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Pound of flesh Introduction

I'm Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. I'm despised by everyone in Venice and betrayed by my daughter, so it might not surprise you that I'm a downright angry man. And you know what I think?

This kindness will I show.
Go with me to a notary, seal me there
Your single bond; and, in a merry sport,
If you repay me not on such a day,
In such a place, such sum or sums as are
Express'd in the condition, let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me.


A pound of man's flesh taken from a man
Is not so estimable, profitable neither,
As flesh of muttons, beefs, or goats. (1.3.146-148; 162-164)

Who Said It and Where

On the mean streets of Venice, Bassanio wheels and deals with Shylock. Bassanio needs some cash so he can woo Portia in style. We're talking a team of servants, a new set of fancy threads, and plenty of bling to impress the rich heiress. The problem is, Bassanio's broke.

So he asks Shylock if he can borrow 3,000 ducats, or gold coins, with the stipulation that he'll pay them back in three months. He'll use his buddy Antonio's credit to get the loan. Shylock notes that Antonio is likely good for the money, but still, all the man's cash is tied up in potential ventures. None of it actually exists yet.

Shylock gives us a brief look into Antonio's diverse financial portfolio here: he's got a ship bound to Tripoli and another to the Indies. In the marketplace, Shylock has heard of even more ships backed by Antonio: a third for Mexico, a fourth for England, and several others.

Though all this sailing about seems rather risky, Shylock says he'll lend the money, but he would like to speak to Antonio first. Willing to comply, Bassanio invites Antonio to dinner so the three men can chat. But Shylock also says he's not hot about the idea of hanging out with Christians. He says he'll trade with Christians, talk and walk with Christians, but he has to draw a line somewhere, and he's drawn it at eating, drinking, and praying with them.

So Antonio comes to them. Shylock has a nasty little comment about how much he hates Antonio "for he is a Christian." But really, it's about something else entirely. More than anything, Shylock hates what Antonio does in the marketplace. Antonio lends out money free of interest, which is unfair competition for the lenders who aren't willing to do so. So we know something is up when Shylock agrees to fund the loan on Antonio's credit.

But—and this is a big but—this is on the condition that Antonio signs a bond promising that if the debt goes unpaid, Antonio will give Shylock a pound of his own flesh. This seems like a good idea at the time, since Antonio is sure he'll have earned the money from his ships before Shylock's due date.

In spite of Bassanio's insistence that it isn't really necessary for Antonio to risk his actual flesh, Antonio is confident. Shylock also does a good job of easing Bassanio's fear. After all, what on earth could he gain by having a pound of Antonio's flesh lying around? Clearly, Shylock says, he's only adding the "pound of flesh" caveat for funzies.

We're not so sure.

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