- A pound of man’s flesh, taken from a man,
Is not so estimable, profitable neither,
As flesh of muttons, beefs, or goats.
- Act I, Scene III, Merchant of Venice
To every situation there is an appropriate Shakespearean phrase. Star-crossed lovers can compare each other to summer’s days. David Foster Wallace, Aldous Huxley, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Vladimir Nabokov all mined Shakespeare for book titles. And even those who can’t tell “Et tu, Brute” from the Ides of March can understand what it means to fight fire with fire or to be in a pickle. Shakespeare gave us salad days, night owls, wild goose chases, sea changes, foul play, strange bedfellows, and good riddance. In these days of excessive credit card fees and imminent financial regulation, one of the most bandied about (and misused) Shakespearean phrases is “a pound of flesh.”
The phrase comes from “The Merchant of Venice.” Early in the play, a Jewish money lender named Shylock requests an “equal pound of your fair flesh” as collateral for the three thousand ducats he lends to Antonio, a fellow money-lender and semi-reformed anti-Semite. The politics of the play have been debated for centuries. But the meaning of the phrase “a pound of flesh” is indisputable. According to the American Heritage Dictionary it means “a debt harshly insisted upon.” The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy expands slightly on this definition: “Creditors who insist on having their ‘pound of flesh’ are those who cruelly demand the repayment of a debt, no matter how much suffering it will cost the debtor.” Despite this very clear and relatively narrow definition, journalists, editors, and Wall Street executives have recently been playing fast and loose with the phrase. This is a sorry sight.
The lede of Randall Forsyth’s May 9 piece in Barron’s, “Wall Street’s Faustian Bargain with Washington,” uses the phrase as if it is synonymous with “getting a piece of the pie”:
Critics of the Obama administration have claimed it has been too easy on Wall Street by providing billions in bailouts following the financial meltdown. Now, however, the Securities and Exchange Commission is seeking its pound of flesh in the form of civil suits against participants in two sectors caught up in last year’s near-meltdown, credit-default swaps and money-market funds.
It could be argued that because the SEC is part of the federal government, which lent money to many of the participants “caught up in last year’s near-meltdown,” the usage is correct. The lawsuits, however, have nothing to do with the repayment of said debt.
New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse concludes a December 2008 think piece on the potential of auto industry bankruptcy with a quote that makes “a pound of flesh” seem like fair punishment:
But Mr. Barbera warned against overconfidence, saying that Treasury officials thought they would carefully exact only a pound of flesh from Wall Street by letting Lehman fail, helping teach other investment banks not to take excessive risks. ‘But,’ he said, ‘it turned out not to be a pound of flesh that was taken. It was a ton.’
Perhaps the only thing more ridiculous than Wall Street types quoting Shakespeare is credit card executives complaining about unfair new rules. In a recent Politico article about new credit card legislation, Jeanne Cummings quotes “one weary industry insider” as saying “[w]e just have to be OK with people getting their pound of flesh out of us.” This quote is just too absurd to unpack. As Antonio says to his friend Bassanio: “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”