a. Timon of Athens is the only Shakespeare play in which talent is used to refer to a particular sum of money. Historically, a talent was a vast sum. According to the most conservative reckoning, the Attic talent had a value equal to more than fifty pounds of silver. However, there are a number of indications both in Timon of Athens itself and in other contemporary plays that few if any dramatists of the time worked with a precise knowledge of the value of this sum.
b. In Timon there is an extremely wide range in the numbers of talents mentioned in the first three acts. Act 1 mentions only small numbers of talents: the five talents that Timon gives to free Ventidius (1.1.112) and the three talents that Timon gives Lucilius to make his marriage (1.1.165), an amount that Timon must “strain a little,” he says, to provide. Acts 2 and 3 regularly mention greater numbers of talents. Timon asks for fifty talents from each of his friends Lucius, Lucullus, and Sempronius (2.2.216), and he also plans to send to the senate of Athens a request for a thousand talents (2.2.222) before his steward, Flavius, persuades him that any request directed to the senate will be futile. Lucius is the character who mentions by far the largest sum in talents at 3.2.40: “He [i.e., Timon] cannot want [i.e., be without] fifty-five hundred talents.” In order to make this line match the actual value of the talent a little more closely, many editors emend it to read “fifty—five hundred—talents,” making Lucius refer to two different (but still vast) sums, instead of one unimaginably huge one. We do not emend, because it is possible to interpret the line as Lucius’s (perhaps hyperbolic) tribute to what he believes to be Timon’s inexhaustible wealth. Elsewhere Timon himself also reckons his wealth as virtually inexhaustible when he tells Flavius “To Lacedaemon did my land extend” (2.2.169). (Since Lacedaemon is in the southeastern part of the Greek mainland, Timon’s land would have amounted to much if not most of eastern Greece south of Athens. See map.) Perhaps, then, we should regard the references to great numbers of talents as reliable indicators of Timon’s wealth and his waste of it.
Against this possibility, however, we have to weigh other evidence suggesting that mention of sums of fifty, a thousand, and fifty-five hundred talents should not be read in any relation to the talent’s historical value. This evidence is to be found in the appearance of Timon’s servant Flaminius with an “empty box” in which he hopes to carry away fifty talents—in reality, well over a ton of silver (3.1.17). It would seem, then, that by Act 3, if not before, the use of the talent as a monetary sum in the fiction of the play—however suggestive it may be of Timon’s great expenditures and gifts—no longer bears any relation to the talent’s historical value. But the divergence between these uses of “talent” may already have opened up long before Flaminius alludes to his box. At the beginning of 1.2 Ventidius approaches Timon at the latter’s great banquet to “return those talents/ . . . from whose help /I derived liberty” (6–8). If the five talents he is returning had their historical value, Ventidius would have brought with him almost three hundred pounds of silver.
c. At three points in the Folio text of Timon of Athens in the scene now designated as 3.2, we also find the curious phrase “so many talents.” When the Second Stranger tells his story of Timon’s request for money to Lucullus, the Stranger says the request was “to borrow so many Talents”; Lucius, who is listening to the story, asserts that he “should ne’re haue denied his [i.e., Timon’s] Occasion so many Talents”; and when Timon’s servant Servilius announces Timon’s request to Lucius, the sum desired is “so many Talents” (line numbers 991–92, 1003, and 1017 in the Folio text; line numbers 3.2.12, 24, 38 in the current edition). As editors have long recognized, such imprecise language cannot pass for adequate dialogue. Some editors have proposed that the dramatist grew suspicious about the accuracy of his understanding of the talent’s value and therefore used “so many” as a stopgap, to be replaced with a number after he had correctly established what the talent historically was worth. Against this argument is the evidence presented above that nowhere does the play show any concern that the talent correspond to its historical value. This same lack of concern is also evinced by other dramatists, as discussed below (see section d).
Other explanations of “so many” are possible. We know, for example, that the phrase could be used as a way of avoiding the repetition of a number already clearly provided. When, in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, Parolles is enumerating the strength of the companies in an army, naming each company by its leader’s name, he says “Spurio a hundred and fifty, Sebastian so many, Corambus so many . . .” (4.3.172–74). In this speech “so many” means “a hundred and fifty.” Thus “so many talents” in Timon may mean simply “fifty talents,” the number that Timon has clearly announced to his servants that they are to request of both Lucullus and Lucius. Perhaps the dramatist used “so many” because he knew he had already made clear the number in question even though he may have forgotten just what the number was. In any case, as Shakespeare’s earliest editors understood, an editor must substitute “fifty” for “so many” in order to provide intelligible dialogue. In 1709 Rowe emended Folio line 1017 (3.2.38) to read “fifty,” and in 1733 Theobald introduced the same emendation into Folio lines 991–92 as well (3.2.12).
d. Several other plays written around Shakespeare’s time give evidence of dramatists’ ignorance of the talent’s historical value. Of most relevance is an anonymous play—interestingly, another play about Timon of Athens—that exists only in manuscript and that appears to belong to the very early 1600s, thereby predating the Shakespeare play. In the manuscript Timon, four or five talents are characterized as “a little golden dust”; a character named Demeas, a mere orator, has run up a debt of sixteen talents, for which he has been arrested; and another character, Gelasimus, prays to Fortune for “five or six talents [to] pour down suddenly / Into my hands or [to] hail . . . on my head.” If the wished-for talents were to come down in their historical value, they would break off Gelasimus’s hands and crush his head and him. The anonymous author of The Wars of Cyrus, printed in 1594, seems equally oblivious to the talent’s actual worth. He rates five hundred talents at approximately the same value as “six hundred arming coats” or “three thousand Scythians’ bows . . . finished with quivers.” As one final example of ahistorical representation of the talent in plays, William Davenant’s The platonicke louers, printed in 1636, represents Aristotle as having spent a thousand talents (historically, over twenty-five tons of silver) on books.
Though dramatists of Shakespeare’s time were not acquainted with the precise historical value of the talent, they did recognize that it was worth considerably more than other monetary units. Shakespeare’s Timon asks for fifty talents from his individual wealthy friends, but when his requests are later reported in terms of “pieces” (i.e., coins), he is said to have asked for “a thousand pieces” (3.6.21). When Timon’s debts are reported in terms of crowns (five-shilling coins), the number of crowns far exceeds the number of talents he seeks to borrow: “three thousand crowns,” “five thousand” (3.4.39–40). Such appreciation of the high relative value of the talent is also evident in other plays of the period. In one of the Stonyhurst Pageants, written and performed in North Lancashire sometime between 1610 and 1625, a character pairs “ten talents of white silver, and six thousand crowns in gold.” All in all, in relation to the drama of Shakespeare’s time, there is nothing idiosyncratic or egregiously ignorant about the ahistorical use of the talent in Timon.