(Shakespearean Criticism)

Timon of Athens (Vol. 89)

One of Shakespeare's least popular plays, Timon of Athens recounts the tale of Timon, a wealthy and benevolent Athenian of the fifth century b.c. whose excessive generosity eventually bankrupts him. After Timon's false friends refuse to lend him money in his time of need, he denounces humanity and leaves Athens. Timon becomes a misanthropic hermit and dies in misery at the end of the play. Scholars have cited several sources for Shakespeare's play, including Sir Thomas North's English translation of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (1579). Critics once believed that Timon was written collaboratively, but most scholars now reject this theory and consider it instead to be simply an unfinished play. Assigning a date to Timon of Athens has engaged the interest of many critics, with the majority favoring 1607 or 1608. F. W. Brownlow (1977), however, argues that there is no evidence for these dates and suggests that the play may have been Shakespeare's last work. For centuries, commentators have overwhelmingly found Timon to be a deeply flawed work; however, contemporary critics find the experimental and ambiguous nature of the play intriguing and worthy of study.

Critical analyses of Timon of Athens have generally concentrated on the play's principal character, Timon, who has been viewed as both a noble figure and as a man whose character defects make him susceptible to extremes of pride and despair. Robert B. Heilman (see Further Reading) contrasts the characterization of Timon with the lead characters in Shakespeare's major tragedies. Heilman concludes that Timon does not want to look within and that he attacks other men and the world in order to avoid self-reflection, which would reveal that his quid-pro-quo style of giving is not true charity. By contrast, D. Douglas Waters (1988) contends that Timon is a tragic figure whose tragic flaw is an excess of feelings—such as kindness, joy, and friendship. Waters notes that “Timon of Athens is a tragedy where the hero's excessive feelings destroy him by begetting prodigality, revenge, and ultimately misanthropy.” In R. P. Draper's examination of how Timon comes to believe that gold corrupts man, the critic observes that “[i]n his disillusionment Timon sees … gold as the source of all evil, that which undermines order, subverts all values, and levels all distinctions.”

Timon of Athens is one of Shakespeare's least often staged works. There is no evidence that it was performed in Shakespeare's lifetime, and it remains unpopular with present-day directors. Thomas Connors (see Further Reading) admires Michael Bogdanov's 1997 Shakespeare Repertory staging of Timon of Athens and maintains that “the production was a revel in the freedom to be fresh.” Reviewing the same production, Tom Valeo (see Further Reading) notes the play's relevance to modern audiences, particularly its theme of the corrupting influence of money. According to the director, the play is “an unalleviated attack on capitalism, the most direct that Shakespeare ever made.” Paul Taylor (see Further Reading) finds much to like in Gregory Doran's “remarkably witty and penetrating” 2000 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Timon of Athens. Taylor extols Michael Pennington's portrayal of Timon and contends that the “excellence of Pennington's performance lies in the way he reveals the psychological continuities between the hero's apparently opposite manifestations: the convivial host in flowing gowns and the loin-clothed outsider snarling like a wild animal.” Sheridan Morley (2000) also praises Doran's production, noting that the director celebrates this difficult play “rather than work his way around it, or even apologise for its eccentricities.”

The play's theme of the corrupting effect of wealth has interested many critics. In fact, some critics argue that Shakespeare's play is a commentary on the dehumanizing effects of money and note that Timon was Karl Marx's favorite Shakespearean play. Sharon O'Dair (2000) analyzes Shakespeare's treatment of capitalism in Timon, contending that “Marx follows Timon's analysis in emphasizing … the structurally transformative power of gold or money: not what money does to the personalities of those who have it, for one can be greedy or self-interested or mean-spirited about the exchange of cattle or pigs or women, but what money allows those who have it to do within or to society.” In a study of the play's symbolism, Robert C. Fulton III (1976) examines the negative connotations associated with the masque of the Cupid and Amazons in Act I, scene ii in Timon of Athens: “ferocity and cruelty and the disease which signals destructive lust.” Andrew Hadfield (2003) interprets Timon of Athens as Shakespeare's advice to King James. Although Hadfield stresses that the play should not “be reduced to a simple political allegory,” he finds that in it Shakespeare is urging King James to take a more Machiavellian approach to politics.

J. C. Maxwell (essay date 1957)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Maxwell, J. C., ed. Introduction to The Life of Timon of Athens, by William Shakespeare, pp. ix-xlii. London: The Syndics of the Cambridge University Press, 1957.

[In the following essay, Maxwell discusses the date, sources, and structure of Timon of Athens.]


The Life of Tymon of Athens was first printed in the 1623 Folio, in the space in the Tragedies left by the temporary withdrawal of Troilus and Cressida.1 It is at least possible that it was not originally intended to print it at all,2 and the rough condition of the text has given rise to many speculations. In the eighteenth...

(The entire section is 10273 words.)

F. W. Brownlow (essay date 1977)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Brownlow, F. W. “Conclusion: Timon of Athens.” In Two Shakespearean Sequences: Henry VI to Richard II and Pericles to Timon of Athens, pp. 216-32. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977.

[In the following essay, Brownlow argues that there is no evidence for the dating of Timon of Athens and suggests that the play may indeed have been Shakespeare's last work. The critic also discusses the play's theme of the corrupting effect of wealth.]

The Two Noble Kinsmen was written and first performed in 1613. Whether it was by Shakespeare and Fletcher, as the 1634 title-page says, or whether Shakespeare wrote it...

(The entire section is 7649 words.)

Criticism: Character Studies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Waters, D. Douglas. “Shakespeare's Timon of Athens and Catharsis.” Upstart Crow 8 (1988): 93-105.

