Friday, April 3, 2009

A Pound of Flesh

WT and I were chatting the other night about a particular person
who, if given the choice, would rather have their pound of flesh than
any other type of remuneration. The Collins English Dictionary
explains the phrase "pound of flesh" as "something that is one's legal
right, but is an unreasonable demand".

A pound of flesh alludes to the scene in Shakespeare's The Merchant
of Venice, 1596, Act IV, scene i, where the Jewish moneylender,
Shylock, demands the pound of flesh promised him in payment for a
loan. Portia, disguised as a young doctor of the law, responds that he
may have it, but without an ounce of blood, since blood was not
promised. In the famous speech, Portia begs Shylock to show mercy
and take twice the money owed, but he refuses, insisting on his
pound of flesh, instead.

The Merchant of Venice is primarily a play about hatred and
revenge. It has been one of Shakespeare's most controversial plays
and analysts have long debated whether it is an anti-Semitic play or
simply a play about anti-Semitism that reflects the prevalent view of
Christian society in Elizabethan England. I, for one, consider Shylock
an ambiguous figure. There are many indications that Shakespeare
views his flaws as human failings, not specifically Jewish ones.

The theme of mercy verses revenge is still very applicable today.
Could the pain inflicted by extracting a pound of flesh ever truly be
rewarding? Aren't we far better people for embracing the giving and
receiving of mercy?
Al Pacino brilliantly portrays Shylock in the 2004 film version of
The Merchant of Venice, directed by Michael Radford. The video
clip below shows Lynn Collins, as Portia, delivering this famous
mercy speech.
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed.
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
It is mightiest in the mighty,
It becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
An attribute to awe and majesty.
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself.
And earthly power dost the become likest God's,
Where mercy seasons justice.
Therefore Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice we all must see salvation,
We all do pray for mercy
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.
I have spoke thus much to mitigate the justice of thy plea,
Which if thou dost follow,
This strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence against the merchant there.

A favorite vintage etching of the trial scene hangs in Willow Manor.


  1. My favorite part...

    "It is twice blessed.
    It blesseth him that gives and him that takes."

  2. I actually find Shylock a sympathetic character; he's trying to get what he's been promised, and Portia is actually trying to rip him off. It's been a while since I read the play, but wasn't that the plan?

  3. One of my very favorites by Shakespeare!

  4. A favourite of mine by Shakespeare. Thanks for the movie preview, Willow.

  5. A Pound of Flesh and Blackmail all in one week. Serious stuff over here at the Manor!! Aren't Shakespeare's words just amazing. Thanks for printing some of them here. Just a joy to read. And I do so love Pacino's portrayal in this.

  6. Thank you for bringing a touch of culture into my day.

    It's nice to let the mind do a little exercise and contemplate. To allow the soul to expand and feel a little more is nice.

  7. You know, Willow, you really raise the level on the blogosphere! It's always a pleasure to visit.

  8. another very interesting post, Willow and this speech from shakespeare is one of my favorites....

  9. great post... I've yet to see this play.. but I'm sure that the RSC will put it on in the next year or two (there theatre in Stratford is but 30 mins drive from my home.. I'm off to see the Winters Tale next Friday)

    I love the film clip... the speech was beautifully performed... the rhythm of Shakespeares prose is just so wonderful...

  10. Rage, Blackmail, A Pound of Flesh - yikes, should we be staying clear of the Manor for a while? ;^)

    Striking thoughts about justice and mercy. I love reading Shakespeare out loud - even if it is just for my own ears. I cannot fathom one man contributing all that he did. Glorious, glorious words - thank you for this post, Willow.

  11. I, too, have heard the same charge against the Bard. In that case he was also a mysoginist. Lady Hamlet, Gertrude and Juliet anyone?

    Ne-ne. He wrote about his time and I doubt that he held any anti-Semitic views.

    Many centuries later, in 'Rene's Flesh', the Cuban writer Virgilio Pin-era used a similar image to depict an absurd situation with hunger as the main theme. I guess there's a translation into english online and there is, I recommend. it.

    That scene is Al Pacino coming back to what he does best: acting. I forgive him 'Scent of Woman'. I know, I know, people were blown away by his performance and the tango scene. Please, rent the original with Vittorio Gassman in the leading role. Let me know afterwords.

    Another beautiful post. Many thanks.

    Greetings from London.

  12. I always thought it was an anti-semitic play and considering how powerful Shakespeare's words were in his lifetime, he could have taken a less harsh line with Shylock and his Jewish heritage.

  13. I must read The Merchant of Venice!

    There is a quote in my mind from somewhere I can't remember: 'Forgiveness is enlightened self-interest.' Mercy would go well in that phrase too.

    "It blesses him that gives and him that takes." Mercy is freedom.

  14. Tarry a little; there is something else.
    This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;
    The words expressly are 'a pound of flesh:'
    Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh;
    But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
    One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
    Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate
    Unto the state of Venice.

    (I was Portia in our school's production of Merchant many, many winters ago!)

  15. Love Shakespeare but the principal of an eye for an eye or a pound of flesh . .it serves no purpose than satisfaction. It doesn't bring anyone back, right any wrongs, solve any problems, cure any ills. Thought provoking stuff. It's rather like the death penalty, what's the point when the juror becomes executioner.

