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Session 17

King James needs to stay awake during this performance of The Merchant of Venice to find out why Shylock is talking about a pound of flesh. We'll explore the origin and modern day usage of a pound of flesh - and bring you some great expressions for talking about revenge.

Wayiitiwwan marii boqonnaa kana keessaa

Wayitii marii qabxii 17

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    Activity 1
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    Activity 2
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Activity 1

A pound of flesh

Money, money, money
The Merchant of Venice is a play all about money - and the problems associated with money! In this episode, King James I and his wife are watching a performance of The Merchant of Venice. On stage, the characters Shylock and Antonio have a money problem to resolve, but what is it?

To do

Watch the video. It's about 4 minutes long. While you watch, decide which one of these sentences is true. (The answer's under the video - no cheating!).

A) Antonio stole some money from Shylock

B) Shylock refused to lend Antonio any money

C) Antonio borrowed money from Shylock, but he didn't return it

Vidiyoo daawwadhuuti shaakala kana xumuri

Barreeffama agarsiisi Barreeffama dhoksi

Narrator
It was late in the evening. William Shakespeare is at the palace of King James I.

King James
Mr Shakespeare! Welcome, welcome.

Will
Your majesty, it is a great honour to perform The Merchant of Venice for you a second time.

King James
The Queen and I enjoyed it so much we just had to see it again.

The Queen
You fell asleep halfway through dear, that's why you want to see it again.

King James
Nonsense. Mr Shakespeare, I particularly enjoyed your character Shylock. But what was all that about a pound of flesh?

Will
Well, Shylock lent some money to the businessman Antonio. And Antonio promised that if he didn't pay the money back, Shylock could cut a pound of flesh from his body.

King James
That's right, that's right. I remember it well now. What did he say? If you repay me not on such a day…

Shylock
If you repay me not on such a day,
In such a place, such sum or sums as are
Express'd 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.

Narrator
We'll leave them there for now. A pound of flesh? That's nearly half a kilogram! Modern English speakers use the phrase a pound of flesh when someone says they want justice, but the punishment they're asking for is so severe that it seems more like revenge. In the terrible case of US cinema gunman James Holmes, former prosecutor Bob Grant said:

Clip 1
The district attorney will argue that although the defendant is mentally ill, he is not insane under the law, and society deserves its pound of flesh from him.

Clip 2
I apologised and paid for the repairs after I crashed his car, but it isn't enough for him. He wants his pound of flesh. I think he's going to call the police…

The Queen
Mr Shakespeare, please tell the King what happens in the end, just in case he falls asleep again.

King James
I did not fall asleep! But yes, do tell me.

Will
Well, Antonio didn't pay the money back. The court agreed that Shylock could have his pound of flesh, but the court also said that he could not take even a single drop of blood.

King James
Aha! So Antonio was saved.

Will
Yes, your majesty.

The Queen
Ooh, the play is starting. Now do stay awake this time, dear…

King James
To sleep, or not to sleep: that is the question…

Answer
The correct answer is C) Antonio borrowed money from Shylock, but he didn't return it. Antonio now owes Shylock a pound of flesh!

But what was all that about a pound of flesh?
King James fell asleep during the performance of The Merchant of Venice, so he's not quite sure why everyone's talking about a pound of flesh.

To do

Are you more awake than King James? Answer these questions about the meaning of a pound of flesh in the Merchant of Venice - and what modern English speakers mean when they talk about a pound of flesh.

A pound of flesh - what's that all about?

4 Questions

Have you understood the use and meaning of a pound of flesh? Complete the gaps in these sentences to find out. 

Baga gammadde! Qormaata xumurteetta
Excellent! Great job! Carraa badaa! Qabxii argatte:
x / y

How did you do?
3-4 correct - congratulations, you're clearly wide awake!
0-2 correct - oh dear, did you fall asleep too?

Language note

Form

When using the phrase a pound of flesh, the article a can be replaced with a pronoun:

  • Society demands its pound of flesh
  • She got her pound of flesh

The phrase a pound of flesh is often used with the verbs give, demand, get, take and want:

  • They took their pound of flesh
  • You have to give a pound of flesh
  • Society wants its pound of flesh

Meaning

English speakers also use a pound of flesh to talk about something which is owed, but will be hurtful or difficult to provide, for example:

  • My boss is making me work so hard at the moment. He really wants his pound of flesh

Next

On the next pages we'll explore some modern uses of a pound of flesh in news stories - and we'll introduce you to some great expressions for talking about revenge!

Session Vocabulary

  • For more great Shakespeare content visit our partner,The OU

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    A pound of flesh

    Meaning
    Modern English speakers use the phrase a pound of flesh when someone says they want justice, but the punishment they're asking for is so severe that it seems more like revenge. 

    Example sentence
    I apologised and paid for the repairs after I crashed his car, but it isn't enough for him. He wants his pound of flesh. I think he's going to call the police…

    Note
    In modern day usage, we can also use a pound of flesh to talk about something which is owed, but will be hurtful or difficult to provide.

    Example sentence
    My boss is making me work so hard at the moment, he really wants his pound of flesh.

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    Extra vocabulary

    lend
    give something to someone with the understanding that it will be returned

    borrow
    receive something from someone with the understanding that you will return it

    flesh
    the soft part of the human body

    revenge
    something that you do to hurt or punish someone because they have hurt you or someone else

    justice
    ​fairness in the way ​people are ​dealt with

    seek revenge
    plan to take revenge

    court
    a formal, legal meeting where decisions are made about a crime

    revenge is a dish best served cold
    it's more satisfying to wait until the time is right to get revenge

    don't get mad, get even
    get revenge instead of getting angry about something

    get your own back
    get revenge

    it's payback time
    it's time to get revenge

    revenge is sweet
    it feels good to get revenge

    forgive and forget
    don't try to get revenge: forget about people's mistakes and move on

    price-fix scandal
    an agreement between companies to keep prices high
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    About Shakespeare Speaks

    Shakespeare Speaks is a co-production between:

    BBC Learning English

    The Open University

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