The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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In Act 2, Scene 2 of The Merchant of Venice, what does 'true-begotten father' mean, and what are two comedic elements Launcelot provides?

"O heavens, this is my true-begotten father! Who being more than ... Indirectly to the Jew's house"

Quick answer:

Launcelot plays a comic role in this scene by creating humor through his actions and speech.

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In Act II, scene ii, Launcelot Gobbo (his surname) enters alone ("Enter LAUNCELOT the clown, alone"). He is having a debate with himself in the form of a soliloquy that the audience overhears, keeping in mind that, as a play, the only expectation was that the audience would hear the...

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lines as they were enacted. One characteristic of Shakespeare's plays is that rural, silly Clowns and sophisticated, lucid Fools, while adding raucous humor to the plays, imparted important thematic, plot, or character information. Launcelot's soliloquized debate with himself is about whether to listen to the "fiend" and bad angel prompting him to run away fromShylock or to listen to his "conscience" prompting him not to run away. 

LAUNCELOT. 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

During this debate, Launcelot names himself as an honest man and the son of an honest father ... well ... the son of an honest mother at any rate because his father wasn't all that honest: his father had a hint of dishonesty and unscrupulousness about him, like scorched milk that is meant to sooth and give comfort: scorched milk and his father gave a person a bad "taste" in their mouths (literally of scorched milk, figuratively of course of his father).

LAUNCELOT. ... being an honest
man's son,' or rather an honest woman's son; for,
indeed, my father did something smack, something
grow to, he had a kind of taste; ...

being an honest man's son, or rather an honest woman's son; for my father did somehow give the appearance of a dishonest fellow, a "knave," who had no worries about honest behavior; he was something like scorched milk that leaves a bad taste in your mouth; ...

In the midst of this paternal reverie, who should come down the street and ask his assistance but Launcelot Gobbo's own father, Old Gobbo! This is quite the surprise for Launcelot [being honest but also the neighborhood clown, Launcelot is inspired to joke around with his father by taking advantage of the old man's advancing blindness: "being more than sand-blind, high-gravel blind, knows me not: I will try confusions with him"].

Still in soliloquy style, but spoken as a brief "aside" to the audience [aside: heard by the audience but not by the other players/actors], Launcelot's reaction to seeing his father is a typical one, one you or I might express today in similar circumstances; he says: "Oh heavens, this is my true-begotten father ...." This can be paraphrased like this: "Oh my gosh! This is my own father [and wasn't I just speaking of him!?], the father who gave me birth!"

begotten,verb (past participle form):(said of a man, sometimes of a man and woman couple) a man fathering a child; a man bringing a child into the world (Oxford Pocket Dictionary)

So now we know that "true-begotten father" means "this is truly he who has begotten me; this is my own father; this is the father of my birth." Incidentally, paraphrases always dramatize the value of poetic language that compresses ideas into the most eloquent words: a noun phrase of a compound adjective and noun needs at least eight words (or more) to paraphrase it. Still, does this remark of Launcelot's have a greater importance? Yes it does. One theme Shakespeare explores is that of fathers and fathers' qualities by comparing and contrasting Shylock, Old Gobbo, Portia's father, Antonio as a father figure to Bassanio, and the Duke as the archetypal father figure to all. So Launcelot's exchange with Old Gobbo, along with Old Gobbo's characteristics, including his blindness and his assistance in appealing to Bassanio, paint one of Shakespeare's thematic images of fathers and fathers' qualities, thus it adds dramatic validity to the comparison to have Launcelot loudly own Old Gobbo's fatherhood. 

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