Timon is, to all appearances, an exceedingly wealthy Athenian man. He is also extremely generous with his wealth. He loves to party and he loves to share his wealth with his friends. Timon considers himself to be a wealthy man both in terms of his fortune and in his friendships. Timon considers himself to be a great patron of the arts as he bestows his generosity on many poets, musicians and artists. He is also quite the supporter of politicians as he regularly hosts senators at his extravagantly filled dining room table.
Unfortunately Timon has never had any interest in keeping tabs on his fortune. Despite pleading from Flavius, his trusted service/household manager, Timon refuses any request to review his ledgers.
The day comes when creditors are no longer willing to wait another moment to get paid. Timon is forced to see the reality that he has spent every penny he has. Timon does not worry because he has so many friends that he has shared his wealth with over the decades. When he tells his creditors to go to his friends, many whom are in government, they inform Timon that they have requested that these men pay Timon's debt and they have all refused to pay a single bit on Timon's behalf.
Enraged at the lack of reciprocity that his so called friends have shown, Timon leaves civilization to live in a cave outside of Athens. While digging for roots he find a trove of gold. Timon is wealthy again but has no interest in returning to his old life. The only thing that gives Timon anything close to pleasure is the idea that he can use his money to help destroy Athens and every single person in the city.
The play ends with Timon's death offscreen. His epitaph reads "Here lie I, Timon, who, alive, all living men did hate. Pass by and curse thy fill, but pass and stay not here thy gait".
This trailer by the Oregon Shakespeare Company really gives a great feel for the play and the descent of Timon.
How much money did Timon spend?
This play is inextricably linked to the concepts of money and usury, the charging of interest for loans. It is mentioned by Flavius, Timon's servant, that Timon owes 25,000 talents of silver.
The term talent is an old term for money in Ancient Greece. It is described as various amounts of gold or silver. According to various estimates a talent was the equivalent of 50-75 pounds of silver.
Let's be conservative and say that an a talent is 50 pounds of silver. With 800 ounces of silver per talent, and an ounce of silver currently valued at about 22 dollars, Timon owes his debtors about 440 million dollars in today's money. A debt of 25,000 talents, assuming 1200 ounces for 75 pounds of silver, would put Timon's total debt at over 650 million dollars today!
This sounds completely impossible for any rational human being. My first thought was that Shakespeare didn't have a clue as to how much money he was talking about when he listed that enormous sum of debt. But the reality is that we have seen unbelievably wealthy people go broke due to the awful combination of arrogantly lavish spending and faith in terrible people.
The first person that comes to mind when I think of an incredibly talented person who lost all of his money is Mike Tyson, who earned, and lost, between 4-600 million dollars in prize money in his career.
Mike Tyson lost his fortune in a similar way to Timon; ridiculously lavish spending and not paying attention to the details of his money.
Mike Tyson was earning 30 million dollars a fight when he was in his prime. For his 30th birthday party he had 700 guests come to help him celebrate. The champ also owned three exotic tigers for a long time. He also paid for a large entourage and enriched his promotor Don King and Manager Rory Holloway. People he wound up suing for hundreds of millions in theft.
Tyson, like Timon, came out of his bankruptcy an incredibly bitter man for a very long time. You can see it in just about any interview the champ has given over the last twenty years - there is an inexhaustible wellspring of rage. The kind of rage that I can only imagine that comes from the experience of having so much taken from you and a refusal to ever let anyone get one over on you ever again.
Money and Talent
While the term talent referred to money we more commonly refer to talent as natural gifts or aptitude. The connection between wealth and talent is at least as old as the Bible
Matthew 25:14-30 tells the parable of the talents
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey. Then he who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents. And likewise he who had received two gained two more also. But he who had received one went and dug in the ground, and hid his lord’s money. After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them. “So he who had received five talents came and brought five other talents, saying, ‘Lord, you delivered to me five talents; look, I have gained five more talents besides them.’ His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’ He also who had received two talents came and said, ‘Lord, you delivered to me two talents; look, I have gained two more talents besides them.’ His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’ “Then he who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed. And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.’ “But his lord answered and said to him, ‘You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed. So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest. Therefore take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents. ‘For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away.’"
