Act II scene i is a formalised, almost static, scene which prepares the way for the three later episodes of choosing the caskets which form a pattern in the structure of the drama. The Prince of Morocco is about to select and boasts his sutiability as Portia’s prospective husband. We realise during the speeches that he may pick correctly and that Bassanio could be too late and lose his beloved, having tied Antonio into a threatening bond.
Morocco starts by mentioning his dark skin, adding to the theme of racism in the play as well as that of appearance and reality. He boasts that he is as worthy underneath his complexion as any pale northener, particularly as regards bravery and that other virgins have loved him. Portia replies somewhat misleadingly, claiming that she would have no qualms about his desirability but that the matter does not rest on her will. There is dramatic irony, however, when she says she likes him as much as the others since we know she disparaged them all. He continues to brag about his courage in a heartless, cold fashion: it is a cheerless, savage quality which delights in uncivilised cruelty such as tearing away the milking cubs from the mother bear but he is concerned that, as in the classical story of Hercules and Lichas, the weaker man might win. He thus compares himself with Hercules, the semi-divine hero who performed feats of immense strength and courage – modesty is not one of his characteristics and we dread his choosing the right casket. He assumes the test is not one of character but involves fate. Now Portia reveals the reason why the other suitors have left: if one makes an incorrect choice he must swear that he will never attempt to marry another woman. This is unrealistic as there is no way the vow could be enforced but it touches on the theme of bonds and penalties and the whole casket plot has the air of a fairy tale. Morocco’s language is elevated and full of hyperbole; he is fierce and self-vaunting but probably magnificently dressed and impressive.
Act I scene ii
Launcelot Gobbo, probably hunchbacked and dressed recognisably as a Clown in russet jerkin and breeches, boots and buttoned cap, represents the low-life of the streets of Venice but also is a figure descended from Vice of Morality plays. There is a twist here since he is the victim of evil not its perpetrator and has a conscience which troubles him. Other functions of the scene are to shift the mood towards comedy and to give a different perspective on Shylock, that of his servant who knows him well. The prose speech is energetically humorous as he replicates the words and tone of the devil’s tempting him to leave and the responses of his inner misgivings, all long-winded and given as a direct imitation of what he believes he hears in his mind. Meanwhile he casts doubts on his father’s fidelity and concludes by pointing out the irony: Shylock is a kind of devil but so the temptation to run away is also evil. The impulse to leave is stronger in the end but not before the actor has had a chance to make the audience laugh aloud, employing two voices apart from his own, whilst making comments relevant to the main plot. Some slips add to the fun as he has the devil invoke heaven and misuses “incarnation [red]” for “incarnate [made flesh]” and the tension which is mounting in the other scenes is released here in order to rise again.
His half-blind father enters with a present, looking for Shylock’s house and his disability leads to some slap-stick, if somewhat cruel comedy where Launcelot Gobbo puns on the phrase “sand-blind” [half-blind] and plays on his father’s failure to recognise him, giving confusing directions before telling him in a roundabout and verbose fashion that the boy is dead, intending to make him weep. He dresses up the revelation with classical references to the three controllers of destiny, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, and the logical term “ergo” often used by Clowns. Finally he admits to the bewildered old man that he is his son but kneels in front of him the wrong way round so that the partially sighted Gobbo feels his hair and thinks it is a beard. The blindness and deceptions add to the more serious representations of these themes in the play and Launcelot Gobbo gives us more detail about the other characters: that Shylock is too mean to feed him properly and that Bassanio is spending his borrowed money lavishly and possibly wastefully on expensive liveries [uniforms bearing the coat-of arms of the master] for his servants. This motive of young Gobbo’s for wanting to become his servant is vital to the main plot as it reveals that Bassanio is being reckless with Antoinio’s money and is putting his faith in outward appearance rather than love in a situation where all depends on choosing the right casket according to one’s character.
Bassanio enters, giving instructions for an early supper, delivery of letters and the making of the expensive uniforms showing himself efficient and in command though profligate with money. Launcelot and Old Gobbo approach him but, comically, fail to reach their point since they interrupt each other whilst using malapropisms (“infection” for “affection”; “impertinent” for “pertinent”) and puns on “poor” as “unfortunate/needy” and “scarce” as “scarcely/stingy.” Bassanio is quite patient before insisting that only one of them should speak for them both. Launcelot manages to ask to become his servant in few and clear words though his father misuses “defect” for “effect” in backing him since both are garrulous and incapable of self-restraint for long. After a Biblical reference to 2 Corinthians, xii, 9 Launcelot is accepted and will have a more braided costume than the others, perhaps to spite Shylock.
