The historical Timon lived in Athens in the fifth century BCE. He was thus a contemporary of Socrates, Pericles, and Alcibiades. Shakespeare presents him as a figure who suffers such profound disillusionment that he becomes a misanthrope, or man-hater, preferring the wilderness to any human community. He is thus a more interesting and more complex figure than the harshly condemned caricature that Timon had become to Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Timon was so well known in Shakespeare’s day that the word “Timonist” was a slang term for an unsociable man, and Shakespeare’s contemporaries saw his misanthropy as the outward manifestation of the mortal sin of envy. George Whetstone, for example, in the mid-sixteenth-century The English Myrror, introduces Timon as an example of a man who “without envy cannot endure to behold the glory of the other. For which cause Timon of Athens was called dogged, because he grinned at the felicity of man: yea, if we well considered their effects, the actions of the envious may well be termed devilish in that they repine at the glory of God, and bend all their forces to suppress virtue and her followers.”
In contrast to such writers as Whetstone, Shakespeare provides us with a far more compassionate representation of Timon. Shakespeare’s play includes not just the disillusioned misanthrope that Timon ultimately becomes but also the wealthy, magnificent, and extravagantly generous figure of Timon before his transformation into misanthropy. When Timon first takes the stage, he is thronged by petitioners, artists, and merchants, as well as by those he calls his friends. He lays out great sums to free a friend from debtors’ prison, to provide for the marriage of a servant, and to patronize the arts, as well as to buy a jewel. While not exclusively altruistic in his pursuits, Timon nonetheless is presented as unique among the play’s characters in furthering the good of others. His most extravagant generosity is to his friends, to whom he tirelessly offers gifts. Timon so idealizes friendship that he believes that it can replace the financial arrangements of credit and debt as the basis for the distribution of wealth in Athens. Through his bounty, Timon makes his wealth and property the property of his friends. His giving sometimes seems rivalrous insofar as he strives to give his friends greater gifts than they give him. Yet his understanding of friendship is ultimately cooperative, rather than competitive; he expects that, having received as gifts all that he owned, his friends will be equally generous to him.
Once Timon’s creditors begin to clamor for repayment, Timon has the opportunity to discover if his friends share his understanding of friendship. Then he finds that his idealization of friendship has been an illusion. All his social relations proving to be baseless, Timon invites his friends once more to his formerly great house so that he can repudiate them bitterly and then abandon Athens and retreat to the woods. There in soliloquy and in interviews with his former fellow citizens, he expounds the misanthropy for which he was to remain notorious for thousands of years and eventually earn the severe judgment of so many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Shakespeare’s Timon, however, can never be altogether reduced to the stereotypically envious and devilish misanthrope, because he has been shown to have had the capacity for marvelously inclusive, if indiscriminate, friendship. His misanthropy, according to Shakespeare, arises from the destruction of an admirable illusion, from which his subsequent hatred can never be entirely disentangled.