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
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..
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.