Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Pound of Flesh

It seems as if everyone is "extracting a pound of flesh" from someone these days. A few examples: Obama's attempt to rein in (or, if you prefer, take over) the banks has been hyperbolized in Shylockian terms. Baseball cheater Mark McGwire's recent confessional moment was the occasion for yet another fleshy headline, although I can't figure out how this one works. I think the author may have confused his plays, since he calls the whiny, lacrimal McGwire "the Hamlet of the steroid era." Credit card companies are invariably guilty of flesh-extraction, as is our tax code--I particularly like this one, because the author manages to squeeze Shakespeare, E.A. Poe, and the Hellenic underworld into one short article on our rapacious government. A lot of pseudo-erudition for your flesh pound there. The phrase is thrown around with such abandon that one academic journalist felt compelled to cry enough!

So what does "getting your pound of flesh" mean these days? Since the eighteenth century, it's been a code-phrase for any lawful, but nonetheless excessive, recompense. In short, it signifies the injustice that can inhabit the Law. Yes, you are entitled to collect 50% interest on my debt. I signed that paper. But it's not a bit fair, and you're evil for taking advantage of my desperate straits.

It's a powerful phrase because it restores materiality--corporeality--to the Law. When you hear "a pound of flesh," you're reminded that the Law affects people in real, quantifiable and sometimes visceral ways--it's not some abstract moral code. The phrase cuts through the bureaucratic fog of legal/institutional jargon, getting to the beating, blood-pumping heart of the matter. The Law can kill you. Now, the Law isn't supposed to wield a flesh-cutting knife--the sword in Lady Justice's hand is the power of the state, not a carving tool.

We trust her not to treat her suppliants like so many rump roasts.

The Law itself isn't supposed to have a body. Judges take care to veil their own corpus in sexless, sacerdotal black robes, so we know they don't have any salacious designs on the outcome of our case. They are disembodied and therefore disinterested. We don't want the the Body of the Law be truly incarnated, and we don't want it anywhere near our own fleshy selves if we can help it. 

One of my favorite parts of Franz Kafka's The Trial is when Josef K. goes to visit the magistrate, in hopes of finding out what his alleged crime is. He doesn't get anywhere, but he does find a cache of pornography behind the magistrate's bench. The Law, Kafka suggests, isn't free of desire. It's not impartial. It has unseemly urges, it's voyeuristic, and it's capable of petty vindictiveness.  My friend and fellow blogger, the Bad Lawyer, has posted lots of stories about judges who lack judgment, and a few about the libidinal excesses hiding under those judicial robes.  I highly recommend his blog for anyone interested, troubled, and occasionally outraged by the crimes and misdemeanors of our judicial system.

To summarize: the prodigality of the Law, its material investment in its own outcomes, is what "a pound of flesh" has come to mean. The sense that punishments are not commensurate with crimes, that the pound of flesh is something in excess of justice. And that there's a thinly-veiled violence behind the judgment itself. In this sense, it's truer to the Christian view of justice than the Jewish one, at least in The Merchant of Venice; the Christians both deny Shylock his literal pound of flesh and extract a figurative one from him at the end of the play. They've taken his demand and metaphorized it--and because of that, this "pound of flesh" has had a longer life than any organic matter has a right to.

So that's what the phrase means today. But what did Shylock want it to mean? And how did he get there? Let's look back at Act 1, scene 3. Antonio is frustrated by Shylock's invocation of the Laban story, because he doesn't really understand it. It's worth noting that the Jewish intellectual tradition is big on interpretation, commentary, and allusiveness in general. There's a strong hermeneutic strain in Christian theology, too, but these particular Venetians don't seem to be very intellectual. They're young Turks in the old-fashioned sense of that expression--adventurous, bold, creative. They're not deep thinkers.

Antonio's mad that Shylock had the nerve to use a biblical allusion, thereby depriving him of his favorite hangout, the moral high ground. This makes him petulant. But his outraged observation that "falsehood" has a "goodly outside" cuts both ways. Because he's hardly an exemplary Christian himself, as we'll see.

