In Belmont, the prince of Morocco arrives to attempt to win Portia’s hand in marriage. The prince asks Portia not to judge him by his dark complexion, assuring her that he is as valorous as any European man. Portia reminds the prince that her own tastes do not matter, since the process of picking chests, stipulated in her father’s will, makes the prince as worthy as any other suitor. With a lengthy proclamation of his own bravery and heroism, the prince asks Portia to lead him to the caskets, where he may venture his guess. She reminds him that the penalty for guessing incorrectly is that he must remain unmarried forever. The prince accepts this stipulation, and Portia leads him off to dinner.
Launcelot Gobbo, a servant of Shylock’s, struggles to decide whether or not he should run away from his master. Part of him, which he calls “[t]he fiend . . . at mine elbow,” wants to leave, while his conscience reminds him of his honest nature and urges him to stay (II.ii.
Shylock’s daughter Jessica bids good-bye to Launcelot. She tells him that his presence made life with her father more bearable. Jessica gives Launcelot a letter to carry to Bassanio’s friend Lorenzo, and Launcelot leaves, almost too tearful to say good-bye. Jessica, left alone, confesses that although she feels guilty for being ashamed of her father, she is only his daughter by blood, and not by actions. Still, she hopes to escape her damning relationship to Shylock by marrying Lorenzo and converting to Christianity.
On a street in Venice, Gratiano, Lorenzo, Salarino, and Solanio discuss the plan to unite Lorenzo with Jessica. Gratiano frets that they are not well prepared, but Lorenzo assures the men that they have enough time to gather the necessary disguises and torchbearers. As they talk, Launcelot enters bearing Jessica’s letter. Lorenzo recognizes the writing, lovingly exclaiming that the hand that penned the message is “whiter than the paper it writ on” (II.iv.
The elaborate excuse the prince of Morocco makes for his dark coloring serves to call attention to it and to his cultural difference from Portia and from Shakespeare’s audience. His extravagant praise of his own valor also makes him seem both less well-mannered and less attractive. Moreover, his assertion that the best virgins of his clime have loved him seems calculated to make him less, rather than more, attractive to Portia. Her response to his protestations is polite, even courtly, showing her good breeding and her virtuous acquiescence to her dead father’s wishes. But her words also clearly convey that she does not want to marry him.
The scene between the Gobbos is typical of Shakespeare, who frequently employs servants and members of the working class to provide slapstick interludes in both his comedies and tragedies. The Merchant of Venice does not derive all of its comic moments from the malapropisms and double entendres of this odd father-son pair, but the humor here is more crass and vulgar—so simple that it is hard to overlook and mistake. Seen in this light, we forgive things that might otherwise seem cruel to us, like Launcelot’s shabby treatment of his blind and doting father. This humor is comedy at its simplest, where laughs are derived not from quick wit but from confusion and foolery.
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.