What Does A Pound of Flesh Mean?

A Pound of Flesh Meaning

Definition: Payment that is owed, which may be collected in a cruel or vengeful way.

Origin of A Pound of Flesh

This expression comes from one of the works of the English playwright William Shakespeare. It appears in his play Merchant of Venice, from the year 1596.

In this play, a moneylender has a contract with merchant that demands the merchant give him a pound of his flesh, or body, in payment. Obviously, for the merchant to pay with part of his body would harm him greatly, although it is in their contract.

The continued insistence that he pay of his own flesh is the central plot device in the play.

Examples of A Pound of Flesh

pound of flesh originHere is an example in which two roommates are discussing a problem one of them is having at work.

Mario: Hey, Axel, I need your advice.

Axel: Sure. What’s going on?

Mario: Well, you remember that my job offered to pay for my school if I worked for them until I paid it off, right?

Axel: Yeah. Why?

Mario: So I just got this amazing job offer from another law firm! It’s way better than my current job.

Axel: Congratulations!

Mario: Thanks, but, unfortunately, it seems like I can’t accept it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my contract with my current job forbids me from accepting another job until my current contract is complete.

Axel: What happens if you break the contract?

Mario: Then I owe my current job the full amount of my college expenses.

Axel: Does that include the amount you already worked to pay off?

Mario: I would have to pay even for the amount I already worked off.

Axel: That’s terrible!

Mario: I know. I mean, I realize the company has to have its pound of flesh, but I still expected more from them. They are so ruthless!

More Examples

i want me pound of flesh This excerpt is about a widow whose husband died, but is still responsible for his car lease.

  • A multibillion-dollar corporation wants its pound of flesh from the elderly widow of a former customer, and it appears determined to get its $2,352.72 at all costs, including the hiring of a law firm described by Collections & Credit Risk magazine as “the largest creditors’ rights firm in the country.” –LA Times

The second excerpt is about tax reform in California.

  • This change would give Sacramento — at long last — a reliable, less-erratic tax base. And yet each party and lobbyist would want to extract its pound of flesh. For the greater good, our politicians must resist. –LA Times


The idiom a pound of flesh describes something that one person must pay to another due to a contract or other legal agreement. Nonetheless, this payment is harsh or abominable to ask for.