The origin is taken from William Shakespeare’s play, Merchant of Venice. Portia says this line on the insistence of Shylock, the Jew, for the payment of Antonio’s flesh, which is a central point of the play. In Act-IV, Scene-1, she concludes the conflict between Shylock and Antonio by saying to Shylock, “The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh.’/ Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh…”
Something that is owed needs to be paid back at every cost. Simply, if someone borrows something, he will have to pay it back at any cost. Shakespeare has coined this phrase in a figurative way, which refers to a lawful but unreasonable recompense during late 18th century. Here, the mentioning of flesh suggests vengeful, bloodthirstiness and inflexible behavior to get back borrowed money. In the following scene, there is also the concept of mercy linked with Christian idea of salvation.
We can find the use of this phrase mostly in everyday life and in business language, such as when a company borrows money from another company, and if the borrower does not pay back, then this line can become an ultimatum, or a pressure tactic. It can be used in everyday life to remind people about deferred payments. It can been used by dictators for threats to their opponents or opposite armies. Generally, it is applicable to anyone with vengeful behaviors like when someone has resentful feelings for another person.
Shylock expresses spiteful penalty from Antonio, and then Portia repeats his lines with a solution in Act-IV, Scene-I of Shakespeare’s play, Merchant of Venice. This scene appears in lines 295-303 as:
Most learned judge, a sentence! Come prepare!
…This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;
The words expressly are “a pound of flesh.”
(Act-IV, Scene-I, Lines 295-303)
Antonio cannot pay back Shylock’s money and usurer demands his flesh as a fine. Shylock could be demonic. However, Portia’s skillful act of manipulating and legal hairsplitting saves the day, as she offers a solution that if Shylock sheds even a single drop of the Christian blood after cutting flesh, then under Venetian law, the state of Venice would take away his property and land.
The theme or central idea of this phrase is revenge, justice and mercy. This phrase is a figurative method of expressing a spiteful penalty or a harsh demand — the consequences of non-payment on a distressed bargain. However, usurer, Shylock asks for a real pound of flesh as a security when merchant Antonio comes and borrows money. Though it is a clever marketing, yet it is a false advertising too. Antonio accepts the brutal terms of Shylock, but he is aware of the fact that Shylock despises him. Ultimately, Antonio is forced to default, while the usurer refuses merchant’s begging for mercy. Dressed as a famous judge, and an indirect beneficiary of Antonio, Portia takes a letter of bond on insistence of Shylock and brings an absurd conclusion. She maintains that the bond specifies a pound of flesh but “no jot of blood.”
- Symbolism: Flesh is a symbol of revenge and inflexibility.
- Tone: The tone of this phrase seems vengeance.