In Act II Scene 2 of The Merchant of Venice, Launcelot's speech provides some comic relief in the play. Why was such a relief needed in the context of the play? Was something happening in the...

In Act II Scene 2 of The Merchant of Venice, Launcelot's speech provides some comic relief in the play. Why was such a relief needed in the context of the play? Was something happening in the previous scene that a comic relief was required?

Enumerate the reasons given by Launcelot's conscience to stay on with the master.

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teachersage's profile pic

teachersage | (Level 1) Senior Educator

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Act I ends on a heavy note. Shylock holds a grudge against Antonio:

I hate him for he is a Christian,
But more for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice
Shylock has offered Antonio a proposal by which he hopes to trap him and get revenge. Antonio wants to borrow money for his friend Bassanio and Shylock says he will lend it at no interest, but that if Antonio fails to repay the debt, Shylock can cut a pound of his flesh
in what part of your body pleaseth me.
In the Renaissance, with medical science far behind what it is today, that would mean a probable death sentence. 
 
Following this, in Act II, scene 1, we see Portia threatened with having to marry the suitor who can pass her father's test rather than the suitor of her choice.
 
Therefore, we as an audience do welcome the comic relief offered by Shylock's servant Launcelot, who manages, by the end of the Act II, scene 2, to find a new employer.

Although Launcelot speaks of Shylock as a "kind of a devil" and later in the scene says he is being starved by his master ("I am famished in his service. You may tell every finger I have with my ribs...."), his conscience tells him that he, Launcelot is A) an honest man and B) an honest man's son who should C) "budge not," as D) paradoxically, it would be disloyal and playing into the hands of the devil to run from such a devil of a master:

...to run away from the Jew I should be ruled by the fiend...the devil himself.

The cheerful Launcelot also has some good-hearted fun with his half-blinded father. Seeing his simple-minded confusion over leaving Shylock, his antics with his father and his escape from Shylock's service work to take our minds temporarily off the gravity of Antonio's and Portia's situations.

accessteacher's profile pic

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

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It is often the case in Shakespeare's plays that more serious scenes are interspersed with lighter, more comic scenes as a way of offering the audience some light relief. Although Act II scene 1 features the rejection of the Prince of Morocco, the scene where Launcelot argues with his conscience in Act II scene 2 can be shown to offer some light relief compared to the rather serious and grave agreement that Antonio and Shylock strike in Act I. Seeing Shylock's servant talk about Shylock at this point in the play serves two functions: it helps add a note of levity to this play, and it also sides the audience against Shylock by hearing about what a terrible master he is.

The reason Launcelot's conscience gives him for staying in his present employment and serving Shylock is his honesty and that he is a man of his word. Note how this quote introduces this idea:

Well, my conscience, hanging about the neck of my heart, says very wisely to me, 'My honest friend Launcelot, being an honest man's son...'

As Launcelot is the son of an "honest man," he should be honest himself, and therefore stick with the job that he has rather than show disloyalty by leaving Shylock. However, this is not enough to make Launcelot stay in his present job, as he chooses to opt for the lesser of two evils, and seeks employment with Bassanio.

Sources:

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