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What Are the Origins of Shakespeare's "Timon of Athens"?

A.E. Freeman
Updated May 23, 2024
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The playwright William Shakespeare is known to have based several of his plays on older sources. "Timon of Athens," a tragedy or problem play by Shakespeare, may have origins in ancient Greek works such as "Timon the Misanthrope" by Lucian and Plutarch's "The Life of Antonius." The character of Timon is ancient as well. It is believed that he appeared in non-surviving Greek tragedies by Phrynicus. Timon is also referenced by the Greek comedian Aristophanes.

Initially considered one of the writer's tragedies, "Timon of Athens" has since come to be viewed as a problem play, since there are elements of comedy within the work as well. The play was probably not produced during Shakespeare's time and was most likely not finished at the time of his death. Some scholars believe that it was co-authored by Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, another playwright.

The protagonist of "Timon of Athens" is a wealthy Athenian named Timon who is a misanthrope, or a person who dislikes others. At the start of the play, Timon is actually a generous character, but he changes after losing his wealth and being denied by those he had previously helped. Timon first appeared as a character in the 5th century BCE, in the tragedies of a playwright named Phrynicus, who was one of the earliest writers of Greek tragedy. No full plays by Phrynicus survive, only a few fragments. It is thought, however, that one of his tragedies focused on the character of Timon.

The character of Timon of Athens is mentioned by later Greek playwrights and writers as well. Reference is made to Timon in the "Lysistrata," a comedy by the playwright Aristophanes. In it, a chorus of women sing about Timon, calling him a "true son of the Furies" and a "tough customer." Plutarch and Plato also mention a character by the same name, as do later Roman writers, such as the playwrights Seneca and Pliny the Elder.

It is thought that the two works that most likely inspired Shakespeare's "Timon of Athens" were Plutarch's "Life of Marcius Antonius" and "Timon, the Misanthrope" by Lucian, a Greek satirist. Timon is mentioned only briefly in the work by Plutarch. Shakespeare may have actually read these two works before writing his play. Another possible source for the play is a collection of stories called "The Palace of Pleasure," published in 1566 and written by William Painter. The first volume of "The Palace of Pleasure" contained 60 stories, one of which was called "Timon of Athens" and told the tale of the "strange and beastly nature of Timon of Athens, enemy to mankind, with his death, burial, and Epitaph."

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A.E. Freeman
By A.E. Freeman
Amy Freeman, a freelance copywriter and content creator, makes engaging copy that drives customer acquisition and retention. With a background in the arts, she combines her writing prowess with best practices to deliver compelling content across various domains and effectively connect with target audiences.
Discussion Comments
By burcinc — On Apr 18, 2014

Misanthropy, as a concept, is definitely of Greek origin. The word itself is Greek and literally means hatred of men. It was coined and described by Greek philosophers like Socrates.

But I still think that Shakespeare deserves recognition for using the concept in contemporary English literature. When someone says "Timon of Athens," most people will think of Shakespeare's play, not the work of Greek philosophers.

By literally45 — On Apr 17, 2014

@serensurface-- I don't agree with you because Timon of Athens was a real person. He was the son of a wealthy man in Athens and used to spend all his money for his friends. When his money ran out, the people whom he thought were friends completely deserted him. This hypocrisy of men made Timon very harsh and hateful towards Athenians. When he regained his wealth, he drove all those friends away in rage.

So the story is a very old Greek legend and Timon of Athens really lived. Of course, Shakespeare built on this story and changed some things. For example, in Greek works, Timon does not flee to the wilderness and live in caves. He just becomes a regular laborer working on the fields.

Other aspects of the story are the same-- Timor finding gold after losing his wealth and supporting the enemies of Athens, etc.

By serenesurface — On Apr 17, 2014

The character "Timon of Athens" is obviously borrowed from previous literary works, but I think the story of Shakespeare's play is original. It is believed that Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton wrote the play together. If it had been just a remake, Shakespeare could have written it himself.

A.E. Freeman
A.E. Freeman
Amy Freeman, a freelance copywriter and content creator, makes engaging copy that drives customer acquisition and...
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