Timon of Athens is a play by William Shakespeare about the fortunes
of an Athenian named Timon (and probably influenced by the
philosopher of the same name, as well), generally regarded as one
of his most obscure and difficult works. Originally grouped with
the tragedies, it is generally considered one, but some scholars
group it with the problem plays. In the beginning, Timon, later a
misanthrope, is a wealthy and generous Athenian gentleman. He hosts
a large banquet, attended by nearly all the main characters. Timon
gives away money wastefully, and everyone wants to please him to
get more, except for Apemantus, a churlish philosopher whose
cynicism Timon cannot yet appreciate. He accepts art from Poet and
Painter, and a jewel from the Jeweller, but by the end of Act 1, he
has given that away to another friend. Timon's servant, Lucilius,
has been wooing the daughter of an old Athenian. The man is angry,
but Timon pays him three talents in exchange for the couple being
allowed to marry, because the happiness of his servant is worth the
price. Timon is told that his friend, Ventidius, is in debtor's
prison. He sends money to pay Ventidius's debt, and Ventidius is
released and joins the banquet. Timon gives a speech on the value
of friendship. The guests are entertained by a masque, followed by
dancing. As the party winds down, Timon continues to give things
away to his friends; his horses, and other possessions. 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. Now Timon has given
away all his wealth. Flavius, Timon's steward, is upset by the way
Timon has spent his wealth, overextending his munificence by
showering patronage on the parasitic writers and artists, and
delivering his dubious friends from their financial straits; this
he tells Timon when he returns from a hunt. Timon is upset that he
has not been told this before, and begins to vent his anger on
Flavius, who tells him that he has tried repeatedly in the past
without success, and now he is at the end; Timon's land has been
sold. Shadowing Timon is another guest at the banquet: the cynical
philosopher Apemantus, who terrorises Timon's shallow companions
with his caustic raillery. He was the only guest not angling for
money or possessions from Timon. Along with a Fool, he attacks
Timon's creditors when they show up to make their demands for
immediate payment. Timon cannot pay, and sends out his servants to
make requests for help from those friends he considers closest.
Performance history in Shakespeare's lifetime is unknown, though
the same is also true of his more highly regarded plays such as
Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, which most scholars believe
were written in the same period. The play's date is uncertain,
though its bitter tone links it with Coriolanus and King Lear. John
Day's play Humour Out of Breath, published in 1608, contains a
reference to "the lord that gave all to his followers, and begged
more for himself" - a possible allusion to Timon that would, if
valid, support a date of composition before 1608. It has been
proposed that Shakespeare himself took the role of the Poet, who
has the fifth-largest line count in the play.
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