A pound of flesh
Most learnèd judge, a sentence! Come prepare!
Tarry a little, there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;
The words expressly are "a pound of flesh."
"A pound of flesh" is a figurative way of referring to a harsh
demand or spiteful penalty—the consequences of defaulting on a
desperate bargain. But the usurer Shylock demands a literal pound
of flesh as security when the merchant Antonio comes to borrow
money for a friend [see BATED BREATH]. It's clear that the
sensational bargain, with its hint of archetypal vengeance,
fascinated its first audience as it fascinates us. When the play
was first published, its title page advertised "The most excellent
History of the Merchant of Venice. With the extreme cruelty of
Shylock the Jew towards the said merchant, in cutting a just
pound of his flesh. . . ."
Clever marketing, but false advertising. It's true that Antonio
agrees to Shylock's brutal terms, although he knows that the usurer
despises him. But while Antonio is ultimately forced to default,
and while Shylock refuses the merchant's pleas for mercy, the
usurer is foiled in the end. Dressed as an eminent judge, Antonio's
indirect beneficiary Portia takes Shylock's insistence on the
letter of the bond to its absurd conclusion. The bond specified
only a pound of flesh, she maintains, but "no jot of blood."
Shylock may be demonic but he can't perform miracles; Portia's
clever piece of legal hairsplitting carries the day.