Shylock, pressed for a decision on the loan, speaks with brutal honesty. No false fronts here:

Signor Antonio,  many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances.
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For suff'rance is the badge of all our tribe.
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat, dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help.
Go to, then. You come to me, and you say
'Shylock, we would have moneys'--you say so,
You, that did void your rheum upon my beard,
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold. Moneys is your suit.
What should I say to you? Should I not say,
'Hath a dog money? Is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats? Or
Shall I bend low, and in a bondman's key,
With bated breath and whisp'ring humbleness
Say this: 'Sir, you spat on me on Wednesday last;
You spurned me such a day; another time
You called me dog; and for these courtesies
I'll lend you thus much moneys?

Gives you a whole different picture of our man Tony, doesn't it? He spat on Shylock's beard. That's like spitting in someone's face. Now I don't know about you, but if someone spat in my face, just because they didn't like what I did for a living, I would never ever consider doing them a favor. Unless, of course, that favor was a sure path to some nasty retaliation. Shylock says that he was treated like an unwanted stray dog--as if he were less than human. And yet, he says, he bore it "with a patient shrug." Of course this isn't entirely true--he's been harboring hatred and resentment for some time--but it does remind us of that Christian adage about turning the other cheek, and that Antonio's behavior falls rather short of this moral ideal. Realistically, Shylock doesn't have much recourse to the spitting and kicking. He's a member of a despised minority, and the power in Venice rests with men like Antonio. They didn't have anti-defamation societies and government agencies dedicated to rooting out public bigotry back then.

Tony, for his part, denies none of it. In fact, he says that he'd do it all again. I have always found this speech to be astonishing, a shameless unveiling of the workings of prejudice:

I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, and spurn thee too.
If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not
As to thy friends; for when did friendship take
A breed for barren metal of his friend?
But lend it rather to thine enemy,
Who if he break, thou mayst with better face
Exact the penalty.

This is the same guy of whom Salerio will say in Act 2, "a kinder gentleman treads not the earth." Uh-huh.

That word, "kind," is important here, too--I'll get to that in a moment. But first, let's look at Tony's nasty reply. He addresses Shylock with the informal "thee." Shylock always addresses the Christians with the formal "you." It's the equivalent of calling him "boy," really. Tony tells Shylock to loan him money purely as a business deal--the implication being that the Jew is so greedy that he'll overlook the spitting and kicking in order to make a few ducats. He implies that Shylock has no pride, no self-respect. It's a terrible insult. Antonio further says that a friend wouldn't take "a breed of barren metal of his friend." This refers back to my discussion in the last post. Metal is inanimate, and can't "breed." Usury makes it reproduce, and is therefore unnatural.

It's precisely this question of nature--of what is natural and unnatural, human and inhuman--that Shylock seizes on. That's why he makes the "jesting" proposal about the pound of flesh. A pound of flesh is the same, looks the same, whether it comes from Jew or Christian. Having been called an animal, Shylock insists that he and Antonio share a human nature. Hence his repeated emphasis on the word "kind" at the end of this scene:

Why, look you, how you storm!
I would be friends with you, and have your love,
Forget the shames that you have stained me with,
Supply your present wants, and take no doit
Of usance for my moneys; and you'll not hear me.
This is kind offer.

Why are you so angry? I just want to be friends. In fact, I'll forget all your bad treatment, and I won't take a penny in interest. This is a kind offer.

But that word, "kind" carries a lot of weight, and a lot of nuance. In Will's plays (and in early modern English generally), "kind" retained more of its original meaning--"natural." It implied a bond, a kinship among people--so when Hamlet says that Claudius is "a little more than kin, and less than kind," he means Claudius is unnatural, that he's related to him by blood and now by (incestuous) marriage, and that he's a real bastard, metaphorically speaking. Similarly, Shylock makes his (duplicitous) offer out of "kindness," which he understands to mean generosity, but also shared humanity. Will--like Shylock--won't let the word go. He harps on it incessantly here. Check out all the different meanings these lines evoke:

Bassanio understands "kind" in the modern, conventional way:

This were kindness.

That would be a kind act, to loan money without charging interest. Shylock then presents his proposal, which could be read as "payment in kind"--in some (often living) material other than money. This use of "kind" is related to the word "kine," the archaic plural of "cow." Shylock says several things here: "I will show you a kindness"; "I will remind you that we are both flesh and blood," and finally, "since you treat me like a dog, I will treat you like livestock":

This kindness will I show.
Go with me to a notary, seal me there
Your single bond, and, in a merry sport,
If you repay me not on such a day,
In such a place, such sum or sums as are
Expressed in the condition, let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me.

