By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Timon of Athens is perhaps the most easy to summarise in terms of its plot; certainly it’s up there in the top five of his plays with the simplest plot which can be summarised in just a few sentences. So we’ll keep the following plot summary brief.
In summary, then: the play opens with a dialogue between a poet, painter, jeweller, and merchant, who discuss how generous Timon of Athens is. Timon lends or gives money to anyone he considers his friend – indeed, ‘gives’ is a better word, since he usually refuses to accept the money he has lent one of his friends when they try to pay him back.
This happens with Ventidius, who has been imprisoned for debt; Timon pays to have him released, and won’t hear of Ventidius paying him the money back. In short, Timon of Athens seems to be the very paragon of generosity and giving, throwing money at anyone who asks for it. However, Apemantus, a philosopher and cynic who thinks all Athenians are knaves, calls out Timon’s ‘friends’ as mere dogs and flatterers.
Timon holds a lavish banquet for all of his friends, who bring him gifts; we learn that Timon can never simply accept a few horses from a friend as a bountiful gift – he has to try to outdo the friend by buying him something even better.
He eventually gives away all of his money, and servants arrive, working for his creditors – wealthy lords of Athens – to demand that he repay the loans they made to him. Timon suggests selling off some of his estate, but he has already sold off virtually all of it. Timon’s steward, Flavius, stalls for time, while Timon’s servants, Flaminius, Lucilius, and Servilius (plus some unnamed servants), visit Timon’s friends and try to persuade them to help pay off Timon’s debts.
However, these ‘friends’ all refuse to help Timon to pay off his creditors, either claiming they don’t have any money or that they are slighted by the fact that Timon didn’t approach them first to help him out, but instead left them as a ‘last resort’. When Timon learns of his friends’ unwillingness to help him, he orders his steward to prepare a feast for them all.
Meanwhile, Timon’s friend, the soldier Alcibiades, pleads with the senators to spare the life of a fellow soldier, who has killed another man. They don’t take kindly to him calling out their judgment, and they banish him from Athens. Timon holds another banquet for his (fair-weather) friends, at which he serves them stones and water and denounces them. He then vows to leave Athens behind to go and live in a cave in the woods. His steward, Flavius, decides to remain loyal to his master and follow Timon into the woods.
Timon, no longer of Athens and very much out of Athens, rails against the people of his former city, and sets about trying to fend for himself among nature, digging for roots. He finds gold, but curses it as a corrupting influence among men. Alcibiades, banished from Athens, greets his old friend and tells him of his plan to raise an army and take vengeance upon Athens.
Timon approves of such a plan and gives him some of the gold he’s found to help fund the rebellion, but also tells his friend to get lost. He also gives some of the gold to two prostitutes who accompany Alcibiades, and Timon urges the women to spread venereal disease.
Then Apemantus shows up and finds that Timon has become as bitter and cynical as he is – indeed, more so. Timon, however, doesn’t want to know him. Then some thieves come by, and Timon encourages them to go on thieving, making such a convincing argument in favour of thievery that one of the thieves becomes full of shame and decides to give it up.
Flavius, Timon’s steward, then appears and is rebuffed by his master. The poet and painter from the beginning of the play show up, and Timon gives them some of his gold. Finally, some senators from Athens arrive, and ask Timon to return to the city to help quell the rebellion led by Alcibiades. They promise Timon ‘absolute power’ if he accepts; but he tells them he doesn’t care what happens to Athens.
Timon of Athens ends with a soldier discovering Timon’s grave some while after: there is no suggestion that he has taken his own life, so we might assume he simply got tired of living and died of natural causes. Alcibiades takes Athens, but agrees to spare everyone except those men who were the enemies of him and Timon. Alcibiades is brought Timon’s self-composed epitaph, and vows to bring peace to the city of Athens, praising Timon as ‘noble’.