365 Days of Shakespeare

That's right – the Bard in a year.

271. The word “flesh” in “The Merchant of Venice”

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As Shakespeare is known as one of the greatest wordsmiths of all time, it stands to reason that every single word he ever chose can hold great significance. However, there are some that stand out more than others. Take, for example, the word “flesh” in his play “The Merchant of Venice”.

In high school, a teacher explained the meaning of words to me in this way: there is the “ceiling” meaning (the obvious meaning of the flesh being the thing that Shylock demands a pound of, since Antonio cannot repay his debt), and the “floor” meaning (the deeper message that flesh represents, that it is what connects all the characters together despite their differences).

To expand upon the ceiling meaning of the word, Antonio lays down a pound of his own flesh as collateral on a loan from the (in some productions) villainous Jew, Shylock. Later in the play, when he cannot repay his debt and Shylock ventures to collect what is owed to him, Portia is able to stop the mutilation by pointing out that Shylock never included blood in his collateral, and that if he sheds a drop of blood in the taking of the flesh, he surrenders everything he owns. In the end, Shylock is stripped of his faith and left without either his debt or his pound of flesh. In the ceiling meaning, the word “flesh” signifies a tangible object.

The floor meaning of the word is one that may come across as a little “we are the world”, but there really is no other way to explain it. Salarino tells Shylock that between him and his daughter Jessica, “There is more difference between thy flesh and hers than between jet and ivory”. They go on to ask why Shylock seeks Antonio’s flesh – what good could it possibly be? This leads to Shylock’s impassioned speech that begins and ends with revenge, but has, at the heart of it, a plea for the Christians to recognize that the Jews are, indeed, as human as they are. No longer is flesh simply a thing, but it is presented as the encasement for the soul, which (despite what the Christians in the play may believe) is a thing that the Jews do possess.

The word “flesh” in “The Merchant of Venice” is more than meets the eye – it is the very thing that brings together all the characters, despite their inner differences and despite how much they wish to deny their likenesses.


Written by Caroline Mincks

June 29, 2010 at 7:44 PM

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