Shakespearean tragedies occasionally told of true events and people, such as with his plays Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. However, he would more often create fictional accounts similar to Timon of Athens. However, this play was not a simple creation of imagination. Shakespeare developed his character, Timon, based on a real historical figure. Timon is a very similar story to the real life of Alcibiades, which has been recorded by Plutarch. However, Shakespeare didn’t simply copy Plutarch’s tale. He changed the circumstances drastically to fit his needs as a playwright. However, it is very evident where he took inspiration from the actual biography.
The first and most obvious thing to notice about the differences between Timon and Alcibiades is the type of men they are. The two live in very different ways. Alcibiades is a man of action, known for his military and political prowess. Plutarch describes that he “put all other orators to silence, but only two that were ever against him. (Selected Lives, p. 97)” and “it was a marvelous thing of him to devise to put all of Peloponnesus in arms (Selected Lives, p. 101)” when he was made general against the Spartans.
Timon on the other hand was more a gentleman of leisure. He spent his time trying to be fun and generous, doting repeatedly on his friends. When Ventidus owes a debt of five talents, Timon comments “I am not of that feather to shake off my friend when he must need me (Timon of Athens, p. 8).” Shortly after, Timon offers to use his own money to cover a dowry so that his slave may get married to the woman he loves. Timon is not frugal with his wealth. He finds no greater joy than in sharing it with his friends.
Unfortunately, it is also the case that Timon’s generosity is his downfall. When his wealth runs out, his creditors come demanding the money he owes them. Timon reaches out to the friends he has always been so generous to, asking for their aid in his time of need. Each produces a different excuse as to why they will not help Timon. Their excuses are weak and demonstrate that they only liked Timon for what he could give them. This trait of theirs is made even more apparent when they, having betrayed Timon by not rushing to his rescue, but shortly after rush to what is promised to be one of his great feasts. Timon describes them as "summer birds (Timon, p. 57)," or birds that only show when conditions are favorable for them. The feast is a ruse, and Timon uses it only to call them out for their sins and to announce his departure from society.
This is a very different circumstance from what occurred in the life of Alcibiades. While Alcibiades also fled from the people he thought were loyal to him (the Athenians), his reasons were very different. Instead of creating pseudo-friends through his actions, Alcibiades had made enemies. They accused him of crimes by using false witnesses, and refused to give him prompt trial, but instead sent him off on another campaign. Then, while he was gone, they took this as a chance to strike and “his enemies enforced them [the false accusations], and burdened him more cruelly (Selected Lives, p. 109).” This forced Alcibiades to flee. While this is very tragic, it makes sense that Shakespeare would deviate from the truth here. His goal is to really make an audience feel for the protagonist. Alcibiades was taken down by enemies he had made through his own aggressive style of politics. It is more difficult to feel sorry for him. In trite terms, he made his bed and he had to sleep in it. Timon, on the other hand, simply tried to be as good a man as he could, giving without expecting return, but all the while believing he had reliable friends. When the people who partook in his bounty over and over decide he is worthless to them, it is a true emotional blow to the audience, for everyone can say they have felt betrayed before. Shakespeare knew this, and thus used the style of downfall that he did.
The final part of this tragedy comes in the form of the time in exile and the death of these men. Here, again, Shakespeare made sure to parallel the real life, but also to alter the story so that it might be more emotional for the audience (and easier to put on stage). Alcibiades defected to the side of his enemies after fleeing instead of returning to Athens. He aided both the Spartans and the Persians in their military exploits against the Athenians. Eventually, "the people...chose him general again of Athens (Selected Lives, p. 128)," as he had longed to return home and had given a powerful oration in his defense, highlighting the fact that the people would have to fear nothing if he was general. He enjoyed much more success, but finally died at the hands of the Spartans. "Those that were sent to kill him durst not enter the house where he was, but set it afire round about (Lives, p. 135)." Alcibiades then rushed out of the house to battle his attackers but was killed by a volley of arrows.
Timon's situation can be compared to this, but is very contrasting as well. To begin with, Timon does not defect to any other side. He was simply a man, and thus did not have anywhere to defect. In a monologue, he cries "Timon will to the woods, where he shall find th' unkindest beast more kinder than mankind (Timon, p. 61)." In the woods, he finds a large sum of buried gold while he digs for roots to eat (Timon, p. 65). This could be considered his Sparta, for when news of the gold reaches the outside world, many people come rushing to Timon. The first to arrive is Alcibiades.
To go off an aside momentarily, it is very interesting that Shakespeare includes Alcibiades as a character. He is not quite the same Alcibiades as Plutarch wrote about, as Shakespeare's was exiled for speaking repeatedly against the Senate in defense of a friend, and he also marched on Athens with an army (Timon, pp. 68-72 & 98-101). These are never mentioned in Plutarch's account. However, it is the name that carries the weight. Simply mentioning Alcibiades makes clear Shakespeare's intention with the play. He wants to write about the situation that men like Alcibiades suffered, and wants to pay homage to where he got most of his material.
Returning to Timon however, He gives Alcibiades, along with whores and thieves, much of the gold he found so that they may do their worst against the men of Athens (Timon, pp. 68-83). He is using his abilities (or rather access to money) to help the enemies of Athens. This is very similar to what the real Alcibiades did. The difference of course is that Timon truly wished Athenian downfall, while Alcibiades' ultimate goal was to return to Athens with a clean slate. Finally, though, Timon dies in the wilderness (probably from only being able to dig up gold and not food!). The solitary death is directly opposite of Alcibiades, who was murdered with his family. However, once again Shakespeare had to do this to make the play more tragic and better to watch. All of Timon's action leading up to him dying alone is very moving and dramatic. That is the goal for a playwright where it might not be for a biographer.
Shakespeare and Plutarch had similar goals in their accounts. Both wanted their audiences to feel pity for the subject. Shakespeare, though, was more free to manipulate his account, as it was all in fiction. Plutarch was obviously an inspiration for the story, but Shakespeare wanted to be able to present a story that could be performed and could be far more tragic. As such, he tried to parallel the real life of Alcibiades, but also changed circumstances drastically to create more emotion. However, Shakespeare's style and story do make it easier to read Plutarch; more specifically to see what he was trying to do. The only times that Plutarch allows his account to speak ill of Alcibiades is when he is saying what other wrote about him. Plutarch himself only speaks about him as a tragic hero, which is eerily similar to many Shakespearean protagonists. While Skaespeare obviously wrote after Plutarch, it is clear that Plutarch was using to tools of his day to win over audience members (his readers) and present an account that was accurate but also dramatic, much like a Shakespearean tragedy.
Plutarch, . Selected Lives. Revised. Hertfordshire, Great Britain: Wordsworth Editions, 1998. 87-136. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Timon of Athens. 3rd. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. Print.