  16. This is a very good movie and the stone work on the 1st shot is gorgeous!

  17. The Wall Street Veeps got their pound of flesh out of the rest of the world and Obama is trying to heal the wounds.

  18. Pacino wasn't as bad in this role as I thought he might have been ; )

  19. I had to memorize and recite that in Grade 9. The first stanza stuck with me.

  20. Hello Willow,

    I can't pretend to know the full story of this play but it can probably teach us a lot.

    It is only natural for someone to want that which is owed to them. And in agreeing to such an extreme default repayment, isn't the debtor being deceitful, relying on the hope/expectation that it would never have to be paid? There would seem to be parallels with today's debt-ridden world!

    Odd how some of Shakespeare's words have been modernised in the filmclip but not others?

  21. Derrick, the point is that at the trial, Shylock is offered TWICE the money he was owed, yet still wants his pound of flesh, taken from the chest, which would indeed have killed Antonio.

  22. I have the movie score on CD and listen to it often. It is plaintive and sad, but beautiful.

    Nice word history. Thanks.

  23. Willow, I've only had one cup of coffee - I can't be that smart this early! My son read Shakespeare like I read the newspaper....and there is a fabulous theatre near that does Shakespeare all summer - I am trying to catch-up.

  24. Ah that was a great post Willow.
    Intriguing though.

    Very beautiful vintage hanging there!

    Also Pacino...Ah Pacino!
    Some movies might be great,others not but anytime Al Pacino along with De Niro are playing in it,they can save it!The best actors ever for me!Their performance are so intense that they can turn a crap into beauty!

    Have a great weekend

  25. Will sure knew how to stir the pot

  26. Beautiful interpretation.

    Love the photo done at Willow Manor, too. Is that a Bambara mask next to the frame?

  27. I really miss going to the theater and listening to Shakespeare's plays in the original language.

  28. There's a documentary titled Looking For Richard that Pacino made about his experience playing Richard III on Broadway that I highly recommend if you haven't seen it yet. Great cast, and he's really endearing in it.

  29. I was on the edge with this movie and I thought Pacino gave a masters performance.My Mother-in- law read Shakespeare every day all her adult life...finishing one and on to the next, she had no favorites, loved them all, read them all over and over.

  30. great post, mercy and forgiveness...two very hard things, maybe because it is not fair, but given freely?

  31. So difficult to know how to handle the idea of revenge.
    How well Shakespeare plays with our thoughts and emotions.
    I really do wish people who are unkind to others would get some sort of punishment.
    Bernie Madoff, for example, should have to listen to the stories of some -- or ALL-- of the people whose money he was happy to take off them.
    However, many good spiritual teachers suggest that we should be above all this and 'turn the other cheek'.
    I don't think I'm spiritual enough........
    on that happy note, I wish you a wonderful and flower filled weekend.

  32. I don't see the Rodin ???!!!

  33. Interesting. That is of course, the same play I was thinking of with your Theme Thursday post.
    Have you seen Pacino's own film, "Looking for Richard"? It is an exploration of Richard III and is a really fine piece of work. It was the first time I saw Pacino in any Shakespearean capacity and I was surprisingly impressed.


  34. Maureen and Kat, thanks for the heads up on "Looking for Richard". I'm going to see if Netflix has it and add it to my queue. It sounds like it is right up my little alley!

  35. Just been catching up as I have not been able to read blogs lately. I have had a wonderful time, thank you for your blog Willow, it brightens my day.

  36. I can always count on you for an interesting and educational post, and a great photo to enhance your commentary.

    Do you think your ghost can cook up some more food? I am still thinking about that bread and soup.

  37. "Prick me and do I not bleed?" I love Merchant and all the issues it raises. Who really showed mercy after all? Who were the real villians? "My daughter, my ducats, my daughter, my ducats!"

    I am looking forward to that autobiography too.

  38. I went to see The Merchant of Venice some while back, wondering how it would manage the anti-semitic aspects. They are still there, of course, but somehow the play absorbed them. Every one waits for the pound of flesh scene, naturally.

  39. I tagged you!
    But please don't bother if too boring!

  40. I would have preferred it if Shakespeare had noted that Jews were only allowed to do certain jobs, including the handling of money, also that they were required to live in ghettoes, all squeezed in way too close to one another.

    I guess Will was no historian. Oh well!

  41. Very interesting...

    I like the shot of your etching/hall/arch

  42. i love that al pacino.
    he is one sexy dude.

  43. My beautiful Willow, I thank you for the clip. Her rendition of one of my old favourited is so very different...I enjoyed it very much.

  44. Your house pics are always so captivating! Love this one too--almost Shaker style in its simplicity.

    I would generally agree with you, it's far better to forgive and allow for grace adn redemption that extoll that pound of flesh. But then again, if I had, say, lost a child to some monster, I don't know if i could honestly still feel that way. Some wickedness just seems that it need to not only be punished but shut down altogether.

  45. My dear Willow, "The Merchant of Venice" is the most fascinationg of Shakespeare plays. Al Pacino's performance is superb! That is my most favorite speech. I have read it many times, and I have seen Al Pacino giving the speech as many times. There is always something knew that I end up learning from both Shakespeare's words and Pacino's interpretation. I'm so glad you share this with the blogger world.

    Thank you!

  46. I love seeing little corners of your house, which bit by bit forms a larger picture in my mind. It seems like an incredible place.......! I mean, really!


Inject a few raisins of conversation into the tasteless dough of existence.
― O. Henry (and me)