In Act 2, Scene 2 of The Merchant of Venice, why does Launcelot want to run away from the Jew? What does his conscience advise him to do? Finally, whom does Launcelot obey: the devil or his...

In Act 2, Scene 2 of The Merchant of Venice, why does Launcelot want to run away from the Jew? What does his conscience advise him to do? Finally, whom does Launcelot obey: the devil or his conscience? How is the theme of racial discrimination brought out in Launcelot's decision to run away?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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It is clear from this soliloquy that Launcelot is facing something of an internal conflict. He wants to leave the employment of Shylock the Jew, but he feels his conscience tells him to stay. His reasons for wanting to leave his job is because of his master's character, as the following quote describes:

Certainly the Jew is the very devil
incarnal; and, in my conscience, my conscience is
but a kind of hard conscience, to offer to counsel
me to stay with the Jew.

It is clear that there is some sense of exaggeration in this quotation, but the comparison of Shylock to "the devil incarnal" strongly suggests that working for him is not a pleasurable experience. This is why Launcelot feels that his conscience is a "hard conscience" because it tells him to stay. Launcelot, cogitating upon his position, argues that since both possible outcomes involve placing himself with the devil to one extent or another, as to leave is to give in to the devil's suggestion of acting against his conscience, but to stay would be to remain with the devil in the form of Shylock, he might as well take the easiest path. He therefore selects the fiend that gives "the more friendly counsel" and decides to leave Shylock. Note how the theme of racial discrimination is brought out through the description of Shylock, who is not even named but only referred to as "the Jew," as "the very devil incarnal." This shows the attachment of racial stereotypes to Shylock's character in a racially motivated way that is clearly prejudiced in the extreme.

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