Why is the bondage of servitude important in The Merchant of Venice?

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The bondage of servitude is important in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice because it serves to highlight the ethical dilemma of Launcelot, who is in Shylock’s service and repelled by Shylock’s exploitative nature.

The play illustrates all manner of bonds in its richly detailed plot. We are given every opportunity...

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The bondage of servitude is important in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice because it serves to highlight the ethical dilemma of Launcelot, who is in Shylock’s service and repelled by Shylock’s exploitative nature.

The play illustrates all manner of bonds in its richly detailed plot. We are given every opportunity to consider all the “bonds” that set us free and make us better humans. The loyalty and friendship between Antonio and Bassanio, the love between Portia and Bassanio, Jessica and Lorenzo, and Nerissa and Gratiano are all bonds that make it possible for them to help each other and wish to do good. In contrast, there are other bonds. The overwhelming one between Antonio and Shylock that dominates the play is based on a businessman making a promise that involves a risk. When things do not go according to plan, the law still demands that the businessman be bound by his promise.

In the case of Launcelot, the “bond” represents a social condition of the time that was rooted in exploitation and injustice. The concept of slavery is abhorrent and outlawed across the world today. In the times reflected in The Merchant of Venice (towards the end of the sixteenth century in Europe), forms of slavery made it possible for one human to be considered as a possession, or mere chattel, of another. Such slaves were not expected to have any will or desire of their own. They existed merely to do the bidding of their masters. They continued to be serving one such master till they were sold or given to another.

Launcelot, as the slave of Shylock, is in his service to do his bidding, with no right to question the morals or character of his master. But as we see from his soliloquy in scene 2 of act 2, this is a “bond” that he finds extremely difficult to continue keeping. Unlike the "bonds" of love and friendship, this is “bondage” that has been sanctioned by society and without regard to the feelings, morals, or intellectual judgement of Launcelot himself. Such “servitude” was enforced by all the might of the laws of the land in those times. A rebellious slave would soon be unemployed, or worse, tortured and incarcerated. To continue in Shylock’s service and earn his bread is the only prudent option for Launcelot.

And yet, Launcelot cannot bear the thought of spending more of his life in the service of one whom he regards as “the very devil incarnation.” Illustrating his dilemma in a comic fashion by imagining the “fiend” at one of his elbows and his “conscience” at another, Launcelot considers how he can break the bond of servitude and run away from Shylock’s service.

Certainly my conscience will serve me to run from this Jew, my master. The fiend is at mine elbow and tempts me, saying to me, “Gobbo,” “Launcelot Gobbo,” “Good Launcelot,” or “Good Gobbo,” or “Good Launcelot Gobbo” —“use your legs, take the start, run away.” My conscience says, “No. Take heed, honest Launcelot. Take heed, honest Gobbo,” or as aforesaid, “Honest Launcelot Gobbo, do not run. Scorn running with thy heels.”

He then reveals that the “fiend” asking him to run away and commit the crime of breaking the bond of servitude and the “conscience” asking him to stay in the service of the very devil, namely Shylock, are one and the same. One asks him to go against the wishes of society. Another asks him to go against his own wishes. He praises them both for their advice.

“Budge!” says the fiend. “Budge not,” says my conscience. “Conscience,” say I, “you counsel well.” “Fiend,” say I, “you counsel well.” To be ruled by my conscience I should stay with the 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.

However, by the end of this dilemma shown as a dialogue between the fiend and his conscience, Launcelot chooses to run away. He is breaking the bondage of servitude, to live by his own idea of ethics and morals. “I will run, fiend. My heels are at your command. I will run.”

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