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The Merchant of Venice

by: William Shakespeare

Act II, scenes i–iv

Although Shylock does not appear in these scenes, our view of him is further shaped by the opinions of those closest to him. Even though his servant and daughter do not like him, their descriptions of him inadvertently make him a more sympathetic figure in our eyes. Launcelot, we learn, is not abandoning his post because Shylock has proved to be a cruel or harsh master, but because he seems to fear contamination from being so close to a Jew. Interestingly, although he calls Shylock a devil, Launcelot points out that his desire to leave is a temptation more devilish still, and says his desire to stay is a product of his conscience, which is generally a guide of what is right. Jessica, too, voices no real complaint about her father, other than the tedium of life with him, but she seems eager to escape her Jewish heritage, which she sees as a stain on her honor. Jessica even brings the morality of her own actions into question when she calls her shame at being Shylock’s daughter a sin, and she feels enormous guilt at her own sentiments. Her desire to convert would undoubtedly have been applauded by Elizabethan audiences, but here it is expressed as a kind of young recklessness that borders on selfishness. The negative impression that Shylock has given us with his first appearance is somewhat counteracted by the words of those closest to him, who feel guilty even as they speak ill of him.