“Shed thou no blood, nor cut thou less nor more/But just a pound of flesh.”

The Merchant of Venice

Act Four, Part One

By Dennis Abrams


Act Four:  Although Bassanio has arrived back in Venice and offers to repay Antonio’s debt twice over, Shylock demands nothing less than his full legal rights.  The Duke is stalling for time when a young lawyer, “Balthasar” (Portia in disguise), arrives with Nerissa (also disguised) acting as her clerk.  When their appeals to Shylock’s mercy fail, Antonio’s fat seems sealed and Shylock prepares to make the fatal incision.  Suddenly, however, Balthasar/Portia stops him, pointing out that although he is entitled to a pound of flesh he may not shed a drop of blood while obtaining it.   Stunned by the use of the legal technicality, Shylock agrees to take the money after all.  But the judgment is not complete:  Balthasar/Portia also informs him that, as an alien attempting to take the life of a Venetian, he faces the death penalty.  Though Shylock is immediately pardoned by the Duke, he is forced to give up half his wealth and convert to Christianity.

So…if it’s Shylock’s loneliness, his isolation from those around him, the religious and cultural differences which are the ground for his tragedy, it is also the ground for his attempted gruesome revenge.  It seems unlikely that Elizabethan audiences would have felt much sympathy for Shylock’s position, and soon enough his ruminations on the body take on a much darker aspect.  When the news arrives that Antonio’s ships have miscarried and that he is plunged into bankruptcy, Shylock, goaded it seems by Saliero, Soliano and Tubal, becomes determined not to squander his opportunity for revenge, not just against Antonio, it seems, but against the Christian community that has done him wrong.  Refusing to be bought off, the moneylender insists that he is owed a pound of the merchant’s flesh, nothing more, nothing less.  And while this grisly detail cannot help but strike modern audiences and readers as both savage and bewildering, for Elizabethan audiences living in a period of heavy inflation and soaring debt, Antonio’s looming sacrifice must have seemed a particularly vivid metaphor for those real-life debtors who were sent by bloodsucking creditors to notorious London jails such as Newgate and Ludgate.  And the insistent sacrificial metaphors for Shakespeare’s play begin to seem frighteningly real as Shylock’s demand reaches a fever pitch.  Hamstrung by Venice’s need for Jewish investment, the Duke cannot persuade Shylock to provide a ‘gentle [gentile] answer,’ as he ill-advisedly warns the usurer.  The Jew’s insistence for ‘a weight of carrion flesh’ looks unstoppable.

Shylock’s mistake, however, is to rely on the legal literalness of his claim.  As the final strand of his plot, Shakespeare introduces a device that will become familiar (or all too familiar) in his later comedies – that of the disguised heroine.  Despite giving Bassiano all the cash he needs, Portia still needs to be involved in the plan to free Antonio, and as soon as he is gone arranges for her and Nerissa to dress up like lawyers and send word to Venice that they are legal experts.  They enter the court just as Shylock is sharpening his knife.  Portia’s pleas for (Christian) mercy falling on deaf ears, she prepares to deliver her verdict.  “A pound of that same merchant’s flesh is thine,” she tells Shylock, examining the bond while the flummoxed Venetians sit by:


Most learned judge!  A sentence: (to Antonio) come, prepare.


Tarry a little.  There is something else.

This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood.

The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh.’

Take then thy bond.  Take thou thy pound of flesh.

But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed

One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods

Are by the laws of Venice confiscate

Unto the state of Venice.

With that, Shylock’s case falls apart.  A technicality it may be, but – at least in this court – it is enough to free Antonio.  Portia’s triumph is a victory for women, and, ostensibly, for humanity too.

But Shylock sees little of the latter, and this strand of the comedy – it is, officially still that –, ends bitterly.  Initially taunted by his eagerness to take the money and run, Shylock finds that he has been snared in a catch-22.  Another law unearthed by Portia states that if an “alien…seek the live of any citizen,” his goods and money have every right to be confiscated.  For all that his comeuppance is inevitable, Shylock is keenly aware of the singular nature of his treatment.  “Nay, take my life and all, pardon not that,” he desperately exclaims,

You take my house when you do take the prop

That doth sustain my house; you take my life

When you do take the means whereby I life.

