The idiom pound of flesh refers to an unreasonable demand or payment that could cause the person paying great distress. “Pound of flesh” is one of many terms coined by William Shakespeare.
In the Shakespearean play The Merchant of Venice, a debt collector named Shylock demands a pound of flesh from a merchant in retribution for his cruelty. He explains, “A pound of flesh, which I demand from him, / Is dearly bought; ‘tis mine and I will have it.”
How to use pound of flesh
“Pound of flesh” is used when you’re referencing an unfair, but legal, deal. Nowadays, it doesn’t mean a literal pound of flesh (unlike in The Merchant of Venice), but rather a large sum of money that will cause distress to the person paying it.
For example, a company or institution may be accused of taking a pound of flesh if it is price gouging its customers. A less tangible thing, like some sort of addiction, may also be said to take a pound of flesh. In that case, the pound of flesh isn’t monetary but rather holds some other value (e.g., “My sister’s addiction to substances is taking its pound of flesh from her”).
The phrase “pound of flesh” is usually preceded by the indefinite article “a” or by a possessive determiner such as “their” or “its.”
Frequently asked questions about pound of flesh
Which of Shakespeare’s plays involves a pound of flesh?
The Merchant of Venice is the play in which Shylock demands a pound of flesh from a merchant. “Pound of flesh” has since become a well-known idiom meaning an unreasonable demand.
What is the origin of a pound of flesh?
A “pound of flesh” comes from Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. A debt collector named Shylock requests a pound of flesh from a merchant as payment for treating him poorly. While the demand was hefty, it was fair according to their contract.