By Michael Flachmann

Quick, what interest rates are you paying on your house loan and your credit card purchases? How much money are you earning on your savings account balance? Like it or not, coping with such questions is an inescapable burden of living in our modern, credit-oriented society. Most of us are continuously treading water in an economic whirlpool of plastic cards, Visa bills, car payments, and immense home mortgages. For an audience so sophisticated in the uses and abuses of money, Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens initially appears to be a rather simple parable about the destructive consequences of borrowing money you are unable to repay. As recent scholarly research (especially articles by Michael Chorost, John Ruszkiewicz, and Coppelia Kahn) illustrates, however, the thematic concerns of the play are much deeper and more complex. At the heart of the matter is the intriguing concept of biological finance.

Timon, like tribal chieftains in many primitive societies, is an archetypal “gift-giver” who bestows lavish presents upon the members of his clan in order to dramatize and reinforce his superior social status. His gifts are, therefore, a constant proof of his dominant position among his friends. Such ostentatious generosity helps satisfy his emotional need to be loved and revered, while at the same time creating an indebtedness among the recipients that can never be repaid. Since he is essentially manipulating people into expressing exaggerated affection for him, no true camaraderie exists in this court that seems rich in love, but is rich only in money. Unlike circular gift economies, in which presents are reciprocally given and received, Timon perpetuates a linear form of gift-giving in which his largess flows solely in one direction: from him to his beneficiaries. Such a one-sided economy creates power, but only the illusion of friendship.

Finance merges with biology when Timon finally realizes that his habit of borrowing huge sums of money to support such extravagance has placed him deeply in debt. Unlike the precious jewels, paintings, statues, and other rich gifts he has given, the money he owes his various creditors has reproduced through the accumulation of interest. He now is in debt not only for the sums he has borrowed, but also for the exorbitant fees charged on the original loans.

The Renaissance was an age, unlike our own, uneasy with this concept of usury: Many capitalists, like the character Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, desperately needed financial credit for business ventures, yet scorned the moneylenders for demanding interest on their loans. By setting his play in ancient Athens, Shakespeare invokes all the well-known Greek injunctions against what Aristotle called the “unnatural” practice of usury. Money was “barren”: God did not intend it to “increase” as living creatures did; it was a method of buying goods, not a commodity in itself. Despite such warnings, rising commercialism and human avarice ensured that usury was a hotly debated ethical topic well into the seventeenth century. The constant tension between the old world and the new was further reflected in the fact that the Greek word for “interest” was “tokos,” which meant “offspring” or “child.” Even as Greece’s philosophers were condemning currency as sterile, its language brought life and breath to the country’s financial dealings and helped create the impression that money was organically and biologically “alive” since it could grow through the compounding of interest.

This same concept of the reproductive nature of money not only helps explain Timon’s actions in the first half of the play, when the biology of finance and the ingratitude of false friends turn him from philanthrope to misanthrope, but also in the second half, when he digs for roots in the wilderness and ironically discovers gold instead. Through the dark and brooding progress of the play, Timon has finally uncovered the “root” of all evil, the radix malorum—greed—which destroys everything from human relationships to entire civilizations.

Shakespeare’s dramatic lesson is instructive, whether his audience is the newly crowned king of England, James I, who was rapidly running up a £1,000,000 debt through the corrupt Jacobean patronage system, or a poor slob in twentieth-century America trying to stay one step ahead of the credit crunch. The play speaks to us through the centuries about a world in which money breeds easily while love and friendship are sterile virtues. Unfortunately, Shakespeare’s Athens looks very much like home.