The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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In The Merchant of Venice, why does Launcelot want to leave Shylock's service?  

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At the beginning of scene 2, Act II, Launcelot mentions one of the reasons why he should leave Shylock's service. In his monologue, he makes it clear that it is not an easy decision and is something that sits on his conscience. He believes, however, that Shylock 'is a kind of devil' and later emphasizes this by stating that 'the Jew is the very devil incarnal,' when he actually means incarnate. The implication is that Shylock is very difficult person to work for since he makes Launcelot's life a misery. Launcelot resolves that he will follow the advice of the fiendish aspect of his conscience and run away.

Later in the scene he provides another reason for his desire to abandon his employer. In conversation with his father, Launcelot Gobbo, who wishes to present a gift to Shylock, he states the following:

My master's a very Jew: give
him a present! give him a halter: I am famished in
his service; you may tell every finger I have with
my ribs.

The reference to 'a very Jew' in this instance, has a derogatory connotation since it suggests that Shylock is stingy. His statement clearly reveals a stereotypical and cynical perception of Jews. Launcelot states that Shylock does not feed him properly since he is famished and has grown so thin that his ribs are as clearly discernible as his fingers. He wishes to be in Bassanio's service because he will provide him with 'rare new liveries.' This furthermore suggests that Shylock has not clothed him suitably and has deliberately not provided him with a new outfit for quite some time.

Later in the scene, when Launcelot tells Bassanio about his plans, he also mentions that he would prefer being in his service since Bassanio has the 'grace of God' whilst Shylock has only enough. The implication is obvious: Bassanio has more than enough generosity and kindness to give to everyone, whilst Shylock's is just enough for himself - he has nothing left to share.

If one considers all Launcelot mentions, it becomes quite understandable why he is so desperate to leave.

It is quite ironic, though, that Shylock later, in scene V, tells Launcelot that he will not have the opportunity to greedily stuff himself as full of food when in Bassanio's employ as he had been whilst working for him.

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Why does Launcelot want to leave Shylock?

It's not entirely clear why Launcelot wants to leave Shylock, and he is torn internally about whether to go or stay. He states:

"Budge," says the fiend. "Budge not," says my conscience."Conscience," say I, you counsel well." "Fiend," say I, "youcounsel well." To be rul'd by my conscience, I should stay withthe Jew my master, who—God bless the mark!—is a kind of devil;and, to run away from the Jew, I should be ruled by the fiend,who—saving your reverence!—is the devil himself.

It seems that Launcelot wants to leave Shylock because he is a Jew, and in the anti-Semitic world in which Launcelot lives, it bothers him...

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to be "ruled by the fiend" (i.e., a Jew). His head tells him that he should leave Shylock's service but his conscience, interestingly enough, tells him he should stay. Apparently, his conscience understands that he should disregard his employer's religion and remain loyal to him.

However, Launcelot also seems to have issues with his employer. These lead him to help Jessica and Lorenzo elope, actions which are certainly a betrayal of Shylock's trust. In the end, Launcelot does leave Shylock and enters the employ of the fortunate Bassanio who, we are led to believe, is a kinder master.

In summary, it appears that Launcelot wants to leave primarily because Shylock is a Jew, a reason he knows, in his heart of hearts, is wrong. However, he does leave.

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Why does Launcelot want to leave Shylock?

Launcelot, Shylock's servant, debates with himself whether to leave his master's service. He's torn between what he calls "the fiend at my elbow" urging him to run off, and his conscience, which with equal insistence tries to persuade Launcelot to stay put. Just to make things even more confusing for the indecisive servant, he reckons he's not just caught between a devil and his better self, but between two devils. If Launcelot leaves Shylock's employ then he'll be following the devil; but then if he chooses to remain then he'll continue to serve someone he openly regards as being a devil. Launcelot doesn't mention any specific grievances he may have against Shylock, so it's a fair assumption that he harbors prejudice towards his master on account of his being a Jew.

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