Surrounded by fair-weather flatterers and beneficiaries of his largesse, Timon of Athens, a wealthy nobleman, is a generous friend, a considerate master, a lavish patron of the arts, and an extravagant entertainer. On the other hand, Apemantus, a churlish philosopher hated by everyone for his chiding, ridicules Timon’s blindness and warns him against his friends. Flavius, Timon’s steward, also tries to warn his master of his impending ruin being caused by his unbridled extravagance. But the joy of giving, as well as his susceptibility to flattery by his “friends,” is too great for Timon to listen.
Alarmed at the possibility that Timon will bankrupt himself, several of Timon’s wealthy creditors send their agents to collect their loans. The importunities of these men at length force Timon to listen to the faithful Flavius, who proves to him that he owes more than twice what he possesses. Knowing that he has given unwisely but not ignobly, Timon refuses to believe that friends who are “feast-won” are “fast-lost.” Accordingly, he dispatches servants with requests for small loans to Lucullus, Lucius, and Sempronius, whom he has showered with gifts, and to Ventidius, whom he once relieved from debtors’ prison.
The first premonition to Timon of the ingratitude he may expect comes when Flavius reports his ill success in borrowing from the Athenian senate. Then, one by one, Timon’s friends deny him, all finding feeble excuses for evading his request. Timon begins to realize how little he may expect from others now that his own fortunes are fallen into disarray, and he resolves to invite them to one more banquet. When they all appear with faint excuses for denying his messengers, Timon serves them covered dishes of warm water, which he throws in their faces, and drives them out of his house with curses.
Meanwhile Alcibiades, a famous military hero and poor but true friend of Timon, encounters another manifestation of Athenian ingratitude: he is banished by the senate for too eloquently pleading the cause of an Athenian soldier sentenced to death despite his bravery and service to the state. Alcibiades swears to revenge himself upon Athens by rallying his discontented troops and attacking the city.
With bitter curses against all mankind, the now misanthropic Timon shakes the dust of Athens from his feet and goes into voluntary exile in a cave near the sea. There, while grubbing for roots to gnaw on, he finds buried treasure. Soon after, Alcibiades, with his army of discontents and his two mistresses, Timandra and Phrynia, happens to pass that way and speaks the first sincere words Timon has heard. Though his soldiers are deserting because he lacks money to pay them, Alcibiades offers Timon gold. However, when Timon hears that the expedition is marching against Athens, he shares his treasure with the general and his mistresses.
Word of Timon’s new-found treasure soon brings other visitors. To two thieves, Timon gives some of his gold and such bitter praise of thievery that they are almost converted from their profession. Here, too, he is found by his steward, Flavius, who has sought him for love and not for gain. At first Timon curses him for being like the rest, but, at last touched by his devotion, acknowledges him as the one honest man who redeems mankind. To him he gives a huge sum on condition that he never visit him again nor show charity to any one.
Believing that Timon’s wretchedness is but a pose adopted to test his friends, a self-seeking poet and a painter also visit him, professing old friendship, but Timon gives them nothing but curses. Even the Athenian senate sends a delegation soliciting his aid against Alcibiades and promising him even greater dignities than those he has renounced; but Timon expresses his utter indifference as to what fate befalls the city.
However, Alcibiades is placated by being given permission to present his grievances and to enter the city peaceably in order to wreak vengeance on his enemies and Timon’s. The news of this belated vindication reaches Timon too late; he has died friendless and alone, leaving behind only an epitaph expressing the hatred which he has taken with him beyond the grave.