[In the following essay, Waters contends that Timon is a tragic figure whose excessive feelings—such as kindness, joy, and friendship—cause his downfall.]

Aristotelian criticism has often enlightened our understanding of Shakespeare's tragedies, but has, more often than not, judged Timon of Athens a failure as tragedy. In this play some critics see no moral significance and hence no tragedy mainly because it lacks, in their judgment, a dignified hero and catharsis as purgation of pity and fear in the audience—limitations which usually dwell...

(The entire section is 4876 words.)

Financial Times (review date 27 August 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Athenian Problem Play Tails Off with Bitterness.” Financial Times (27 August 1999): 12.

[In the following review, the critic emphasizes the shortcomings of Gregory Doran's 1999 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Timon of Athens as well as the shortcomings of Shakespeare's original play.]

“What a dreadfully dull play,” remarked the gent behind me to his companion on exiting the theatre. Whilst I would not go nearly as far as that, nevertheless an air of incompleteness hangs over Timon Of Athens: there is no record of its performance during Shakespeare's lifetime, and scholars speculate that it may be a draft or an incomplete...

(The entire section is 569 words.)

Financial Times (review date 8 March 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “To the Heart of Shakespeare's Misanthrope.” Financial Times (8 March 2000): 11.

[The following review of Gregory Doran's 2000 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Timon of Athens, the critic praises the production, particularly Michael Pennington's Timon, who “gives the most superlative demonstration of virtuoso, musicianly, intelligent verse-speaking to be heard in many seasons.”]

In London and in Stratford-upon-Avon, all Shakespeare plays come round in due course. But Timon of Athens comes round so seldom that all lovers of Shakespeare will want to see the Royal Shakespeare Company's current production. And it will reward them....

(The entire section is 621 words.)

Sheridan Morley (review date 11 March 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Morley, Sheridan. “Lament for the Lost World.” Spectator 284, no. 8953 (11 March 2000): 49.

[In the following excerpted review, Morley applauds Gregory Doran's 2000 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Timon of Athens, noting that the director celebrates this difficult play “rather than work his way around it, or even apologise for its eccentricities.”]

Timon of Athens was last seen at Stratford more than 30 years ago; the production that now comes in from there to the Barbican has Michael Pennington in place of the originally cast Alan Bates, and all the joyous fascination and intrigue of a genuine rediscovery. From the moment it...

(The entire section is 409 words.)

R. P. Draper (essay date spring 1957)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Draper, R. P. “Timon of Athens.Shakespeare Quarterly 8, no. 2 (spring 1957): 195-200.

[In the following essay, Draper examines Timon's belief in the corrupting influence of wealth.]

In the first part of Timon of Athens Timon appears as a man full of warmth, geniality and overflowing humanity. He is the incarnation of charity and hospitality, and believes in the supreme virtue of friendship, which his generosity is intended to foster. Gold plays an immensely important part throughout the play, but for Timon, before his fall, it is completely the servant of “honour” (another key-word) and of brotherly love. In the great feast of I. ii. he...

(The entire section is 2683 words.)

Robert C. Fulton III (essay date 1976)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Fulton, Robert C., III. “Timon, Cupid, and the Amazons.” Shakespeare Studies 9 (1976): 283-99.

[In the following essay, Fulton studies the symbolism of the Cupid and Amazon masque figures in Timon of Athens.]

The masque of Cupid and Amazons in Shakespeare's Timon of Athens enjoys a high degree of resonance with the play which incorporates it. As in the case of contemporary masques produced at the court of James I, the significance of this show is determined by a body of interpretive tradition founded on the classical literature which invigorates the antique gods and heroes in the Renaissance. Unlike the shows at court, of course, the masque at...

(The entire section is 7337 words.)

Sharon O'Dair (essay date 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: O'Dair, Sharon. “Aping Aristocrats: Timon of Athens and the Anticipation of Intellectuals.” In Class, Critics, and Shakespeare: Bottom Lines on the Culture Wars, pp. 43-66. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, O'Dair discusses Shakespeare's views on economics and social status as presented in Timon of Athens.]

In explaining to Roderigo why he continues to serve Othello when he no longer feels “in any just term … affin'd / To love the Moor,” Iago distinguishes between two kinds of servants and two kinds of service:


(The entire section is 11290 words.)

Andrew Hadfield (essay date 2003)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Hadfield, Andrew. “Timon of Athens and Jacobean Politics.” Shakespeare Survey 56 (2003): 215-26.

[In the following essay, Hadfield interprets Timon of Athens as Shakespeare's advice to King James.]

What exactly is the relationship between Shakespeare's plays and their political significance? It is clear that large political issues determine the form and content of the plays he wrote, even if their political focus and direction often appear enigmatic to commentators.1 It surely cannot be a coincidence that Shakespeare's history plays, all of which date from the 1590s (except the late collaboration Henry VIII), deal extensively...

(The entire section is 8068 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Connors, Thomas. “Timon of Athens.American Theatre 14, no. 6 (July-August 1997): 54.

Admires Michael Bogdanov's 1997 Shakespeare Repertory staging of Timon of Athens and notes that “the production was a revel in the freedom to be fresh.”

Hanna, Sara. “The Trial of Alcibiades in Shakespeare's Timon of Athens.Classical and Modern Literature 23, no. 1 (spring 2003): 77-94.

Examines how Shakespeare departed from the historical record in his portrayal of Alcibiades.

Heilman, Robert B., ed. “Timon in Context.” In Shakespeare: The Tragedies:...

(The entire section is 336 words.)