On the surface this parable seems incredibly harsh. Why was the servant with a low risk tolerance punished? Why wasn't the servant rewarded for not wasting the money he was given? And why was the servant's money given to the servant who already has so much!?
The parable suggests, at least so far as I understand, that talent is a gift from God. You have a moral responsibility to take the talent that God gave you and to use it righteously so that your talent can serve others. In serving others righteously your talents grow.
I think about how much I have improved as a teacher over the past sixteen years. I certainly wasn't a good teacher for the first several years. To whatever extent that I have become a better teacher it has been because I have strived every year to serve my students better. In seeking to best serve my students my ability as a teacher has grown exponentially; meaning slowly at first but over time my ability to teach effectively grew to the point where each year I teach some things significantly better than I did the year before.
So just as the parable suggests, in seeking to serve others my talents have grown in direct proportion to my efforts to serve. It doesn't matter how much you have; whether you were given one talent, two or five, you have an obligation to use these gifts that God gave you to their fullest potential.
Wasting God given talent is a sin. Similarly wasting your money, which can be used to serve others, is a sin. But not using your money, or refusing to use your talent to benefit others, is an even bigger sin than wasting it. Because if you use your money badly you can still benefit others but hiding or hoarding your money or your talent means that nobody can benefit from it. We are given talent, as the parable says, each according to our ability. Likewise we are judged according to the talent we possess and to the extent that our talent serves others.
Timon, who was given an incredible amount of wealth, would be expected to use that talent to grow and multiply. Shakespeare has given us a character who was given hundreds of millions of dollars, and then even more halfway through the play. But at the end of the day he produced absolutely nothing with his wealth.
Timon, in wasting his money, committed a sin. But Timon didn't completely waste his talents; he used some of his money to pay the debt of his friend. But where Timon truly sinned was when he when he found a treasure chest in the ground. Instead of using these newfound talents to help worthy people he reburied his talents to purposefully deny them to others. He would rather have seen the whole city of Athens burn than use his talent to help all but a few. This is double the sin.
In all the plays I have read so far the recurring theme is balance and avoiding the extremes. We see Timon transform from this naively optimistic man who holds rather childish ideals about fairness and reciprocity turn into the polar opposite bitter, enraged and desperate man who doesn't believe that there is anything good in mankind. The extreme waste and hoarding are juxtaposed with the naïve optimistic and brutish pessimism - both extremes are both punished in this play.
"Many so arrive at second masters upon their first lord's neck"
This is an eloquent way of saying how many people commonly betray to get ahead.
"You should have feared false times when you did feast"
Ultimately Flavius tells Timon that the anger and suspicion he feels at the end of the play is what he should have felt ages before. The eloquence of Flavius's admonition struck me as worth remembering.
I think Timon had innocent ideals about human beings. He began the story genuinely believing that his generosity could be measured in the strength he perceived in his friendships. The fact that a middle aged man could hold such unsophisticated views about the nature of man tells us just how sheltered Timon was his entire life.
When he realized that his entire world outlook was wrong Timon didn't take a moment to look at himself and find fault within himself. Timon never chided himself for being not taking responsibility for his affairs or ignoring his servant who tried repeatedly to warn him. Timon never asked himself "Why did I have so much faith in these people?" Timon immediately went to decry all of humanity. Timon basically says "all of mankind is to blame". Or to put it another way...
Big picture thoughts
At the risk of trying to get too modern I wonder what Shakespeare would think about the 21st century economy; the recession of 2008 brought on by cheap access to government credit, the fruitlessness and hype of "influencers" who tout crypto currency and NFTs and the massive amounts of government deficit spending.
But I guess I don't really have to wonder what he would think about all of this. Part of the many benefits of being a prolific writer, like Shakespeare was, is that we can reasonably infer what he might think about a variety of circumstances and situations. With regards to current global economic events; the technology that drives the grift might change but the fundamental concept of empty promises delivered by flatterers doesn't really change. This play tells us all we need to know about Shakespeare's opinion on those topics.
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