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What happens

The scene opens with Shylock’s servant Launcelot arguing with himself about whether to run away from his master. He repeats himself and his arguments are illogical, creating comedy through confusion. Ultimately he decides to run and become Bassiano’s servant instead.
Next, Launcelot meets his blind father, Gobbo, who doesn’t recognise him, but is looking for his son. Somewhat bizarrely, and cruelly, Launcelot decides to trick him by pretending not to know him, and telling Gobbo that his son is dead. When he tells him the truth, his father is overjoyed.

What are the themes in Act II Scene ii?

  • choices: this is shown in the extended debate between Launcelot’s conscience which tells him to stay with Shylock, and ‘the fiend’ (II.ii.2) who tells him to run away. As always, the ‘fiend’ gives more ‘friendly’ (II.ii.31) [likeable] choices.
  • moral ambiguity: in Launcelot’s debate ‘the fiend’ swears ‘by the heavens’, and his ‘honest’ conscience and ‘heart’ tell him to stay with Shylock ‘a kind of devil’ (II.ii.24). More than clever wordplay, this questions whether Launcelot is ‘honest’ to ‘run’ away. His choice seems more cowardly than moral in his repeated desire to take to his ‘heels’.
  • fear of contamination: Launcelot says ‘I am a Jew, if I serve the Jew’, (II.ii.112).
  • loyalty to parents: Launcelot is shown to be a bad son as he tricks his blind father, Gobbo. First he misdirects him. Then he says he will ‘raise the waters’ (II.ii.49) [make him cry] by telling him his son (Launcelot) is ‘deceased’ (II.ii.64) in a cruel comedy. This foreshadows the scenes where Jessica refuses to recognise Shylock as her father.
  • identity/recognition: this scene uses mistaken identity for comic effect, but the ‘sand-blind’ (II.i.74) Gobbo’s literal blindness parallels the metaphorical blindness of the suitors who fail to choose the right casket, as well as those who fail to recognise the disguised Portia.
  • power: this theme is developed in the wordplay on ‘master Launcelot’, as well as ‘thy master Shylock’.

Likely Exam Question

This type of extract could appear on the exam, with a focus on how comedy is created, written something like this: ‘How does Shakespeare make this scene so amusing?’ To answer well, it helps to understand the theory of comedy.
Theory of Comedy
  1. Incongruity comedy is funny because it is unexpected or out of place. Launcelot comically reverses two common phrases (II.ii.76-77 and 106-107) and has the ‘fiend’ appeal to ‘heaven’. His logic is also comically incongruous where he follows the ‘commandment’ of the ‘devil himself’ in order to escape ‘a kind of devil’ [Shylock].
  2. Slapstick is a type of silly physical comedy, as when Gobbo feels Launcelot’s ‘beard’ he is actually feeling the hair on top of his head. Further comedy could be created where Launcelot asks his father if he looks like a ‘staff’ (walking stick) if the actor were fat.
  3. Superiority comedy works by making the audience feel superior. Dramatic irony is often used as the audience’s knowledge is greater than one or more of the characters. This is shown in Launcelot’s asides, where he tells the audience he will prank his father, in the mistaken identity theme and Gobbo’s blindness as well as Launcelot’s illogical arguments with himself.
  4. Freudian comedy plays on our darkest fears. In this scene, Shakespeare uses death and cuckoldry (that Launcelot might not be Gobbo’s son because his wife might have cheated on him), producing nervous, or disturbed laughter.

Language Techniques used in the scene

  • juxtaposition – two elements placed close together for dramatic effect
  • alliteration ‘the fiend gives the more friendly counsel’ emphasises the odd juxtaposition. Ironically, it suggests the fiend is a friend.
  • antithesis – total opposites placed close together for effect
  • balanced construction/repetition – ‘my conscience says … budge not. Budge says the fiend’, ‘I am a Jew if I serve the Jew’ shows transformation or reversal.
  • monologue – where one character on stage talks to themselves
  • dramatic irony – where the audience knows more than one or more characters on stage, as in Launcelot’s trickery of his father
  • ambiguity/pun – double meaning, as where ‘raise the waters’ could mean, stir things up or make him cry
  • irony – a reversal used for effect, as where the ‘fiend’ swears ‘by heaven’
  • metaphors – an image where one thing is compared to another, e.g. ‘truth will come to light’, where ‘light’ means ‘into plain sight/be seen’
  • metonymy – a type of metaphor where a part stands in for the whole, e.g. body part for a person: ‘thou art my own flesh and blood’
  • rule of three/triplets – a list of three, which in this scene is usually pleonasm
  • pleonasm – pointless repetition (of the same words, meaning or idea)