Go to then, you come to me, and you say,
"Shylock, we would have moneys," you say so. . . .
Shall I bend low and in a bondman's key,
With bated breath and whisp'ring humbleness,
"Fair sir, you spet on me Wednesday last,
You spurn'd me such a day, another time
You call'd me dog; and for these courtesies
I'll lend you thus much moneys"?
The phrase, “waiting with bated breath,” is well known in modern day, but its meaning is not generally understood. In Shakespeare’s original text, “bated breath” is short of “abated breath,” as in diminished both in volume and power. To wait with bated breath therefore means to become as still and quiet as possible, waiting with great anxiety and anticipation.
Where the phrase appears in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice,
the Venetian merchant Antonio and his friends take a dim view of
Shylock, the Jewish usurer, and his practice of charging interest
on loans. For his "un-Christian" behavior, the Christians spit on
Shylock, call him a cur, and kick him around the streets of Venice.
In this speech—delivered when, as was inevitable, Antonio calls on
Shylock for a loan—the usurer turns Antonio's words and actions
Shylock asks whether, after the treatment he's received, he
should now servilely bow, whisper like a "bondman" (slave), and put
himself at Antonio's disposal. He mocks the idea that he ought to
respond "with bated breath"—a much misunderstood phrase. "To bate,"
like "to abate," means to diminish, reduce, or blunt. "With bated
breath," therefore, means "in a hushed voice," with reduced
"breath" (force of speech). We've adopted the phrase to mean, most
often, "with one's breath held."