Timon of Athens: The value of money, part two

Yesterday, I discussed the three denominations of money used in Timon of Athens (talents, solidares, and crowns), and their relative worths. I also touched upon some of the talent references in the first two acts.

At that point, we’d concluded that 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.

But this is where it gets confusing…

To Lucius, Lucullus, and Sempronius, Timon sends a request for “fifty talents” (II.ii.194) each or a total of $225,000 dollars. A pretty large sum but still a drop in the bucket of his debt. Of the senators, he wants the servants to request “a thousand talents” (II.ii.201), or $1.5 million. That’s not pocket change, either, but is still a pittance against his loans. And of Ventidius, he calls for “five talents” (III.i.231), or $7500. [Question: if Timon only requests what he himself paid to free Ventidius, what have his gifts been like to Lucius, Lucullus, and Sempronius?]

In Act Three, Scene One, we see Timon’s servant Flaminius make the request of “fifty talents” (III.i.17) of Lucullus. The request is refused, but to keep the refusal silent, Lucullus offers Flaminius three solidares, or 18 CENTS. You can see why Flaminius throws the sum back at Lucullus.

In the next scene, when three strangers and Lucius discuss the request made of Lucullus, the Second Stranger uses the phrase “so many talents” (III.ii.12)–instead of the more specific (and correct) 50 talents–and Lucius uses the same “so many talents” (III.ii.24) when responding. When Timon’s servant Servilius arrives, even he uses “so many talents” (III.ii.36). Has Servilius overheard this usage, and then uses it himself (maybe even mockingly)? It’s definitely possible, as Servilius’ entrance is immediately after Lucius uses the phrase. But when Lucius responds to Servilius, he says…

[and this is where it gets really confusing]

three different things, depending on which version you’re reading. The printed texts of the First Folio (and thus both MIT’s Moby Complete Shakespeare and OpenSource Shakespeare) uses “fifty five hundred talents” … which gets re-punctuated in the Folger Digital Text edition as “fifty-five hundred talents,” thus clarifying but not changing the amount. But as long-time readers know, I’m using the Pelican Shakespeare (with Timon of Athens edited by Frances E. Dolan), and here, the phrase is re-re-punctuated as “fifty – five hundred – talents” (III.ii.38). Now, it’s Dolan’s contention that “so many talents” was a kind of printer’s place holder for the correct sum of “fifty talents”–which is certainly what the editors of the Folger Digital texts have done (though “so many talents” appears in the Folio/Moby/OpenSource versions). Ms. Dolan further contends that the double-dashed punctuation of “fifty – five hundred – talents” reflects the confusion on the part of either the author or the printers over the correct amount (i.e. Is it fifty or is it five hundred?).

It’s pretty clear that the amount should be fifty. So why the confusion on the part of the printer? We don’t know, but I’m willing to argue that the “five hundred” used by Lucius is for the benefit of his audience, to make himself look either more prosperous, or more righteous in his denial. This would then explain Servilius’ initial response, “But in the meantime he wants less, my lord” (III.ii.39, emphasis mine), a kind of face-saving playing-along by the servant.

It doesn’t get any less confusing from there. Two scenes later, when the servants of some of Timon’s creditors show up at his home, we hear from Varro’s servant that Timon owes Varro “three thousand crowns” (III.iv.29) and Lucius’ servant responds that Timon owes Lucius another “five thousand” (III.iv.30). Due to the juxtaposition of the two lines, I think it’s safe to assume that Lucius’ servant is talking about five thousand crowns (or a total of $1500). Only this doesn’t mesh.

Yesterday, when the senator was outlining Timon’s debts in Act Two, Scene One, he notes that “to Varro and to Isidore // [Timon] owes nine thousand” (II.i.2). At that point in our discussion, I had (or thought I had) concluded that we were talking talents, here, not crowns. Plus, if Varro and Isidore’s debt combined is nine thousand then his servant’s statement of three thousand crowns might work (if Isidore’s portion is six thousand crowns), but obviously if the senator was saying Timon owed Varro and Isidore both nine thousand each, the servant’s statement of three thousand is just outright wrong. Later in the scene, when Timon appears, another of the creditors’ servants Titus calls out his due: “Fifty talents” (III.iv.93). And we’re back to talents, but no, we’re not, as Lucius’ servant reiterates his due of “five thousand crowns” (III.iv.95). Well, at least, that amount matches his earlier statement.

And as if to say, BLEEP this–I’m done–the only other references to denominations of money come two scenes later, in the run-up to the final feast. Some of Timon’s “friends” (that’s the stage direction’s commentary, not mine… but my air-quotes) discuss what Timon has borrowed of them: “A thousand pieces” (III.vi.21). It really does feel as if the playwright(s)/printer(s) have given up, and now use just a generic term (“pieces”) with no set value.

And this is the last monetary denomination named in the play; what Timon finds digging for roots in Act Four, Scene Three is simply “gold” (IV.iii.26).

With this confusion, one can kind of see how some critics want to disavow Shakespeare’s part in this play. And maybe they’re right: most of the confusion over denominations come in what we now believe is the Thomas Middleton-penned third act. In the first two acts, the only denomination used is talent. There is, of course, the non-denomination-specific speech of the senator; but I still think we can safely assume he’s talking talents there, as well.

But what if these aren’t mistakes of carelessness, but mindful mistakes, as if to say, “Denominations? Amounts? It just doesn’t matter. We’re talking wealth, we’re talking borrowing and gifting, we’re talking about perceived ingratitude here…”? It’s possible, I suppose.


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