Friday, June 18, 2010

Pound of Flesh

“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?

7 comments:

D.R. Odekirk said...

I learned something today! I knew it was from Shakespeare. I knew it meant paying back a debt. But I had no idea that Shylock said it nor that Shylock was Jewish. Thanks for the info.

andrea perez said...

Always understood it to mean:
Christians do not have to pay Jews back when they borrow something. And if a Jew has the nerve to try to collect on a debt then they are in the wrong and deserve the punishment that they were about to inflict. Pretty anti-Jewish stuff if you ask me! One of the most anti-Jewish plays out there....
As for BP: just like Antonio...they go ahead and destroy the whole Gulf of Mexico, don't feel they are obligated to clean it up (it is a big ocean you know) and then act like Big Bad Obama is making them accountable for the mess they made.
Didn't hear the news, but it's a lot more than a "pound" of flesh they owe the planet! What nerve.

黃佳伸 said...

I guess I will need a lot..................................................

Johnny Anderson said...

The phrase seems to have entered the popular vernacular without the attached anti-semitism that it was originally bathed in.

If one was to take a poll, I would bet that you would find few could tell you the origin at all, fewer could tell the story of Shylock, and many may not even know how anti-semitic the story actually was.

Rabbi Rami said...

Johnny is right. There is a lot of anti-Semitic talk that people no longer think of as anti-Semitic. Like "jewing someone down," or using the word "Pharisee" to mean legalistic, or calling me "Jewboy." The same can be said of using the phrase "Indian giver," it is a slanderous phrase that few associate with Native Americans. And yet it is racist nonetheless.

Karen said...

Wow, I never, ever knew that "a pound of flesh" was anti-semite or anti-anything actually.

Old Lady said...

Though I have a classical education, I was not familiar with the meaning of this phrase until recently, which horrified me. When I watched the Merchant of Venice I cringed at that part and thought, oh so this is what that phrase means!!!!! But, I did not make an ethnic association with it.

Since I discovered this late in life, and you have asked the question, I can honestly say that it was never used with ethnic reference. Just as payment for debt.