The Life of Timon of Athens is a play by William Shakespeare written around 1607 or 1608. The play is oddly constructed, with several lacunae, and for this reason, it is often described as unfinished, multi-authored, and/or experimental. It is usually grouped with the tragedies, though some scholars have placed it with the problem comedies despite the death of its title character. Its source materials include Plutarch's "Life of Alcibiades" and Lucian's dialogue, Timon the Misanthrope, both of which are excerpted in the Arden Shakespeare edition. There is no evidence the play was actually performed during Shakespeare's lifetime; however, this is true of more highly regarded plays like Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus as well.
Since the nineteenth century, suggestions have been made that Timon is the work of two writers, and it has been argued that the play's unusual features are the result of the play being co-authored by playwrights with very different mentalities; the most popular candidate, Thomas Middleton, was first suggested in 1920.. A 1917 study by John Mackinnon Robertson posits that George Chapman wrote "A Lover's Complaint" and was the originator of Timon of Athens. These claims have been rejected by other commentators, including Bertolt Brecht  Frank Harris , and Rolf Soellner, who claim that the play was an experiment. They argue that if one revised the other's play it would have been "fixed" to the standards of Jacobean theatre, which it clearly is not. Soellner believes the play is unusual because it was performed at the Inns of Court, where it would have found a niche audience with young lawyers.
Nonetheless, in the past three decades, several linguistic analyses of the text have all discovered apparent confirmation of the earlier theories: the play contains numerous words, phrases and punctuation choices that are common in the work of Thomas Middleton and rare in Shakespeare. These linguistic markers cluster in certain scenes, apparently indicating that the play is by Middleton and Shakespeare, and that it is a collaboration rather than a revision of one by the other. The editor of the Oxford edition, John Jowett, describes this evidence and stresses that Middleton's presence does not mean the play should be disregarded: "Timon of Athens is all the more interesting because the text articulates a dialogue between two dramatists of a very different temper" (p. 2).
It has been speculated that Shakespeare himself performed the role of the Poet.
Timon gives a large banquet, attended by nearly all the characters. Timon gives away money wastefully, and everyone wants to please him to get more, except for Apemantus, a philosopher whose cynicism Timon cannot yet appreciate. He accepts the art from Poet and Painter, and a jewel from the Jeweller, yet even that he has given to one of his friends by the end of the act. An Old Athenian is angry that Timon's servant, Lucilius, has been wooing his daughter, but Timon pays him three talents, because the happiness of his servant is worth the price. When he first makes his appearance at the party, he is told that his friend, Ventidius, is in debtors' prison. He sends money to pay Ventidius's debt, and Ventidius soon arrives at the party. Timon gives a speech on the value of friendship, and the friends view a masque followed by dancing. As the party winds down, Timon is giving away his horses (in preparation for a hunt the next day) and other possessions to his friends. The act is divided rather arbitrarily into two scenes but the experimental and/or unfinished nature of the play is reflected in that it does not naturally break into a five-act structure.
Flavius is upset that Timon has spent all his wealth, overextending his munificence by showering patronage on the parasitic writers and artists, and delivering his dubious friends from their financial straits. Timon, returning from the hunt, is upset that he has not been told this before, and begins to vent on Flavius, who tells them that he has tried repeatedly in the past without success, and now he is at the end; all of his land has been sold. Shadowing Timon is his opposite number, the cynic philosopher Apemantus, who terrorizes Timon's shallow companions with his caustic railery. Along with a Fool, he attacks Timon's creditors when they show up to make their demands for immediate payment. Timon sends out his servants to make requests for help from those friends he considers closest.
Timon's servants are turned down, one by one, by Timon's false friends, two giving lengthy monologues as to their anger with them. Elsewhere, one of Alcibiades's junior officers has reached an even further point of rage, killing a man in "hot blood". Alcibiades pleads with the Senate for mercy, arguing that a crime of passion should not carry as severe a sentence as premeditated murder. The Senators disagree, and when Alcibiades persists, banish him forever. He vows revenge, with the support of his troops. The act finishes with Timon discussing with his servants the revenge he will carry out at his next banquet.
Acts IV and V
Timon has a much smaller party, intended only for those he feels has betrayed him. The serving trays are brought in, but under them the friends find not a feast, but rocks and scalding hot water. Timon throws the contents at them, and flees his home. The loyal Flavius vows to find him.
