Timon of Athens: The value of money

A couple of days back, I posited–for the sake of argument–that Timon of Athens is about wealth. Given the play does a great job of documenting all the ways one can accumulate said wealth, I’m leaning toward taking ‘argument’s sake’ out of the equation.

And if the play is about wealth, then what is the value of money within the play? Well, the answer to that question is somewhat confusing, as it seems the playwright(s) may have been confused.

First, let’s take a look at the three denominations of money mentioned in the play:

The talent was a measurement of precious metal. For the Greeks, a talent was approximately 57 pounds (56.87 to be exact) in silver. Given a November 2016 valuation of silver ($16.55/ounce), a talent would be worth just over $15K (16.55 [valuation] x 16 [ounces per pound] x 56.87 [pounds in a talent] = 15059.17).

Shakespeare’s solidare is most likely a bastardization of the Roman solidus. When in the 8th century Pepin the Short reformed currency, a solidus was most widely valued at a shilling. There are 20 shillings in a pound. Given a November 2016 exchange rate of 1 pound to 1.25 US dollars, a solidus would be worth 6 cents.

The English crown was worth 5 shillings. Given that same November 2016 exchange rate, a crown could be worth around 30 cents.

So the confusion begins: Greek talent, Roman “solidare,” and English crown. Yeah, that’s not going to muddy the waters at all.

Now, let’s take a look at how these denominations are used…

In Act One, Scene One, we learn that Ventidius has been jailed for being five talents in debt, owing roughly $75,000. In the same scene, the old man can provide of dowry of three talents, or roughly $45,000, which Timon promises to match.

In Act Two, Scene One, the senator claims that Timon owes to various lenders, “five and twenty [thousand]” (II.i.3). But 25,000 what? It’s not directly stated. If it’s talents, then that’s $375 MILLION dollars; if it’s solidares, then it’s $1500; crowns, $7500. If Ventidius was jailed for a $75K debt, what’s Timon walking the streets when he’s over a third of a BILLION in the hole? But on the other hand, if he’s only in debt $7500, how could the value of all his possessions “lack… a half // To pay [his] present debts” (II.ii.146-7). Plus, then why would he call for talents from his friends? So, the senator must be talking about talents.

So, Timon owes at the very least $375 million dollars. And his current estate and movables total around $180 million. It’s easy to see how he appears so prosperous.

The preceding was but prelude to the real confusion…but that, I’ll discuss tomorrow.

[that, my friends, is what they call in the business, a “tease”…]

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