Bassanio sees the implications immediately, and refuses to let his friend sign such a bond for him. Antonio is confident his ships will come in, and he won't be liable for the debt. Shylock plays to their cultural tendency to take things figuratively, and to see all Jews as greedy. He assures Bassanio it's just a joke:

If he should break his day, what should I gain
By the extraction of the forfeiture?
A pound of man's flesh taken from a man
Is not so estimable, profitable neither,
As flesh of muttons, beeves, or goats. I say,
To buy his favor I extend this friendship.

Since all I care about is money, I can't possibly have a motive here other than profit. And a pound of man's flesh is worth less than that of livestock, so of course it's a joke. I only want to "buy" Antonio's friendship.

The idea that love can be bought, of course, returns us to Antonio's motive for taking the loan out in the first place--to stake Bassanio in his quest for Portia.  But in Venice, everything is for sale--even human flesh. Although Shylock has no interest in buying Antonio's friendship, Tony's a Venetian, and it makes perfect sense to him. He agrees to the bond, and remarks to Bassanio that

The Hebrew will turn Christian, he grows kind.

This, of course, anticipates Shylock's forced, and decidedly unkind, conversion at the play's end. But it also foregrounds, once again, the word "kind." Here it suggests "he's becoming generous;" "he's becoming natural (less unnatural)"; or even "he's becoming one of us."

Bassanio is suspicious, distrusting "fair terms and a villain's mind." But as we've seen, there's a lot of mental villainy on both sides, and everyone's putting on an act--including Bassanio, who wants the money so he can seem to be something he's not. At the end of this powerful scene, we're left with questions: what is a human being worth? what "bond" can obtain between racial and cultural enemies? what does it mean to be "kind"?  and finally, what does it mean to be Christian?

Next: More racial tension, and a little comic relief


  1. Oh, Gayle, this essay is a learned treastise--as a matter of legal history a "pound of flesh" morphs over time into the law against usury and "unconscionable bargain." I love this definition, an "unconscionable bargain" is a bargain or contract which no man in his senses, not under delusion, would make; or which a fair and honest man would take. The focus is always on the one-sidedness of a term or condition particularly where sellers deal with a particularly susceptible clientele, e.g. the poor.

    Your discussion of Shylocks' meditation on his status as a "cur" in the eyes of Antonio and the gentiles of Venice--reminds me of that time in my career when I briefly worked for an orthodox Jew who despised blacks; and, yet advertised and marketed his legal services to blacks via "urban radio" commercials in the early days of lawyer advertising. When this lawyer's racist animosity became evident--every attorney (jew and gentile alike)in the suite moved-out in horror and outrage. This racist attorney had standing instructions for his secretarial staff to keep black clients out of sight of business clients on days when both sorts of clients were expected in the office. He told me that blacks were "animals" interested only, in money--and by implication, disinterested in his hatred! I told him he needed mental health counseling--suspecting that he was talking at all times about his own self-view and self-loathing.

    The part of the play that is interesting to me is the very idea of Shylock, isn't Shylock in all of us. A feeling of otherness, outsider, ostracized, "spat" upon--we all feel like Shylock, when our only value is in that moment when something we have temporarily is needed--our vote, our voice, our money. Of all the characters in Merchant, he is clearly the most recognizable to me at least as a human.

    Oh, thank you for your kind and generous plug.


  2. Yes, BL, exactly. The "Shylock in all of us" is something I've been responding to powerfully this time-although I've read, and taught, this play many times before. But also the Antonio in many of us, as you suggest. A morally-superior sort of hatred--justified by education, or class status. These days Antonios don't literally spit on beards, but they make their disdain known in other ways, as you point out.

    I think this is such a powerful play for our times. I'm glad I am keeping up with the blog now, because it's been revelatory for me to read this again, in this political (and economic) climate.

    Your story is so powerful, too--a man who doubtless grew up as hated by some now needs to abject others. I have known people like this too--many Italian-Americans of my parents' generation are pretty racist, although they heard their share of slurs growing up.

    I, like you, hesitate to use my blog as a platform for soap-boxing on current events, but there's a whole "making of a terrorist" story one could tell, using this play as an example.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  3. I don't have any Shylock in me, but I do have a trace of Falstaff.

  4. I just attended a symposium presented by the local chapter of the Federalist Society that comprised of a reading and discussion of the legal issues in The Merchant of Venice-- it looked at the bond, and subsequent trial, from a different level.