Cursing the city walls, Timon takes himself to the wilderness and makes his rude home in a cave, sustaining himself on roots. Here he discovers an underground trove of gold. The knowledge of this spreads, and Poet and Painter, Apemantus, and three bandits are able to find Timon before Flavius does. He offers most of the gold to the rebel Alcibiades to subsidize his assault on the city. Accompanying Alcibiades are two prostitutes, Phrynia and Timandra, who trade barbs with the bitter Timon on the subject of venereal disease. When Apemantus appears and accuses Timon of copying his pessimistic style, the audience is treated to the spectacle of a mutually misanthropic exchange of invective.
Flavius arrives. He wants the money as well, but he also wants Timon to come back into society. Timon acknowledges that he has had one true friend in Flavius, a shining example of an otherwise diseased and impure race, but laments that this man is a mere servant. He invites the last envoys from Athens, who hoped Timon might placate Alcibiades, to go hang themselves, and then dies in the wilderness. Alcibiades, marching on Athens, then throws down his glove, and ends the play reading the bitter epitaph Timon wrote for himself:
Here lie I, Timon, who alive, all living men did hate,
Many scholars find much unfinished about this play including unexplained plot developments, characters who appear unexplained and say little, prose sections that a polished version would have in verse (although close analysis would show this to be almost exclusively in the lines of Apemantus, and probably an intentional character trait), and the two epitaphs, one of which doubtless would have been cancelled in the final version. However, similar duplications appear in Julius Caesar and Love's Labour's Lost and are generally thought to be examples of two versions being printed when only one was ultimately used in production, which could easily be the case here.
An anonymous play, Timon, also survives. Its Timon is explictly hedonistic and spends his money much more on himself than in Shakespeare's version. He also has a mistress. It mentions a London inn that did not exist before 1606, yet it contains elements that are in Shakespeare's play but not in Plutarch or in Lucian's dialogue, Timon the Misanthrope, the other major accepted source for Shakespeare's play. Both Jacobean plays deal extensively with Timon's life before his flight into the wilderness, which in both Greek versions is given little more than one sentence each.
Major motifs in the Shakespearean play include dogs, breath, gold (from act IV on), and "use" in the sense of using a person, then seen as a euphemism for usury. One of the most common emendations of the play is the Poet's line "Our Poesie Is as a Gowne, which uses From whence 'tis nourisht", to "our poesy is as a gum, which oozes from whence 'tis nourished" (originated by Pope and Johnson). Soellner says that such emendations erode the importance of this motif, and suggests a better emendation would be "from" to "form", creating a mixed metaphor "revelatory of the poet's inanity".
One odd emendation that often appears near the end of the play is Alcibiades commanding his troops to "cull th'infected fourth" from the Senate, as if he intends to destroy a fourth of the Senate. The word in the folio is, in fact, "forth", suggesting that "th'infected" are simply the ones who argued strongly against the cases of Timon and Alicibiades's officer, and that the troops are to leave alone those who just went along with it.
The play in performance
In 1678, Thomas Shadwell created a revised version titled The History of Timon of Athens, The Man-Hater, which made the play more broadly melodramatic and asociated Timon with one of Alcibiades's whores.
Rarely performed, Timon was produced for TV as part of the BBC Television Shakespeare series in 1981 with Jonathan Pryce as Timon, Norman Rodway as Apemantus, John Welsh as Flavius, and John Shrapnel as Alcibiades, with Diana Dors as Timandra, Tony Jay as the Merchant, Sebastian Shaw as the Old Athenian, and John Fortune and John Bird as Poet and Painter. The production is done in Jacobean dress rather than in Greek costuming, but Shakespeare's Greece in this play is as fictional as his Illyria, so this is appropriate. It has not been made into a feature film, although several unproduced film adaptations are circulating.
Appreciation of the play often pivots on the readers' perception of Timon's asceticism. Admirers like Soellner point out that Shakespeare's text has Timon neither drink wine nor eat meat: only water and roots are specifically mentioned as being in his diet, which is also true of Apemantus, the philosopher. If one sees Timon's parties not as libations but as vain attempts to genuinely win friends among his peers, he gains sympathy. This is true of Pryce's Timon, whose plate is explicitly shown as being perpetually unsoiled by food, and he tends to be meek and modest. This suggests a Timon who lives in the world but not of it. Other versions, often by creators who regard the play as a lesser work, involve jazz-era swinging (sometimes, such as in the Michael Langham/Brian Bedford production (in which Timon eats flamingo) set to a score that Duke Ellington composed for it in the 1960s), and conclude the first act with a debauchery. The Arkangel Shakespeare audio recording featuring Alan Howard (with Rodway reprising his television role) also takes this route: Howard's line readings suggest that Timon is getting drunker and drunker during the first act; he does not represent the moral or idealistic figure betrayed by the petty perceived by Soellner and Brecht the way Pryce does.