A Pound of Flesh – Origin and Meaning

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Candace Osmond

Candace Osmond studied Advanced Writing & Editing Essentials at MHC. She’s been an International and USA TODAY Bestselling Author for over a decade. And she’s worked as an Editor for several mid-sized publications. Candace has a keen eye for content editing and a high degree of expertise in Fiction.

Idioms make the world go round! Sort of. They fuel many conversations and writing by taking complex ideas and emotions and boiling them down to a single phrase we all understand. But some phrases can be a head-scratcher, like a pound of flesh. Sounds morbid, but there’s a story behind it that will make much more sense.

What Is the Full Quote About a Pound of Flesh?

A Pound of Flesh Origin Meaning

There’s a larger quote that contains the phrase “a pound of flesh,” and it comes from none other than William Shakespeare himself in his famous play “The Merchant of Venice.” The quote is as follows:

“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.”

Thanks for your endless contributions of idioms to the English language, Bill.

What’s the Meaning of Pound of Flesh?

The expression a pound of flesh describes a ruthless or unreasonable demand often made at great personal cost or suffering to the person expected to fulfill it.

In TV, books and movies, you’ll often see the phrase used by a villain when he’s coming to collect what is owed to them by the hero when he’s down to nothing. Basically, it means taking even more than what can be given.

Origin of Pound of Flesh

I touched on it above, but let’s dig into it a bit. The phrase goes back to William Shakespeare’s play “The Merchant of Venice,” which was written around 1596–1597.

The character Shylock is a moneylender who demands a literal pound of flesh from Antonio, the merchant, as collateral for a loan. (Gross!) The contract with Merchant Antonio wasn’t a fair one, but it was a binding contract, nonetheless.

We’ve since turned the phrase into a metaphor when we want to point out a painfully heavy demand usually made without regard for the person it’s being asked of.

I sometimes think back to my days of working in retail. I once called in sick because I had pneumonia, but my boss made me come in anyway. You know, to get his pound of flesh.

Other Ways to Say Pound of Flesh

Like most words and sayings, there are usually a few different ways you can say it. These synonyms for a pound of flesh should work in many of the same contexts.

  • Exacting payment
  • Harsh demand
  • Taxing request
  • Unreasonable requirement
  • Unsympathetic insistence

Using Pound of Flesh in a Sentence

A Pound of Flesh Origin Meaning 1
  • The bank’s insistence on foreclosing on my family’s home, despite our financial hardship, felt like a cruel demand for a pound of flesh.
  • We have a strict late policy where employees who are even a minute late will have to work extra hours, which is a pound of flesh that seems unreasonable to most of the staff.
  • Even though there was a pound of flesh promised, I cannot deliver what you ask. 
  • Jake was determined to get a pound of flesh from his former business partner, even though the damage had been done years ago.
  • The current contract for this land would require a pound of flesh from us, leaving us completely broke.
  • The legal battle over their divorce left Kate emotionally and financially drained, as her ex-husband seemed determined to extract a pound of flesh from her.

Final Words on a Pound of Flesh

The more you know! Even though it has some fairly graphic literal roots, the phrase “a pound of flesh” thankfully holds a more figurative meaning these days, so you don’t have to worry about a real pound of your flesh. You can use it in any situation where one person is exacting more than can be given.