Ace G. Pilkington
Merchant of Venice: An Analysis of Scenes
Act II, scene ii
Launcelot Gobbo is often mentioned with his namesake from The Two Gentlemen of Verona as part of that very small company of Shakespeare's unfunny clowns. Some critics have dismissed him as nothing more than a sop to the clown of Shakespeare's company--Will Kempe--and some directors have dismissed him from the stage altogether, e. g. Jonathan Miller in the National Theatre film of the play. Is there any good reason why Launcelot should not be cut, or at least humanized, harmonized (and given a guitar) as he was in the 1981 RSC production? Must he draw out his quips to the crack of doom as he does in the BBC version of the play (interestingly enough also directed by Jonathan Miller)? In few, what is the use of him?
The first part of scene two runs from the beginning to line thirty, and in it Launcelot is engaged in the traditional morality play debate between the devil of temptation and the angel of conscience. The point on which they disagree is whether or not Launcelot should leave his master, the Jew. This subscene does several things: it provides a bit of comic business for the actor, it suggests the difficulty of making a choice when disloyalty to someone or something may be found on either side, and it prepares for another person who will have to choose between staying with the Jew and running away--Shylock's charming daughter, Jessica. Ruth Nevo says (Comic Transformations in Shakespeare) "that Launcelot Gobbo's parodic function appears to be mainly directed to underscoring the desertion of Shylock the father." (p. 131) I heartily agree that Launcelot is intimately connected with Jessica and that much of what he does underscores and explicates her actions, but I think that Launcelot is meant to make Jessica's reputation more lustrous, not to tarnish her for filial impiety. A production without Launcelot removes several direct and indirect props that hold Jessica up in the audience's esteem. (Who says John Lyly's influence stopped with Samuel Johnson?) The first of these is his decision to leave Shylock, being true to himself though disloyal to his present master.
The second is the second subscene which runs from line 31 to line 108. In this section Launcelot fools his father, teases him rather cruelly, denies his own identity, denies that he is his father's son, suggests that his father (if perchance he is his father) is a rather wicked old man, and then finally, emphatically affirms his own identity and that of his own "true-begotten father." This does a number of things: it suggests that fathers are fallible and sometimes even foolish, it presents a picture (comic though it is) of a child finding himself by first denying his father and then taking up the relationship, and it gives us the only image in the play of a father and a child who basically (under the surface tensions and teasings) like each other. Old Gobbo's grief at his son's supposed death and his cheerful willingness to help that son get what he wants in spite of all practical jokes is a sharp contrast to Shylock's treatment of and reaction to his child. Launcelot and Old Gobbo are kind in both the modern and Elizabethan senses of that word, as Shylock most definitely is not. In case we miss the parallels between Jessica and Launcelot, Shakespeare has reminded us of them in III, v, where Jessica is drawn into a sort of morality debate as Launcelot has been, and where it is suggested, as it was with Launcelot, that her father may not be her father.
Section three runs from line 109 to Launcelot's exit with Gobbo at line 160. It has demonstrated, among other things, that however else the two Gobbos may be related, they are certainly allied in their misdemeanors against the English language. It also gives Launcelot the chance in his concluding speech from line 149 to 160 to parody (as Ruth Nevo points out, p. 115) the propensity of everybody in Merchant to take large risks and put their fortunes to the test. He has also begun to show himself as something more than a clown, meaning a simpleton from the country who is stupid and therefore funny, and is very possibly (I am agreeing with John R. Brown here in his notes to the Arden edition) on his way to becoming a full-fledged fool, complete with motley coat. It is appropriate that this scene ends with a mention of Lorenzo and the preparation for Jessica's elopement. Scenes three and four continue this theme, and in scene three Jessica tells us a good deal about her relationship with her father and with Launcelot: "Our house is hell, and thou (a merry devil)/" [Note the recurring devil theme.], "Didst rob it of some taste of tediousness ..." There is a suggestion here that they have been friends because fellow sufferers--an emotional undertone that can perhaps be picked up in Lorenzo's joking references to his jealousy of Launcelot in III, v (Indeed, the 1981 RSC production stopped just short of making this hint a fact). Launcelot's departure must make us sympathize with the young girl who is left in that gloomy, Puritanical house. Could Launcelot's decision have been the last, small emotional weight that tipped the scales for Jessica? It is not provable, but it fits neatly with the other connections between the two.