Shylock’s words don’t redeem him – they are those of a man unable to see anything beyond money – but in the Venice of the play that is hardly unique to him.  And the Christians are so far from caring (or being Christian), that, though “pardoned,” he is stripped of half his income before being (in the play’s most notorious action) forcibly converted to Christianity.   The Merchant ends, like other comedies, in Act Five, with its community brought together (or not – we’ll see about that later).  But rarely does Shakespeare make us so sensitive to the cost.

(Interestingly, not all cultures see the costs in the same way.  In Out of Africa, Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) describes a conversation she had with her Somali steward, Farah Aden, in which she explained the plot of the play to him.  Farah was a Muslim, and fully conscious of the fact that Shylock was a Jew, but curiously, that was not what interested him about this particular situation.  Instead, he saw the battle between Shylock and the Christians purely as a battle of wits:

“Here was a big, complicated business deal, somewhat on the verge of the law, the real thing to a Somali.  He asked me a question or two as to the pound of flesh:  it obviously seemed to him an eccentric, but not impossible agreement.  And here the story began to smell of blood – his interest in it rose.  When Portia came upon the stage, he priced up his ears; I imagine that he saw her as a woman of his own tribe, Fatima with all her sales set, crafty and insinuating, out to outman man.  Colored people do not take sides in a tale, the interest to them lies in the ingeniousness of the plot itself; and the Somali, who in real life have a strong sense of values, and a gift for moral indignation, give these a rest in fiction.  Still, here Farah’s sympathy was with Shylock, who had come down with the cash; he repugned his defeat.

‘What?’ said he.  ‘Did the Jew give up his claim?  The flesh was due to him, it was little enough for him to get for all that money.’

‘But what else could he do,’ I asked, ‘when he must not take one drop of blood?’

‘Memsahib,’ said Farah, ‘he could have used a redhot knife.  That brings out no blood.’”

There was also, Karen Blixen pointed out, the problem of having to take exactly one pound of flesh, not more, not less.  But Farah was ready for that as well:  he could have taken just one little piece at a time, weighing out the individual pieces as he did.  “Had the Jew no friends to give him advice.”

For the  Elizabethans, Shylock had been a cunning monster, but for Farah, he had not been nearly cunning enough.  It was a poor kind of trickster who allowed himself to be outsmarted as easily as Shylock had.


Obviously, there’s going to be a lot of different perspectives on Act Four – I’ll start with Tanner:

“…meanwhile, Shylock is waiting back in Venice for his pound of flesh, and he must be satisfied.  Must – because he has the law on his side, and Venice lives by law; its wealth and reputation depend on honouring contracts and bonds – as Shylock is the first to point out.  ‘If you deny my bond, let the danger light/Upon your charter and your city’s freedom!’  Portia, as lawyer Balthasar, agrees:  ‘There is no power in Venice/Can alter a decree established.’  ‘I stay here on my bond’ – if Shylock says the word ‘bond’ once, he says it a dozen times (it occurs over thirty times in this play – never more than six times in other plays).  We are in a world of law where ‘bonds’ are absolutely binding.  Portia’s beautiful speech exhorting to ‘mercy’ is justly famous; but, as Burckhardt remarked, it is impotent and useless in this ‘court of justice,’ a realm which is under the rule of the unalterable letter of the law.  Her sweet and humane lyricism founders against harsh legal literalism.  The tedious, tolling reiteration of the word ‘bond’ has an effect which musicians known as ‘devaluation through repetition.’  The word becomes emptier and emptier of meaning, though still having its deadening effect.  It is as if they are all in the grip of a mindless mechanism, which brings them to a helpless, dumb impasse, with Shylock’s dagger quite legally poised to strike.  Shylock, it is said, is adhering to the old Hebraic notion of the law – an eye for an eye.  He has not been influenced by the Christian saying of St. Paul:  ‘The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.’  For Shylock, the spirit is the letter; and Antonio can only be saved by the letter.  It is as though Portia will have to find resources in literalism which the law didn’t know it had.

And so, the famous moment of reversal.

Tarry a little; there is something else.

This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;

The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh.’

Take then thy bond…

Shed thou no blood, nor cut thou less nor more

But just a pound of flesh.

