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Richard Cosway, Timon of Athens Before His Cave, 1805

Timon of Athens

Synopsis and plot overview of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens

TL;DR (may contain spoilers): Timon gets into major debt, gets mad when no one wants to cover him, and pays some person in the woods to destroy Athens.

Timon of Athens Summary

Wealthy and popular, Timon of Athens helps his friends, gives many gifts, and holds a feast. After ignoring his true friends' warnings, Timon runs out of money, and none of his "friends" will help him. He runs away to a cave where he curses humanity, finds gold, funds someone to destroy Athens, and dies.

More detail: 2 minute read 

Act I

Lord Timon, a wealthy philanthropist in Athens, entertains a poet, a painter, a jeweller, a merchant, and some Senators. Timon greets each of them. He offers to pay the debts of his friend Ventidius who is in debtors' prison. And he negotiates (and pays for) the marriage of his servant who has aspired to marry above his station. Apemantus, a friend, warns Timon against his flatterers, but Timon ignores his advice. He invites everyone to eat with him when he gives a feast for a general named Alcibiades.

Like madness is the glory of this life.

— Timon of Athens, Act 1 Scene 2

At the banquet, Apemantus criticises Timon once more but still joins the guests. Everyone is entertained by a masque play with Amazon dancers, who take part in Timon’s hospitality. Timon’s devoted steward, Flavius, tries to warn his master that his assets are dwindling rapidly, but Timon ignores him. 

Act II

It is only when Flavius is unable to pay some of the creditors that Timon is puzzled. After asking Flavius why he never told him (he did), and arguing for some way to get out of his debts, he realises that his finances are in ruin. He sends his servants to his former flattering friends to ask for money, but each one rejects him. The creditors continually badger him to be paid. 

Timon's  banquet for Alcibiades. Four men and a woman in dark suits sit behind a table covered in a white cloth, and with rich ornaments on it. Servants stand behind them. In front, with her back to the audience, is a woman in a skimpy black dress who is clearly part of the entertainment; four other similarly-dressed women, playing two large xylophones, are projected on a screen behind the diners.
Timon of Athens, RSC, 2006


In response, Timon gathers everyone for one more feast. Timon's friend Apemantus advises the Senators not to condemn Timon for his unpaid debts. Rather than freeing Timon, however, Apemantus only succeeds in receiving banishment himself. Timon harshly criticises his guests and presents a meal of stones and water, which Timon throws in the faces of his former friends. Timon leaves Athens, furiously cursing the city and its people. He vows hatred toward them all, condemning them for ignoring his former kindness.

Nothing emboldens sin so much as mercy.

— Timon of Athens, Act 3 Scene 6

Act IV

Flavius, loyal as ever, now takes leave of his fellow servants to search for Timon. Timon, meanwhile, is in the wilderness and on the edge of madness, digging for edible roots near a deserted cave. Rather than finding roots, he discovers buried gold and hides it away. Afterwards, the general Timon hosted a feast for, Alcibiades, finds him and offers friendship. Alcibiades was banished from Athens when one of his servants murdered a man in a fit of passion. After Timon initially spurns him, Timon discovers Alcibiades's plot to destroy Athens. He offers Alcibiades most of the gold to further his violent aims.

Richard Cosway, 1805. A pencil sketch, Timon sits with his head in his hands and his elbows resting on his knees, in front of a lightly-sketched cave. He wears a cloak, but his legs are bare, and the left side of his head is bald.
Timon of Athens Before his Cave, Cosway, 1805

Timon then receives visits from other past acquaintances. The banished Apemantus visits Timon and criticises his hatred towards his false Athenian friends. Together, the two men speak harsh words against the world and its love of riches.

Act V

Flavius finally discovers his former master, and Timon praises him as the only honest man he has ever known. Timon gives him gold as a reward for his loyalty. After hearing of the buried gold, the poet and the painter arrive at Timon’s cave, but Timon realises their greedy intentions and drives them away.

'We have seen better days.'

— Timon of Athens, Act 4 Scene 2

Two Senators, led by Flavius, try to persuade Timon to return to Athens to prevent Alcibiades’s impending attack, but they are rejected too. Soon afterwards, one of Alcibiades' soldiers discovers Timon’s gravestone. Alcibiades decides an arrangement with the Senators and promises to spare all but Timon’s enemies. When he receives the news of Timon’s death, he enters the city, proclaiming peace and honouring Timon.

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