This play's date of composition is uncertain, as is the text itself, which may not be complete, and which may not be entirely Shakespeare's work. Yet the available script poses an intriguing variety of challenges.
The figure of Timon must have been known to Shakespeare for some time, for in Love's Labor's Lost Berowne mentions him as one of several great men reduced to absurdity (IV, iii, 165-168). Shakespeare probably read of Timon in a section of Plutarch's Life of Marcus Antonius in the North translation of The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, the book that also provided the "Life of Alcibiades," another source of this play. Finally, Shakespeare possibly knew of an anonymous academic play, Timon, written in the 1580s.
The first question we must consider is whether the play is indeed a tragedy. The story is of a man who falls from great heights to profound depths, largely through his own fault. Yet what has become traditional Shakespearean character development is missing. Instead, the play is more like an extended fable or allegory in which figures personifying specific traits interact to teach about human nature. Nonetheless, the play shares several characteristics with other tragedies, notably King Lear, and reaffirms themes from Shakespeare's other works in this form.
The opening scene establishes important motifs, as characters designated by callings such as the Poet and the Painter debate the nature of art and reality. That these men are given no names adds to the sense of allegory. More significant is that their discussion anticipates how Timon and others are forced to evaluate human nature; what it seems and what it is, what humanity offers as image, and what the reality is behind that image. The artists have come to solicit financial support from Timon, and their reflections include extended comments on "Fortune," meaning both "money" and "chance." The crux of their argument is that man is a victim of fate, good or bad, and the Poet imagines that one day, by chance, Timon might lose his great wealth (I, i, 84-88). However, in no other play of Shakespeare's is man only a pawn of fate, and thus this section must be taken ironically. For in this work, too, the mishaps that befall humanity, specifically