(Compare Cordelia’s ‘I love your Majesty/According to my bond, no more nor less,” King Lear I, i, 94-5; scrupulous exactness in honouring a bond turns out to be the most reliable way of recognizing it, in both cases.)  Express:  to press out.  Portia squeezes new life and salvation out of the dead and deadly law – and not by extenuation or circumvention or equivocation.  ‘How every fool can play upon the word!’ says Lorenzo, in response to Launcelot’s quibbles.  But you can’t ‘play’ your way out of the Venetian law courts.  Any solution must be found within the precincts of stern, rigorous law.  ‘The Jew shall have justice…He shall have merely justice and his bond.’  And, to Shylock:  ‘Thou shalt have justice more than thou desir’st.’  Portia makes literalism yield a life-saving further reach.  Truly, the beyond of law.

Life-saving for Antonio – and for Venice, we may say.  But not, of course, for Shylock.  He simply crumples; broken by his own bond, destroyed by the law he ‘craved.’  But prior to this, his speeches have an undeniable power, and a strangely compelling sincerity.  Necessarily un-aristocratic, and closer to the streets (and the Ghetto life back there somewhere), his speech in general has a force, and at times a passionate directness, which makes the more ‘ornamented’ speech of some of the more genteel Christians sound positively effete.  Though his defeat is both necessary and gratifying – the cruel hunter caught with his own device – there is something terrible in the spectacle of his breaking.  ‘I pray you give me leave to go from hence, I am not well.’  And Gratiano’s cruel, jeering ridicule, with which he taunts and lacerates Shylock through the successive blows of his defeat, does Christianity, does humanity, no credit.  I think we can ‘indignantly turn’ on him – for a start.  Like the malcontent of kill-joy in any comedy, Shylock has to be extruded by the regrouping, revitalized community, and he is duly chastised, humiliated, stripped, and dispatched – presumably back to the Ghetto.  He is never seen again; but it is possible to feel him as a dark, suffering absence throughout the final Act in Belmont.  When Portia brings the news that Shylock has been forced to leave all his wealth to Jessica and Lorenzo, the response is – ‘Fair ladies, you drop manna in the way/Of starved people.’  ‘Manna’ was, of course, what fell from heaven and fed the children of Israel in the wilderness.  This is the only time Shakespeare uses the word; and, just for a second, it’s deployment here – at the height of the joy in Christian Belmont – reminds us of the long archaic biblical past stretching back behind Shylock, who also, just for a second, briefly figures, no matter how unwillingly, as a version of the Old Testament God, providing miraculous sustenance for his children. (a point made by John Gross).


From Harold Bloom:

“Shylock’s companion in hatred is Antonio, whose anti-Semitism, though appropriate to the play’s Venice, nevertheless is more viciously intense than anyone else’s, even Gratiano’s.  Homosexual anti-Semitism is now too peculiar a malady for us to understand; from Proust onward the situations of Jews and homosexuals have tended to converge, symbolically, and sometimes literally, as in Nazi Germany.  Venice and Belmont alike float upon money, and Antonio’s attempt to distinguish between his mercantilism and Shylock’s usury persuades nobody.  The merchant and the Jew perform a murderous dance of masochist and sadist, murderee and murderer, and the question of which is the merchant and which the Jew is resolved by the unbelievable conversion.  Antonio wins and has nothing except money; Shylock loses (and deserves to lose) and has nothing, not even an identity.  We cannot interpret his ‘I am content’ because we cannot get out of our ears his two greatest speeches, each directed against Venice – the ‘gaping pig’ rhapsody and the oration on Venetian slavery.  Neither speech is necessary for comic completion, and neither is an exercise in pathos.  Shakespeare drives his creation to its limit, as if to discover just what kind of character he has limned in Shylock, a night piece that was his best until he revised Hamlet from another wily trickster to a new kind of man.

