Lord Timon is the toast of Athens. His purse is open to all, and the admiring hordes sing his praise as they lavishly share his wealth. The great Captain Alcibiades is among those who feast on Timon's bounty. As Timon's followers gather at his banquet table, their benefactor toasts to the power and reciprocity of friendship. But Timon's money is not his own, and his creditors come calling. Ignoring the warnings of his loyal steward Flavius, Timon asks for help all over Athens, receiving no more than excuses in return. Crazed and embittered by their betrayal, Timon throws a final banquet for his stunned guests.
Alcibiades, too, confronts ingratitude. Despite his services to the city, the senators banish him from Athens for daring to intervene in the trial of a fellow soldier. The exiled Alcibiades vows to round up his former army and lead a retaliatory attack on the city.
Timon seeks refuge on an isolated coastline, where he rants against all humankind. Starving, he digs in the earth for nourishment but finds nothing there but buried gold. As word spreads of Timon's newfound wealth, former friends predictably return to seek his riches. Raging in his misanthropy, Timon finances Alcibiades' attack on the city before writing his own epitaph.
Shakespeare's most direct source is Sir Thomas North's 1579 English translations of the first-century Greek biographer Plutarch's The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Timon, a historical personage dating from the fifth century B.C., appears in the “Life of Marcus Antonius,” which Shakespeare used in writing both Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Plutarch compares the defeated Marcus Antonius to Timon, who hated mankind and shunned all company except that of the warrior Alcibiades, whom he believed would one day destroy Athens. Both of Timon's epitaphs are taken directly from Plutarch. Also included in Plutarch is the “Life of Alcibiades,” describing in detail the warrior's banishment and subsequent march on the city, which in Shakespeare's source is averted, thanks to the pleas of the Athenians.
Shakespeare also drew material from a second-century Greek comic dialogue, called Timon the Misanthrope, its Latin translation widely used as a text in sixteenth-century English schools. Lucian introduces the motives of loss and betrayal to explain the downtrodden lord's misanthropy, but takes a mocking attitude toward Timon's misfortunes. A third source may be found in an anonymous comedy written in the first decade of the seventeenth century, entitled simply Timon. The play begins during Timon's period of prosperity and dramatizes a mock banquet scene where Timon chases his false friends from his house.
Though historical and stylistic evidence suggests that the play was written between 1606 and 1607, it was not published until the 1623 First Folio. Typographical errors plague this printing, including a ten-page lapse in pagination between Timon's conclusion and the beginning of Julius Caesar, the play that follows in the Folio. This singular gap has led critics to conclude that Timon was inserted into the Folio at the last minute in place of Troilus and Cressida, for which the printers had trouble obtaining rights. No production record exists for Timon prior to this 1623 printing, and, though the same can be said of a number of other Shakespeare plays, its lack of stage history has further contributed to the theory that the play as we know it was never fully completed or readied for performance during Shakespeare's lifetime.
Modern scholars have reached the now widely held conclusion that Timon of Athens is the collaborative work of Shakespeare and the satirical dramatist Thomas Middleton (1580–1627). Middleton's coauthorship was given further credence by the play's inclusion in Gary Taylor's 2007 Oxford Press edition of Thomas Middleton: the Complete Works. As Sharon O'Dair writes in her introduction to Timon in the Middleton Complete Works:
No longer need we assume that Timon is unfinished, as Hermann Ulrici suggested in 1815; or that it is inferior Shakespeare, perhaps even a sign of midlife crisis, as E.K. Chambers suggested in 1930. Instead, we can now experience Timon as we experience The Two Noble Kinsmen—as an artistic and commercial collaboration between two professional playwrights.
Shared composition was common practice in early modern theater, with every major and most minor dramatists lending their talents to collaborative playwriting. It would indeed be more surprising if Shakespeare had not co-written a play at some point in his prolific theatrical career.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater has staged Timon of Athens only once before, in 1997 under the direction of Michael Bogdanov. Staged in the intimate Ruth Page Theatre, Bodanov's Timon was CST's first modern-dress production