The following quote is from The Merchant of Venice: "Give me my principal and let me go." Identify the speaker. What is meant by "my principal?" Explain the significance of this line.

Expert Answers
andrewnightingale eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The speaker in this instance is the Jew, Shylock, who is a moneylender. The 'principal' he refers to here is the exact amount of money he lent to Bassanio - three thousand ducats - for which Antonio signed a bond as security. The loan had originally been made when Bassanio, Antonio's closest friend, approached him for a loan so that he may go to Belmont to try his luck in winning the hand of the beautiful and wealthy heiress, Portia.    

Antonio, who is a sea merchant, did not have any cash available since his ships and goods were all at sea. He then asked Bassanio to seek out someone who could provide him a loan. He would do the same and would stand security for the repayment of the amount so borrowed. Bassanio then made an arrangement with Shylock and Antonio signed a bond with Shylock guaranteeing repayment within three months. The bond agreement determined that if Antonio should forfeit on the repayment, Shylock could cut out a pound of his flesh.    

At the end of the agreed loan term, Antonio was unable to meet his obligation since his ships had all been wrecked at sea. Shylock then insisted on judgement for the forfeit. He was determined to get what he wanted - a pound of Antonio's flesh - and would not consider any alternative arrangements for reimbursement.

The reason why Shylock refused to accept any other terms was because he hated Antonio for he was, firstly, a Christian and, secondly, he had repeatedly criticized his moneylending practices for he charged interest. Furthermore, Antonio had treated him with utter contempt. He had spat on Shylock's cloak and beard and had kicked him. He had also called him a dog. Shylock was bitter and wanted revenge. The forfeiture would give him an opportunity to do so legally and thus get back at Antonio.

For this reason, Shylock wanted the court, under the guidance of the duke, to give him judgment. He felt that he was well within his rights and had a legitimate claim. In the process, Bassanio's new bride, Portia, became involved in the matter. She disguised herself as a lawyer and represented Antonio. During the trial, she, at first, pointed out that Shylock was within his rights to cut out a pound of Antonio's flesh but that if he should spill just a drop of his blood, he would be severely sanctioned and would have to forfeit all his property to the state.

Shylock realized that that was impossible and asked if he could not then rather get back thrice the amount he loaned to Bassanio and Antonio would be free. Portia, however, insisted that he should get what he asked for originally. She instructed him:

Therefore prepare thee to cut off the flesh.
Shed thou no blood, nor cut thou less nor more
But just a pound of flesh: if thou cut'st more
Or less than a just pound, be it but so much
As makes it light or heavy in the substance,
Or the division of the twentieth part
Of one poor scruple, nay, if the scale do turn
But in the estimation of a hair,
Thou diest and all thy goods are confiscate.

It is at that point that Shylock then asked:

Give me my principal, and let me go.

When Shylock wanted to go, Portia stayed him and then pointed out that Shylock had committed a crime by willfully attempting to harm a Venetian citizen - an offense that carried the severest punishment. He would have to forfeit his entire estate and his life would be in the hands of the duke who could determine if he should live or not. The duke, however, granted him his life.  

In the end, Antonio requested that Shylock must bequeath his possessions to his daughter and her Christian husband and that he should become a Christian. This then became an order of the court.