Act II, scene v
The first section of scene five runs from the beginning to line 9. Shylock points out that Launcelot will see the difference between his old master and his new one; the audience may also be ready to make a comparison between this father and Old Gobbo. Certainly, Shylock's shouting impatience does not make a good impression. Jessica enters on line 10, the beginning of part two of this scene (which ends at line 42 with Launcelot's exit). Shylock loads her with orders and advice; she is scarcely able to speak more lines now she is on stage than she was before her entrance. There is no warmth between the two of them, and all of Shylock's worry (during a sequence when he is breaking one of the laws of his religion for the sake of wasting Bassanio's substance) is for his house, not for his daughter. His foreboding dream has, in all probability, come from subconscious perceptions of what is happening around him, but he is blinder than old Gobbo to the true identity of his child, and so the dream becomes a mummery of superstitions properly (and cleverly in the rather dangerous circumstances) parodied by Launcelot.
Launcelot, who is acting as go-between for Lorenzo, conveys a message to Jessica as he leaves, and we are in the penultimate section of the scene, which runs from line 43 to Shylock's exit at line 54. The section is interesting because Jessica tells her father a direct lie in response to a suspicious question--the first time in the scene that he has paused for her to speak. He goes on to admit (what the audience has learned by now) that Launcelot is kind, which tends to reinforce our belief in Launcelot and consequently his judgment of Shylock. We are, therefore, prepared, I think, to sympathize with Jessica in the last section of this scene which is just two lines long but leads on to extended troubles for Shylock, Antonio, Bassanio, and the others who are bound together in this tangle of loyalties and disloyalties.
Perhaps something should be said about Launcelot's transformation, even though the change is not complete until III, v. What happens seems to bear out John R. Brown's theory of Gobbo's shift from clown to fool, and the evidence is as Hamlet would put it, "Words, words, words." In II, ii Launcelot says "true begotten father" and uses "incarnation" when he means "incarnate." He drops "ergo" into his speeches as though it were a sort of counter to fill up space. Only one of his mistakings, "I'll try confusions with him," where he means "conclusions" has that underlying turn of sense about it that makes the audience wonder if the mistake was deliberate. He is still blundering in his first speech to Bassanio, where he uses "fruitify" for "signify" and seems his father's son in word as well as deed. But also in his encounter with Bassanio he offers his first really clever speech, "The old proverb is very well parted between my master Shylock and you, sir. you have the grace of God, sir, and he hath enough." Bassanio commends him for it, and gives instructions to another servant that Launcelot should have "a livery more guarded than his fellows," which may be a reference to a licensed fool's motley. In II, iii with Jessica, Launcelot is still mixing things up. He says "exhibit" for "inhibit."
In II, v, Launcelot, who is now officially Bassanio's man, answers Shylock's "Who bids thee call?" with "Your worship was wont to tell me I could do nothing without bidding," which is a very palpable hit. His only mistake in this scene is "My young master doth expect your reproach," when he means "approach," and it is certainly arguable that Bassanio is as likely to get the former as the latter.
By III, v, Launcelot has become a twister of words to his own uses, what Feste would call a "corrupter of words." Is he now a licensed fool who must suit himself to the clothes he wears? His exchange with Lorenzo argues no less. But more than the issue of Launcelot's possible switch from clown to fool is the issue of Launcelot's improvement. Has Bassanio's service made him brighter than he was before or merely given his wits, which fusted unused with Shylock, the exercise they needed? If Launcelot has improved, will we find that Jessica has paralleled him in this as she has in so many other things? And is Launcelot's new understanding yet another condemnation of Shylock's darkness? Shylock is, after all, the most literal and miserly word user in the play. Perhaps the answer to these questions lies in the duet between Lorenzo and Jessica in V, i.
Copyright © 1997 by Ace G. Pilkington