Launcelot rejoices and triumphs over his father’s pessimism, reading his palm (table) in mockery and seeing good fortune for himself ahead whilst we laugh with him at the form it takes and at his childish exuberance. Bassanio orders his possessions to be put on board a ship and listens to Gratiano’s plea to accompany him to Belmont, having granted it in advance of knowing him for being “too wild, too rude [outspoken] and bold of voice”, characteristics which could be misunderstood by strangers and spoil his chances. The account is not entirely justified although the description is amusing. Gratiano shows he is irrepressible by making fun of the request, promising to sear only occasionally and, absurdly, to have prayer books in his pocket whilst covering his eyes during grace and solemnly saying “Amen”. If he were to overdo this pomposity it would be as damaging as his usual chattering. This night is to be an exception as festivities are planned, paid for, presumably, by Bassanio.Throughout we recall that the fate of Bassanio rests on the choice of caskets not wealth or Gratiano’s conduct.
In Act II scene iii Launcelot leaves Shylock’s house, bidding farewell in secret to his daughter, Jessica. Even she connects Shylock with the Devil and sees Launcelot as a kind of cheery imp who enlivened her existence. They are clearly fond of each other as he is moved nearly to tears at departure. She is in surreptitious contact with her lover, the Christian Lorenzo, and yet laments that she is sinfully ashamed to be Shylock’s daughter yet cannot share his way of life and attitudes. She is guilty but determined and therefore anxiously tormented by her love for Lorenzo. Even his close relatives are turning against Shylock.
Act II scene iv
Lorenzo represents a typical member of Venitian society: dashing, elegant and full of gaiety, giving instructions for their attendance at the masque, slipping away as was customary after eating to put on fancy dress. The others are doubtful that is is not properly planned but a letter arrives with Launcelot Gobbo from Jessica, from which we learn that she will be costumed as a boy to take the role of Lorenzo’s torch bearer. He reveals to Gratiano that she will be ready to be met at Shylock’s house and will steal gold and jewels from her father for their elopement. Lorenzo praises her virtue but the audience may feel that she is a thief and deceitful although energetic, resourceful and capable of taking the initiative. There are puns here and throughout the play on “gentle” meaning “noble” and “gentile” (as Jessica will clearly convert) and Shylock is seen as “faithless” because he is not Christian. On stage, the merriment and spectacle may override our moral scruples about the theft but we have been made aware that the Christians have a casual and carefree attitude to money if it brings pleasure and that the possession of wealth does not always cause happiness.
Act II scene v
Launcelot Gobbo, presumably dressed in his new uniform, is leaving Shylock’s service and house, warned by his old master that he will find Bassanio mean with money and that he will not be able to feed well there. We have heard the youth complain that he has starved with Shylock and so we guess that this is not true although he may be a greedy eater. Shylock also accuses him of laziness and wearing out his clothes, showing his extreme thrift and miserliness. There is a somewhat tedious joke about whether or not Launcelot can call out for Jessica. The scene is full of dramatic irony as Shylock fears that he will be robbed during the evening and we know that Jessica intends to steal a considerable amount of wealth from him. His dreaming of money-bags may seem comic but she is dishonest and we may pity him. He knows he is not invited out by the Christians for affection and does not want to leave the house, particularly when he hears that there will be street festivities, but will go in vengeful spirit to consume as much as possible. Launcelot Gobbo misuses the word “reproach” for “approach” and also claims to have dark premonitions, mocking Shylock’s superstitiousness and forebodings by teasing him. His role here is functional, keeping a comic view of Shylock in the minds of the audience and adjusting our sympathies, which may be stronger than those of a contemporary audience would have been.
In his next speech (lines 27 ff) Shylock reveals himself to be against urbane society in its festive form with its stress on generosity, opulence and elegance: music is a leitmotif in the play and he hates it. There is blatant dramatic irony when he instructs Jessica to lock the doors and resist looking out of the windows at the masque when we know she intends to escape (possibly through a window) and be a part of the fun whilst eloping with a Christian with stolen money and jewels. When he uses a metaphor of ears for casements, he hastily corrects himself and prefers the literal. The Christians with their painted masks are an object of derision and the speech is full of words of condemnation and negation: “vile squealing”, “varnished faces”, “shallow foppery.” His world is enclosed and cheerlessly “sober”, symbolised by the locking of doors to shut out entertainment. Prosperity, by which he swears when he mentions Jacob’s staff, has no pleasure for him, merely fear of losing it and we may, on balance, prefer Bassanio’s liberality, however risky, particularly when accompanied by luxurious costumes and revelry on stage. Launcelot leaves with a mumbled warning about Jessica which she covers with a lie. However, his tone softens briefly when he describes his former servant but hardens again when he recalls how much he ate and did not bring improvement to the house, being lazy. (Wildcats were believed to prowl by night and drones to suck honey from the hive.) There is a further indication of his petty desire for revenge when he dwells on how Launcelot will waste Bassanio’s borrowed money, whilst being obsessed with the locking of the house and uncertain as to whether or not he should stay out. Comic though he may appear in these compulsions, we know that he has good cause to be wary. Jessica shows no remorse or doubt about her own conduct which we cannot but find deceitful despite provocation. The play is morally ambiguous throughout.