The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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What can we learn about Launcelot and Jessica from Act 2, Scene 3 of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice with respect to the following: 1. What are Launcelot's reasons for leaving Jessica's house? 2. How does Jessica show in words and actions that she liked Launcelot's presence in her house? 3. What errand does Jessica give to Launcelot? 4. What precautions does she ask him to take while doing the errand? 5. How does Jessica show herself as a scheming but prudent young lady? In what way is her character different from that of Portia? 6. What does Jessica mean in the lines, "Our house is hell, and thou, a merry devil, / Didst rob it of some taste of tediousness"?

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Jessica is the daughter of Shylock, the rich Jew that Launcelot was employed under; hence, when in Act 2, Scene 3 it says that he is leaving Jessica's house, he is really leaving Shylock's house because he no longer wants to be under Shylock's employment. We are actually told his reasons for wanting to leave Shylock's household in the previous scene, Act 2, Scene 2, but we are actually not told many reasons and need to speculate about his reasons based on what we know of Jewish stereotyping.

Based on what Launcelot tells his father in Act 2, Scene 2, we know that Launcelot wants to leave Shylock's services because apparently Shylock treats him horribly. One thing Launcelot says, is that he is "famished in [Shylock's] service," meaning that he is underfed (98). In his opening soliloquy in Act 2, Scene 2, he declares that Shylock is "the devil himself" (22). We also know that Shylock is characterized according to stereotypes of Jews being greedy moneylenders who care more about revenge than about mercy. In short, we know that Shylock is characterized as being a very cruel person and that that is the reason why Launcelot wants to leave Shylock's house.

In Act 2, Scene 3, Shylock's daughter Jessica even helps characterize her father's cruelty in the line, "Our house is hell, and thou, a merry devil, / Didst rob it of some taste of tediousness" (2-3). Here, she is continuing Launcelot's metaphor of likening Shylock to the devil in the previous scene by referring to their house as "hell," which further characterizes her father's cruel nature. She also calls Launcelot a "merry devil," which refers to his role as a court jester. A court jester's job is to make the household laugh through devilish, or mischievous, witticisms and pranks. Hence, Jessica is ultimately saying that Launcelot is the one person who brought merriment into Shylock's household, putting an end to her weariness.

The errand Jessica gives Launcelot to do is also explained in Jessica's opening speech in Act 2, Scene 3. She knows that Lorenzo will be staying at Bassanio’s house, the house of Launcelot's new master, and so she gives Launcelot a letter to deliver to Lorenzo. Through this, we can see how Jessica prudently thinks up schemes to achieve what she wants. Portia also schemes and manipulates Bassanio, guiding him to choose the correct casket, so that she can win him as her husband. However, a difference between Portia and Jessica is that Portia's schemes align with her father's will permitting her to marry the man who chooses the correct casket, while Jessica schemes against her father's will as it would go against his religion to marry a Christian.

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The reasons why Launcelot is leaving Shylock's house and employment are explored in Act II scene 2. Shylock is like "the devil himself," according to Launcelot, and therefore he seeks alternative employment. Jessica clearly demonstrates that she appreciates Launcelot's presence through the action of giving him a coin, or a "ducat," and then also through the following speech:

Our house is hell, and thou, a merry devil,
Didst rob it of some taste of tediousness.

Note how she uses a metaphor to describe their house as "hell," however, in such a bleak and foreboding place, Launcelot was a "merry devil" who added life and interest, making it not as "tedious" or boring as it would have been otherwise. Jessica gives to Launcelot a letter to give to Lorenzo, who also works for Bassanio. She asks him to do this secretly. She shows herself to be scheming but prudent through insisting on secrecy, but also she is very aware that she can only speak to Launcelot very briefly, because if her father sees her talking with him at length, he will become suspicious, so she curtails the conversation and keeps it very brief. This shows her to be different from Portia, as Portia has never had to keep secrets and act for her own interests in the same way as Jessica has to. Portia submits to her father's will for her, whereas Jessica does not and acts to make her own way in life against her father's will for her.

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