The story is simple. Timon is a spendthrift — thoughtless, or just generous and naïve? — who thinks that money can buy friendship. He learns differently when his debts are called in. Reduced to poverty, he takes to the woods outside Athens, but finds no fairies, no confused comic lovers, no moon. Instead he turns misanthrope (Act 4, Scene 1 is an extraordinary monologue, clearly a dry run for Lear on the heath) and, despite finding gold (cue Herr Marx), rejects all overtures to return, finally dying off-stage.
But this simple story is covered with layers of delicious irony. The parasites who surround Timon are hilariously rendered, especially the Greek-chorus Poet and Painter in Act 1 Scene 1. The parasites’ hypocrisy is even funnier. Witness Lucius in Act 3 Scene 3, in one breath condemning a scrounger who refused to help Timon, in the next pleading poverty when he’s asked himself. Timon gives away the gold he finds, tossing some into two prostitutes’ upturned skirts, giving some to brigands who are more morally upright than the Athenians. How dark is Timon’s world? Almost the only character who is at all sympathetic is Alcibiades. Yes, that Alcibiades.
There’s one other: Flavius, Timon’s faithful steward, is touching in his real humanity. I’m surprised that Marx did not mention Act 4, Scene 2, where Timon’s servants express their continuing loyalty; writing in 1848 Marx still believed that the working class was specially virtuous as a class. They are here.
Finally, there’s Apemantus the cynic, the philosopher-dog who follows Timon around, spouting invective and turning petulant when Timon returns the favour (“Do not assume my likeness,” (4.3.17). I find him far less effective than his spiritual brothers Thersites (in Troilus and Cressida), Jacques (in As You Like It), and the Fool (in King Lear). Could Thomas Middleton have been primarily responsible for him?
There’s no way to know. What I do know is that the shaping intelligence behind Timon of Athens is plainly Shakespeare’s and that this obscure (in more than one sense) play offers exceptional rewards if we engage with it. Shakespeare expressing corrosive cynicism about money? What could be more to the point in 2013?