“Pound of flesh.” It is an ugly phrase originating with Shakespeare in his 1596 play, Merchant of Venice. Shylock, the Jewish money lender, has made a deal with Antonio that allows Shylock to cut off a pound of Antonio's flesh if Antonio defaults on a loan he took from Shylock. Jews have been linked to Shylock every since.
Given the popularity of liposuction today, extracting a pound of flesh (or, if I could afford the procedure, 50 pounds) may not be such a big deal, but the phrase isn’t meant to be anything but ugly. And, whether intended or not, it carries with it more than a patina of anti-Semitism. So it shocked and bothered me this morning when I heard Savannah Guthrie, co-host of MSNBC’s morning news show “The Daily Rundown,” use the phrase in regard to the Congressional hearings features BP CEO Tony Hayward.
I am NOT implying that Ms. Guthrie is by any stretch of the imagination an anti-Semite. This may have been a Freudian slip based on the fact that Tony and Antonio are the same name, albeit in different languages. I am simply wondering what it means that this wicked phrase is so deeply ingrained in our language. Does it still conjure up pictures of Jews as Shylock?
I know this was NOT on Ms. Guthrie’s mind. In fact, I wonder if she even thought about the meaning or implication of the phrase. Did she really mean to cast Congress as Shylock? Is BP really Antonio who is being asked to do more than is just when President Obama demands BP pay for the disaster in the Gulf? Is BP the victim of this drama, as many see Antonio as the victim of Shylock in Shakespeare’s play?
I don’t know the answer to these questions, and would love to hear from you regarding them. Do you use the phrase? What do you understand it to mean?