Timon, a rich Athenian, is famous for his liberality. As the play opens a group of people is gathering outside Timon's house, waiting to offer him flattering gifts or beg favours. There is much talk of his generosity and open-heartedness, which is immediately borne out when he appears, paying a friend's debts to free him from prison and giving money to a servant to allow him to marry. Only the cynical philosopher Apemantus has doubts about the sincerity of Timon's friends. The young general Alcibiades is warmly welcomed by Timon, who invites him and other friends to a banquet, at which there is more lavish distribution of gifts. However, Timon's steward Flavius realizes what his master doesn't - that Timon's extravagant lifestyle has emptied his coffers. Timon's creditors start to ask for payment and one after another he asks his friends for help, only to be refused by all. He invites them all to a second banquet, where he turns the tables on them. Alcibiades pleads in vain with the senate for the life of one of his soldiers who has committed a murder; in anger they banish him from Athens. The disillusioned Timon goes to live as a recluse outside Athens, railing bitterly against mankind. One day, digging for roots to eat, he discovers gold. He gives it away, first to Alcibiades, to pay the army he has raised against Athens, and his two whores, Timandra and Phrynia, then to some bandits. He finally offers some to his steward Flavius. Hearing of this, more false friends come out to flatter Timon but he drives them away, along with the senators from Athens who come to beg for his help against Alcibiades. Alcibiades wins his war against the Athenian senators, at which point news reaches the city that Timon is dead.
The play is about a spendthrift Timon who is unable to manager power, money or responsibility. Timon gives away all his wealth to his so-called friends. When the money runs out, so do his friends. Before his final downfall, Timon has some moments of reckoning with his steward Flavius.
FLAVIUS: O my good lord
At many times I brought in my accounts,
Laid them before you, you would throw them off,
As say you found them in mine honesty ...
My loved lord,
Though you hear now, too late!-yet now's a time-
The greatest of your having lacks a half
To pay your present debts.
TIMON: Let all my land be sold!
FLAVIUS: 'Tis all engaged, some forfeited and gone,
And what remains will hardly stop the mouth
Of present dues.
Fearing punishment from Timon, Flavius asks for an independent audit.
The play parallels de Vere's life in the early 1580s. De Vere spent reckless, supporting friends, the arts and others. He was admired, and supported admirable causes, including the arts. To pay expenses, he sold his lands. Eventually, he ran out of assets. When his secretary John Lyly reported that de Vere had run out of money, de Vere blamed Lyly. Lyly in turn, like Flavius, welcomed an audit of the accounts. Like Timon, de Vere retired with his wife Ann from court and London life.
At the end of the play, Timon rails against humanity, calling for the destruction of Athens. In the process, he recalls the doubtful paternity of a child:
TIMON: Spare not the babe
Whose dimpled smiles from fools exhaust their mercy:
Think it a bastard, whom the oracle
Hath doubtfully pronounc'd the throat shall cut,
And mince it sans remorse. Swear against objects,
Put armor on thine ears and on thine eyes
Whose proof nor yells of mothers, maids, or babes,
Nor sight of priests in holy vestments bleeding
Shall pierce a jot. There's gold to pay thy soldiers.
Make large confusion.
This may have reflected de Vere's feeling toward the English court.
The play's philosopher Ademantus sums up Timon's situation:
ADEMANTUS: The middle of humanity thou never newest, but the extremity of both ends. When thou wast in thy gilt and thy perfume, they mock'd thee for too much curiosity; in thy rags thou know'st none - but art despis'd for the contrary.
This description also applies to de Vere. He mingled with the elites at court. He also inhabited the lowly world of actors. His father-in-law Lord Burghley once commented on de Vere's "lewd friends". However, by the early 1580s, de Vere was out of money. He confessed to discussing plans to overthrow the government. He had been accused of numerous crimes in the Arundell libels. He had fathered an illegitimate child, for which he had been imprisoned.