BB: Merchant of Venice, Act II

The Bard Brawlers go through Act II of the Merchant of Venice.

Listen to the podcast – here -. Download the podcast.

(and, yes, you do hear Daniel J. Rowe say “Bard Ball.” The play on words still works.)

A lot of scenes in this one, but most of them pretty short.

In scene one, the action returns to Belmont. While most of the suitors have left the estate, the Prince of Morocco has remained and intends to try his luck. The conditions of the game are made explicit for our (the audience’s) benefit: if he picks the box with her picture in it, he wins the girl, the estate and all of her father’s fortune. If he fails, he has to leave and can’t ever marry. This thread is continued in scene seven where he actually makes his choice.  It works out great for Portia, so poorly for him. In scene nine the second suitor, the Prince of Aragon, makes his choice and doesn’t fare any better. The way is now clear for Bassanio’s big move.

A common complaint about the Merchant of Venice concerns the contrived nature of the three casket test to win Portia. There’s a very simple reason for that. Shakespeare adapted that aspect of the story from a tale in a collection of medieval romances called the Gesta Romanorum. This was a long collection of stories originally compiled in Latin but eventually translated into most of the vernacular languages of Europe. These stories were supposed to serve (among other things) as exemplars of morality in Christian sermons. Therefore, they were not expected to be realistic. It is very likely that many people in Shakespeare’s audience would have understood the reference to the Tale of the Three Caskets as well.

In scene two, Lancelot – Shylock’s servant – debates to himself whether he should stay and serve a bad master, or break his promise to serve Shylock and flee to a new master. He plays a trick on his father and together they ask Bassanio to allow Lancelot to serve him. He embarks with Bassanio and Gratiano for Belmont on the evening tide. (I’m not sure what happens to Old Gobbo in the end. Hmm…)

Scene three is very short but introduces us to the character of Jessica for the first time as Lancelot says his goodbyes to her.

In scene four – one of the many ‘dude scenes’ – Lorenzo explains to his buddies how he intends to steal away with Jessica and enlists their help to sneak her away from her father and Venice.

Shylock takes his leave of Jessica in scene five when he leaves to meet Antonio and some of the others for a supper he has no desire to attend. Shylock instructs Jessica to lock the doors and windows and to ignore the masquers outside. He has no idea that she intends to run away.

In scene six Salerio, Solanio and Gratiano are waiting on Lorenzo who is late to meet them. When he finally arrives, they go together to steal Jessica away. She brings a bunch of Shylock’s money with her and they run off and eventually meet up with Bassanio and company at Belmont.

Scene eight has Solanio and Salerio discussing Shylock’s reaction to Jessica elopement with Lorenzo. They describe Shylock walking through the streets screaming and crying about his loss of his daughter and of his money. Antonio and his ships are mentioned, which recalls the bond he has agreed to for Bassanio’s sake.

Some characters appearing in this act for the first time:

  • Morocco and Aragon: Princes and suitors to Portia. (She’s not a big fan for either).
  • Lancelot Gobbo: He’s Shylock’s servant, though the nature of his duties is not entirely clear. He leaves Shylock’s service in order to serve Bassanio. The dramatis personae often describes him as a clown. I can’t imagine his name is an accident but I’m not sure what the connection might be.
  • Old Gobbo: This is Lancelot’s father. He’s mostly blind and deaf and he seems to be senile as well. I suppose we’re meant to laugh at him but I can’t help feeling sorry for him.
  • Jessica: Shylock’s daughter and Lorenzo’s wife to be. She converts to Christianity and abandons her father in order to follow Lorenzo.

We’ll talk about the relationship between Lorenzo and Jessica a little more as it develops in subsequent acts (particularly in acts 4 and 5). However, I would pay very close attention to the exchanges between Lorenzo and Jessica throughout the play. Even in the very first scene where we see them together, there are signs that their relationship is off to a potentially rocky start. What’s surprising about Jessica is not only does she give at least as good as she gets in these exchanges but she also seems to suspect Lorenzo’s motives and sincerity right from the get go. I think Shakespeare’s asking us to seriously consider the costs and risks of love and trust. After all, this relationship is an invention on Shakespeare’s part and he doesn’t tend to invent lightly. I think he intends us to compare Lorenzo and Jessica to Bassanio and Portia (and maybe Antonio and Bassanio as well). Think about what Jessica is risking in running off with Lorenzo: if he should leave her, she would be left with nothing. And notice how flippant Lorenzo seems to be about the whole thing (douche!). In this respect, Jessica’s plight (and Antonio’s too, for that matter) is similar to the test with the caskets: the inscription on the lead casket says: “‘Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”

Bard on!

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