So where did Shakespeare (and Middleton, if you believe the data behind the New Oxford Shakespeare series) get the idea for Timon of Athens?
While the story of Timon was widely known and written about by the ancients, Shakespeare (for the sake of this article, I’m just going to use “Shakespeare” as “Shakespeare and Middleton” is too long and the abbreviated “S & M”…well, let’s just skip that for now) probably got most of his story from the same place where he found background info for his two Roman tragedies (Julius Caesar and our last play, Antony and Cleopatra): Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.
This work by the Greek historian had been translated into French by writer Jacques Amyot in the early 1560’s. Thomas North then translated it into English, with his first edition appearing in the late 1570’s.
Like our last play, the pertinent portion of Plutarch comes from the book on Mark Antony. Remember in Antony and Cleopatra, right after his loss at Actium, Antony is so distraught that he doesn’t even want to walk on the earth? Well, around that time in the story, Plutarch (and here I’m using a public domain translation from 1923) says of Antony:
Now, after mentioning Timon, it’s as if Plutarch decides he need to explain who Timon was, and thus we get an entire chapter on our main man:
Now, Timon was an Athenian, and lived about the time of the Peloponnesian War, as may be gathered from the plays of Aristophanes and Plato. For he is represented in their comedies as peevish and misanthropical; but though he avoided and repelled all intercourse with men, he was glad to see Alcibiades, who was then young and headstrong, and showered kisses upon him. And when Apemantus was amazed at this and asked the reason for it, Timon said he loved the youth because he knew that he would be a cause of many ills to Athens.
This Apemantus alone of all men Timon would sometimes admit into his company, since Apemantus was like him and tried sometimes to imitate his mode of life; and once, at the festival of The Pitchers, the two were feasting by themselves, and Apemantus said: “Timon, what a fine symposium ours is!” “It would be,” said Timon, “if thou wert not here.” We are told also that once when the Athenians were holding an assembly, he ascended the bema, and the strangeness of the thing caused deep silence and great expectancy; then he said:
“I have a small building lot, men of Athens, and a fig-tree is growing in it, from which many of my fellow citizens have already hanged themselves. Accordingly, as I intend to build a house there, I wanted to give public notice to that effect, in order that all of you who desire to do so may hang yourselves before the fig-tree is cut down.” After he had died and been buried at Halae near the sea, the shore in front of the tomb slipped away, and the water surrounded it and made it completely inaccessible to man.
The inscription on the tomb was:
“Here, after snapping the thread of a wretched life, I lie.
Ye shall not learn my name, but my curses shall follow you.”
This inscription he is said to have composed himself, but that in general circulation is by Callimachus:
“Timon, hater of men, dwells here; so pass along;
Heap many curses on me, if thou wilt, only pass along.”
So that’s where Shakespeare pulled some of his content. I say “some” because there has been scholarship to say he also lifted from a translation of a dialogue titled not surprisingly Timon the Misanthrope by Lucien, a Greek satirist.