The transformation of Shylock from a comic villain to a heroic villain (rather than a hero-villain, like Barabas) shows Shakespeare working without precedents, and for dramatic motives very difficult to surmise.  Shylock always has been a great role:  one thinks of Macklin, Kean, and Irving, though there does not appear to have been an overwhelming performance in our time.  I could never come to terms with Olivier’s suave philo-Semitic Shylock, who seemed to emanate from Freud’s Vienna and not at all from Shakespeare’s Venice.  [MY NOTE:  For those of you who are watching the youtube clips of Olivier’s performance, what do YOU think?]  The top hat and black tie had replaced the Jewish gabardine, and the powerful speeches of menace were modulated into civilization and its discontents.  Though the effect of this was quietly and persuasively irrealistic, the context for Shylock’s passionate nihilism seemed withdrawn when the shocking lines came forth:

You’ll ask me why I rather choose to have

A weight of carrion flesh than to receive

Three thousand ducats.  I’ll not answer that!

But say it is my humour, — is it answer’d?

What if my house to be troubled with a rat,

And I be pleas’d to give ten thousand ducats

To have it ban’d?  what, are you answer’d yet?

Some men there are love not a gaping pig!

Some that are mad if they behold a cat!

And others when the bagpipe sings i’the’nose,

Cannot contain their urine – for affection

[    ] of passion sways it to the mood

Of what it likes or loathes, — now for your answer:

As there is no firm reason to be rend’red

Why he cannot abide a gaping pig,

Why he a harmless necessary cat,

Why he a woolen bagpipe, but of force

Must yield to such inevitable shame,

As to offend, himself being offended:

So can I give no reason, nor I will not,

More than a lodg’d hate, and a certain loathing

I bear Antonio, that I follow thus

A losing suit against him! – are you answered?

The missing word is something like ‘master,’ and since Shylock’s ‘affection’ primarily means an innate antipathy, while his ‘passion’ means any authentic feeling, he thus portrays himself, quite ironically, as being unable to govern his own will.  But Shakespeare’s irony goes against Shylock, since Shylock is playing the Christian’s game, and cannot win at it.  ‘A lodg’d hate, and a certain loathing’ is an excellent definition of anti-Semitism, and Shylock, out of control, has become what he beheld in Antonio, a Jewish terrorist responding to incessant anti-Jewish provocations.  But the images of Shylock’s speech are more memorable than is his defense of his own vagaries.  Antonio’s anti-Shylockism and Shylock’s anti-Antonioism are parallel instances to the madness of those who lose control when they encounter a gaping pig, become insane at seeing a harmless necessary cat, or involuntarily urinate when the bagpipe sings.  What Shylock defiantly celebrates is compulsiveness for its own wake, of traumatic caprice.  As a negative psychologist, Shakespeare’s Jew prepares us for the abysses of the will in greater Shakespearean villains to come, but Shakespeare has divested shylock of the grandeur of negative transcendence that will inform Iago, Edmund, and Macbeth.  It is the ‘gaping pig’ speech, more than the wounded cry ‘I will have my bond’ that exposes Shylock’s emptying-out of his self.

We know next to nothing about the dynamics of Shakespeare’s personal relationships, if any, to the great roles he composed.  The pattern of the Falstaff-Hal ambivalence seems not unlike the ambivalence sketched in the Sonnets, while the image of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet Shakespeare may in some still unknown way contribute to the enigmas of Prince Hamlet.  It is scarcely conceivable that Shylock was any kind of a personal burden to Shakespeare, who essentially belongs to his age, just this once, in regard to the Jews.  Since he is not Marlowe, writing a bloody farce, Shakespeare is either vicious or ignorant (or both) when he has Shylock urge Tubal to meet him at the synagogue in order to work out the details for the judicial murder of Antonio.  Still, both the viciousness and the ignorance were generic, which does not make them more forgivable.  The plot required a Jew, Marlowe’s Jew lingered on the stage, and Shakespeare needed to fight free of Marlowe.  I surmise that Shakespeare’s pride at having done just that increased his dramatic investment in Shylock, and helps account for the most astonishing speech in the play.  When the Duke asks:  ‘How shalt thou hope for mercy rend’ring none?’ Shylock replied with preternatural power, invoking the ultimate foundation for the Venetian state economy, which is the ownership of slaves:

What judgment shall I dread doing no wrong?

You have among you many a purchas’d slave,

Which (like your asses, and your dogs and mules)

You use in abject and in slavish parts,

Because you bought them – shall I say to you,

Let them be free, marry them to your heirs?

