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Shakespeare's Timon of Athens - Money and EthicsShakespeare's Timon of Athens - Money and Ethics


Timon of Athens


Key characters

Timon, an Athenian lord.

Flavius, Timon’s head servant.

Alcibiades, Athenian general

Apemantus, philosopher.


Fun facts

• Written in 1607-8 immediately after Othello, King Lear and Macbeth.

• Set in ancient Greece


The story

Timon’s immense wealth and generosity are famous throughout Athens

Timon:Shakespeare's Timon of Athens - Money and Ethics

  • buys works of art.
  • gives his servant, Lucilius, money (so that he can marry his wealthy sweetheart).

Apemantus, a philosopher, warns him that money isn’t everything and can easily be lost.

In fact, unbeknown to himself and everyone else (except his head servant, Flavius), he is heavily in debt.

His creditors demand repayment, and Flavius tells him he hasn’t enough money. Unworried Timon thinks his friends will help him out, but they don’t.

He then visits his creditors for dinner, only giving them warm water that he throws at them in disgust.

Meanwhile Alcibiades, an Athenian general, has been exiled from Athens for defending one of his troops who has been sentenced to death for manslaughter. He swears vengeance on the city.

Timon is being driven to insanity by hatred and anger, cursing the people of Athens, even when he finds gold in the woods, where he now lives in a cave.

Timon (Jonathan Pryce, pictured right, in a 1981 BBC production) gives it away to:Shakespeare's Timon of Athens - Money and Ethics

  • some thieves.
  • Alcibiades (for his war against Athens).
  • two prostitutes (encouraging them to spread disease throughout the city).
  • Flavius (touched by his kind offer to give him all his money).

Timon ignores Apemantus who tells him:

  • his hatred is a form of pride (or self-conceit).
  • humility would remove his bitterness.

After refusing to pay a poet and a painter, Timon rejects the plea of Flavius and two top politicians to fight Alcibiades who then triumphs.

But Alcibiades agrees to spare the innocent and only punish his and Timon’s enemies.

As he enters the city, news arrives that Timon has died, leaving an epitaph that curses his enemies and tells people to ignore his gravestone.


Lessons on money and ethics

 Shakespeare's Timon of Athens - Money and Ethics

1. Love, learn and repent

Timon’s extravagant generosity turns into hatred for everything

  • other people.
  • himself.
  • even money.

He refuses to:

  • repent.
  • learn from his mistakes.Shakespeare's Timon of Athens - Money and Ethics

He dies a bitter man with his self-written epitaph that begins

“Here lies a wretched corpse, wretched soul bereft”.

He would have made himself happier and wiser with:

  • love.
  • humility (swallowing his pride).

 Shakespeare's Timon of Athens - Money and Ethics

2. Art for art’s sake, money for God’s sake

Poets, writers and artists are desperate for Timon’s money to survive despite their dedication to their work.

A jeweller observes that something’s price is dependent on how much someone is prepared to pay for it, not on its artistic value.


3. Look after your money

Don’t do what Timon did:Shakespeare's Timon of Athens - Money and Ethics

  • throw away your money.
  • lose your independence.
  • have to rely on other people.

Flavius says about him:

“He is so kind, he now pays interest for it”.

 Shakespeare's Timon of Athens - Money and Ethics

4. Know your true friends

Timon has lots of fair-weather friends who:

  • grab his money.
  • desert him when he’s broke.

They give him gifts not out of “free love” (as Lucius calls it) but the hope they will receive something more valuable in return.Shakespeare's Timon of Athens - Money and Ethics

His only true friend is Flavius, who offers him all his money, even though he is a socially inferior servant.


5. The love of money is the root of all evil

Timon eventually realizes that the love of money has destroyed him, calling the gold he finds in the woods as the “yellow slave”.

But, as the philosopher, Apemantus, tells him, you can’t blame money for everything.Shakespeare's Timon of Athens - Money and Ethics

Timon’s main problem is that he doesn’t know himself and his weaknesses, particularly his:

  • extravagance (see point 6). 
  • inability to identify his true friends (see point 4).


6. Self-discipline pays

Timon is a man of extremes from gregarious extravagance to reclusive poverty in a cave.

Apemantus says of him:Shakespeare's Timon of Athens - Money and Ethics

“The middle of humanity thou never knowest, but the extremity of both ends”.

He would have been happier with:

  • moderation.
  • self-discipline.


Key quotes on business ethics

Policy sits above conscience, First Stranger (suggesting that policy comes before principle).


Key quotes on money

This yellow slave [meaning gold] will knit and break religions, bless the accursed, Timon.

Who would not wish to be from wealth exempt, since riches point to misery and contempt?, Flavius.


Key quotes on age

We have seen better days, Flavius.

Men shut their doors against a setting sun, Apemantus (talking about people’s inability to face up to their decline)


Key quotes on ethics

What an alteration of honour has desperate want made!, Flavius.

Nothing emboldens sin as much as mercy, First Senator.

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