The Merchant of Venice | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merchant of Venice | Act 2, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

Launcelot Gobbo works for Shylock as a servant, but he is debating whether or not to leave his job and seek a new master. His conscience tells him to remain with Shylock because it is the honest and responsible thing to do, even though Launcelot hates Shylock. The "fiend," as Launcelot calls his opposite impulse, tells him to run away. Launcelot talks with his father, Old Gobbo, and reveals his desire to leave Shylock's employ. At that moment Bassanio appears, and Old Gobbo engages him in a conversation telling him Launcelot is unhappy in his current position and wishes to serve another employer. Bassanio becomes impatient with their wordiness, but Launcelot steps in and asks Bassanio for a job—a wish Bassanio immediately grants. Launcelot is overjoyed and reads a positive, if unlikely, fortune in his own palm before leaving to give Shylock notice.

Gratiano finds Bassanio and asks to accompany him to Belmont. Bassanio is afraid Gratiano is "too wild, too rude and bold of voice" and his behavior might ruin Bassanio's chances with Portia. Gratiano promises to "put on a sober habit" and behave himself as a man might "to please his grandam." Bassanio agrees to let Gratiano come along, but he allows Gratiano this night to indulge his "merriment" without judgment.

Analysis

Launcelot's name is spelled "Lancelet" in the first published versions of the play. A lancelet is a small sword or "man-at-arms," which is descriptive of his lower position as a house servant. Some modern versions of the play use the spelling "Lancelot," which alludes to the heroic knight Sir Lancelot of the legends of King Arthur, which creates an ironic contrast with the indecisive and comical figure of Shakespeare's Launcelot Gobbo.

Launcelot describes his objection to Shylock by saying "My master's a very Jew," and saying he is "famished" in Shylock's service. These lines imply that Shylock does not feed Launcelot sufficiently or that he does not pay Launcelot enough to feed himself. Either way, the description plays into the negative stereotype of Jewish people as greedy and stingy. As in other scenes that illustrate such prejudices, the audience hears Launcelot speak of this behavior, but Shylock and Launcelot directly interact very little onstage. It is impossible to be sure Launcelot's complaints are entirely objective and are not colored by his prejudice. Launcelot and his father's silliness, including the comical palm reading near the end of the scene, are an example of the play's inherent ambiguity. It may be interpreted that these foolish and uneducated men are meant to be superior to Shylock, underlining his inferiority in this society. Certainly, these men enjoy greater freedom in Venice than Shylock does. At the same time, their foolishness and lack of education could also indicate their inadequacy as judges of Shylock's character.

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