Why sweat they under burthens? let their beds

Be made as soft as yours, and let their palates

Be season’d with such viandes? you will answer

‘The slaves our ours,’ – so do I answer you:

The pound of flesh (which I demand of him)

Is dearly bought, ‘tis mine and I will have it:

If you deny me, fie upon your law!

There is no force in the decrees of Venice:

I stand for judgment, — answer, shall I have it?

It is all too easy to get this speech wrong, as some recent Marxist critics have done.  Shylock has no sympathy for the slaves, and he seems quite unaware of the irony his citation of the slaves evokes, since as a Jew he annually celebrates the Passover, with its opening reminder that his ancestors were slaves in Egypt until God liberated them.  It is never wise to assume Shakespeare did not know anything that was available in or near his world; his curiosity was unappeasable, his energy for information boundless.  Shylock really does mean his ghastly parallel:  one pound of Antonio’s flesh is enslaved to him, and he will have his bond.  What startles and delights us is Shylock’s shrewd indictment of Christian hypocrisy, which he makes earlier in the play, but not with this shocking force.  The Venetian slaves, like all slaves, are so many pounds of flesh; no more, no less.  And in the context of Gingrich-Clinton America, the satire still works:  our pious reformers of Welfare are determined to see that the descendants of our slaves do not lie down in beds as soft as theirs, and season their palates with such viands, let alone marry the heirs of the Contract with America.  Yet Shylock does not care about his own fiercest point, he is, alas, not a prophet, just a would-be torturer and murderer.  It is Shakespeare, exploiting the role of Shylock, who slyly provides the material for moral prophecy, which no one in this comedy is prepared or enabled to make.

Shylock, then, is a field of force larger than Shylock himself can encompass, and Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice, as in the later Measure for Measure, severely qualifies his comedy by opening onto vistas that comedy rarely can accommodate.  Unfortunately, Shakespeare’s intimations do not alleviate the savagery of his portrait of the Jew, nor can we suppose they were meant to, for Shakespeare’s own audience anyway.  The Holocaust made and makes The Merchant of Venice unplayable, at least in what appears to be its own terms.  With some relief, I turn to the question of what Shylock did for Shakespeare the poet-playwright.  The surprising answer is that by completing his emancipation from Marlowe, Shylock made it possible to go on to Henry IV, Part One, with its two characters who surpass even Shylock in ambivalence:  Prince Hal, and the height of Shakespeare’s invention of the human, Sir John Falstaff.

Shakespeare’s sense of ambivalence is not Freud’s, though clearly Freud, himself so ambivalent about Shakespeare, founds his account of ambivalence upon materials initially supplied by Shakespeare.  Primal ambivalence, whether in Shakespeare or in Freud, need not result from social overdetermination.  The antipathy between Antonio and Shylock transcends Jew baiting; Gratiano is an instance of that Christian sport, but Antonio cannot be let off so easily.  His ambivalence, like Shylock’s is murderous, and unlike Shylock’s, it is successful, for Antonio does end Shylock the Jew, and gives us Shylock the New Christian.  Freudian ambivalence is simultaneous love and hatred toward the same person; Shakespearean ambivalence, subtler and more frightening, diverts self-hatred into hatred of the other, and associates the other with lost possibilities of the self.  Hamlet, whatever his protestations, is truly not interested in revenge, since no one could be more aware that in revenge all persons blend into one another.  To chop down Claudius is to become old Hamlet, the ghostly father and not the intellectual prince.  It is horrible to say it, but the broken New Christian Shylock is preferable to a successful butcher of a Shylock, had Portia not thwarted him.  What would be left for Shylock after hacking up Antonio?  What is left for Antonio after crushing Shylock?  In Shakespearean ambivalence, there can be no victories.

A.P. Rossiter, in his Angel with Horns (posthumously published in 1961), said that ambivalence was peculiarly the dialectic of Shakespeare’s history plays, defining Shakespearean ambivalence as one mode or irony or another.  Irony is indeed so pervasive in Shakespeare, in ever genre, that no comprehensive account of it is possible.  What in The Merchant of Venice is not ironical, including the Belmont celebration of Act V?  The coexistence in Venice of Antonio and Shylock is an unbearable irony, an ambivalence so acute that it must be ended, wither by the barbarous mutilation of Antonio or the barbarous Christian revenge upon Shylock, who evidently is scarcely to be allowed time for instruction before he is baptized.  Butchery or baptism is a nice dialectic:  the merchant of Venice survives, but the Jew of Venice is immolated, since as a Christian he cannot continue to be a moneylender.  Shakespeare’s one law is change, and neither Shylock nor Antonio can change.  Antonio darkens further and Shylock breaks, but then he is one man against a city.

