This scene opens with Portia, Nerissa, and her company as they greet the prince of Morocco, who is a dark man dressed in white. He asks Portia to overlook his skin color, telling her that his blood is as red as any other man’s. He also tells her that he is proud of his skin color, as it has caused other men to fear him and virgins to swoon for him. Portia tells him that she is not only interested in good looks and reminds him that she has no choice in the matter anyway, because he must choose the correct chest.
The prince responds that he would perform any feat of bravery to win Portia, including facing warriors, stealing bear cubs from a mother, or mocking a hungry lion. He feels slighted by the fact that the test Portia’s father devised does not take any of this into account—that it is instead a test of luck. Portia says that he has the option not to choose a chest at all, but if he does and fails, he must promise never to marry another woman and leave immediately. He agrees, and they retreat for dinner before the choice.
Launcelot enters alone and delivers a soliloquy about how he would like to leave Shylock’s employ. Launcelot feels that Shylock is the devil, but his conscience prevents him from abandoning his position. When Launcelot decides to leave Shylock, Gobbo, Launcelot’s father, enters with a basket and asks which way it is to the Jew’s house. Launcelot realizes that his father, who is nearly blind, does not recognize him and decides to confuse him as a joke. Launcelot first gives his father confusing directions, and when Gobbo is unable to follow them, he asks if his son is at Shylock’s house. Launcelot tells him that his son has died, which upsets Gobbo. Lancelot then reveals himself to his father, who does not believe him until he mentions his mother’s name, Margery.
Gobbo explains that he has a present for Shylock, but Launcelot informs his father that he is running away and suggests Gobbo give Shylock a noose and save the present for Bassanio, with whom Launcelot plans to seek employment. At that moment, Bassanio enters with Leonardo and a servant. Bassanio tells the servant to go deliver letters, make sure dinner is ready, and tell Gratiano to visit. Launcelot and Gobbo approach Bassanio, and they speak over each other as they try to secure Launcelot a job with Bassanio. Bassanio agrees but warns Launcelot that he is poor in comparison to Shylock. Launcelot still accepts the offer, and Bassanio sends Launcelot to his house to be fitted for a new uniform.
Launcelot playfully reads his own palm, commenting on how lucky he is and how his life will be filled with fortune: he will wed several wives and escape from death numerous times. He and Gobbo leave, and Bassanio sends Leonardo to collect some provisions which he has bought for his trip. Gatiano enters, greets Bassanio, and asks to accompany him to Belmont. Bassanio will have him but only on the condition that he calm himself and not act too wild or loud. Gratiano promises to act solemnly, but they both agree that they will have a merry time at dinner. Both exit.
In this scene, Launcelot bids Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, farewell. She gives him a letter to give to Lorenzo, and Launcelot leaves, crying because he must part with Jessica. During a short aside, we learn that Jessica is ashamed to be Shylock’s daughter and that...
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she plans to convert to Christianity and marry Lorenzo.
Gratiano, Salarino, Lorenzo, and Solanio enter. Lorenzo wants to turn dinner into a masquerade event, but the others are concerned that there is not enough time. Launcelot enters with Jessica’s letter and gives it to Lorenzo. Lorenzo recognizes the handwriting, and Gratiano speculates that it is a love letter. Launcelot tells them that he is going back to Shylock’s house to invite Shylock to Bassanio’s for dinner, but Lorenzo stops him, gives him money, and tells him to convey to Jessica the message that he (Lorenzo) will not fail her. Solanio and Salarino leave to prepare for the party.
After they leave, Gratiano asks if the letter was from Jessica. Lorenzo confirms this and explains that the letter detailed a plan in which Jessica could run away with Lorenzo: she will collect all of the gold and jewels that she owns and disguise herself as a page. Lorenzo comments on how good she is and grows excited by the fact that she will serve as his torchbearer by the end of the night.
Shakespeare has already begun to show the prejudice against Jews in Venice. This theme of prejudice and intolerance is also present in Portia’s treatment of the Prince of Morocco. This tells us about the attitude toward those of African descent at the time. This idea emerges again with the offhanded comment that Launcelot has impregnated a Moorish servant later in the play. In general, Black people, like Jews, were seen as exotic others and treated with strong disdain. Shakespeare would explore this idea much more deeply in his play Othello, which was written only a few years after The Merchant of Venice.
One rather perplexing scene is the dialogue between Launcelot and his father, Gobbo. Gobbo does not appear again in the play, and it is difficult to determine the purpose of the exchange. It is possible that Launcelot needs to be introduced as a clown. In the beginning of the scene, Launcelot is debating with his conscience, a relatively heavy action. Until this point, there has not been much comedy, as the genre of the play promises. The humorous banter between Launcelot and Gobbo may primarily serve to keep the audience interested. While much of this scene is unnecessary to the central action of the plot, it establishes Launcelot as a source of comedic relief and gives the audience a break from what has until now been a fairly serious story: Portia undergoing a strict courtship process and Antonio essentially signing a contract for his death.