
      • Unlike Timon, Alcibiades finds a way out of the God trap, by letting himself be pacified. He doesn’t become an avenging god, but lets Athens live (145). Look up what Norton has to say about the leech metaphor. 
  • Plutus, the god of gold (137)
    • “Plutus is related by name and origin, to Pluto, king of the underworld, and represents the wealth of the soil (roots).
    • He should not be confused as the same god, even though the later Greeks did. In some myths, Plutus was the son of Demeter, goddess of plants, while Pluto became her son-in-law when he married her daughter Persephone.
    • It is easy to confuse the two since, as god of the lower world, it makes sense to imagine the king of the underworld as also king of all the gold buried under the earth. 
    • I suspect Shakespeare would like this ambiguity of the two Plutos- one a benevolent son of the plant goddess who spreads wealth like fertilizer, and the terrible king of the Underworld who mocks the living with gold that they cannot enjoy.

Resources/ Lesson Plans:

  1. Course Hero Study Guide/ Infographic:
  2. Folger Shakespeare Library: “Timon Of Athens:”
  3. Utah Shakespeare Festival: “Timon Of Athens.”