I end by repeating that it would have been better for the last four centuries of the Jewish people had Shakespeare never written this play.  So shadowed and equivocal is The Merchant of Venice, though, that I cannot be certain that there is anyway to perform it now and recover Shakespeare’s own art of representing Shylock.  Shylock is going to go on making us uncomfortable, enlightened Jew and enlightened Christian, and so I close by wondering if Shylock did not cause Shakespeare more discomfort than we now apprehend.   Malvolio is horribly treated [MY NOTE:  In Twelfth Night], but that appears to be a theatrical in-joke against Ben Jonson.  Parolles [All’s Well That Ends Well] deserves exposure, but the humiliation displayed is withering.  Lucio, whose caustic sanity gives us something against which to perspectivize the madnesses of Measure for Measure, is compelled by the dubious Duke to marry a whore, for having dared to tell the truth about the Duke of dark corners.  Shylock surpasses all these in the outrage visited upon him, and Antonio’s turn of the screw, calling for instant conversion, is Shakespeare’s own invention, and no part of the pound-of-flesh tradition.  Antonio’s revenge is one thing, and Shakespeare’s quite another.  The playwright, capacious soul, would be aware that the gratuitous outrage of a forced conversion to Venetian Christianity surpasses all boundaries of decency.  Shylock’s revenge upon Shakespeare is that the Jew’s dramatic consistency is destroyed when he accepts Christianity rather than death.

Shakespeare thus demeans Shylock, but who can believe Shylock’s ‘I am content?’  I remember once observing that Shylock’s agreeing to become a Christian is more absurd than would be the conversion of Coriolanus to the popular party, or Cleopatra’s consent to become a vestal virgin at Rome.  We sooner can see Falstaff as a monk than Shylock as a Christian.  Contemplate Shylock at Christian prayer, or confessing to a priest.  It will not do; Shakespeare was up to mischief, but you have to be an anti-Semitic scholar, Old Historicist or New, to appreciate fully the ambition of such mischief.”



My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning:  Harold Goddard’s very different look at Act Four.

Enjoy your weekend.

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7 Responses to “Shed thou no blood, nor cut thou less nor more/But just a pound of flesh.”

  1. GGG says:

    I find myself coming back to the imagery of the three boxes, and of being boxed in. Shylock thinks he is opening the golden box of revenge, and finds instead that he is trapped in a box of lead (rather like a lead casket.) Things are never what they “seem” in this play–tricksy, as I think Gollum said to Bilbo.

    • Very tricksy indeed. Perspectives…the imagery of the three boxes is I think, as I think Goddard points out, the overarching imagery/metaphor for the play itself.

  2. I do not like Laurence’s portrayal of Shylock, or Joan Plowright as Portia. Neither seem to me to play the play as it is written. I want Shylock to be less emotionally labile, to have more dignity, and Portia to be less simpering in the scenes around Bassianio’s choosing of the box.

    I am fascinated by the various interpretations of Shylock that you present us with, Dennis. I first studied this play at about age 14 at school, and really didn’t get it then! Shakespeare’s cruelty to some of his characters (Malvolio, Shylock) completely escaped me as a young person. And Antonio has turned out, on this reading, to be far more interesting than I had previously realised. The critique of Venetian society and its values and hypocrisies is illuminating, too. Can’t wait to (re)meet Falstaff!

    • Pat: I’m not sure about Olivier’s performance either (I’ll be posting Al Pacino’s from Act Four on Sunday as a comparison) — although I was deeply moved by his final moments in Act Four. And as for Shylock, well…there’s a reason why he’s been such a major part of the Western imagination for so many centuries — he can be read (or viewed) in so many ways. And yes — you’re going to LOVE Falstaff.

  3. GGG says:

    The offstage moan/cry/bellow by Shylock/Olivier was haunting, though.

  4. Pingback: The “Bloody Shakespearean” commentary on Michael Hudson’s interview with Ben Norton – Global South

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