After the last, rather serious scene in Belmont, we return to Venice, and the initial emphasis here is on Launcelot Gobbo, Shylock's servant, an "unthrifty knight." Launcelot is debating with himself as to whether or not he should remain in Shylock's service; he is tempted to leave and find employment elsewhere, but he is unable to make up his mind. The decision is difficult, he says, for he feels the weight of his "conscience hanging about the neck of his heart."
The comedy builds when Launcelot's father, Old Gobbo, comes onstage. Old Gobbo is "more than sandblind" and does not recognize his son. He sees before him only the dim image of a man who he hopes can direct him to Shylock's house. Launcelot is delighted to encounter his father, whom he has not seen for a long time, and so he conceals his true identity and playfully confuses the old man with much clowning and double-talk, before revealing who he really is and kneeling to receive his father's blessing.
Bassanio now enters, along with Leonardo and other followers, and he is enthusiastically talking of preparations for a dinner tonight, complete with a masque, to which he has invited his friends to celebrate his departure for Belmont, where he will begin his courtship of Portia. Launcelot is quick to note Bassanio's good mood, and he immediately speaks to him about Bassanio's hiring him as a servant. Bassanio agrees and orders a new set of livery for his new servant.
Gratiano enters, looking for Bassanio, and tells him, "I must go with you to Belmont." Bassanio is hesitant, but he finally consents, urging Gratiano to modify his "wild behaviour," which Gratiano agrees to do. But he will do that tomorrow. Tonight, he says, shall be a night of merriment, a gala inaugurating his setting out for Belmont.
This scene, like Scene 1 and most of the rest of the nine scenes in Act II, deals with minor diversions and developments in the plot — the elopement of Lorenzo and Jessica, and Launcelot Gobbo's transfer of his services from Shylock to Bassanio.
Almost all of this scene is taken up with the antics of Launcelot Gobbo, and it may be useful here to consider for a moment the clowns and comedy of the Elizabethan stage. Two of the most important members of any Elizabethan theatrical company were the actor who played the tragic hero and the actor who played the clown. It is obvious why the actor who played the great tragic roles was important, but it is perhaps not so easy for us to see, from the standpoint of the modern theater, why the role of a clown took on so much importance. The clowns, though, were great favorites with the Elizabethan audiences. Their parts involved a great deal of comic stage business — improvised actions, gestures, and expressions — and they had their own special routines. Launcelot, for example, would be given a great deal of leeway in using his own special comic devices. Much here depends on the actor's "business" — mime, expressions of horror or stupid self-satisfaction, burlesque or parody movements around the stage, and so forth. This sort of scene is not written for verbal comedy (as Portia's scenes are); rather, Shakespeare wrote them to give his actors as much scope as was necessary for visual antics. Today we call these gimmicks "sight gags" or "slapstick." The dialogue itself is not particularly witty because the comedy was meant to be mostly physical. Launcelot's opening speech takes the form of a debate between "the fiend" and his own "conscience." The comedy here lies in the fact that the jester-clown Launcelot should regard himself as the hero of a religious drama, but this gives him the opportunity to mimic two separate parts, jumping back and forth on the stage and addressing himself: "Well, my conscience says, 'Launcelot, budge not.' 'Budge,' says the fiend. 'Budge not,' says my conscience" (18-20). Visually, this makes for good comedy; while reading this play aloud, one can enhance this brief scene by imagining that the voice of the conscience is delivered in high, falsetto, flute-like tones; the voice of the fiend, in contrast, is delivered in low, evil-sounding growls.
In addition to this clowning business, verbal confusion was also a favorite device in this sort of scene, and it occurs throughout the play. Notice, for example, the directions for finding Shylock's house which Launcelot gives to his father: "Turn up on your right hand at the next turning, but at the next turning of all, on your left; marry, at the very next turning of no hand, but turn down indirectly." Small wonder that Old Gobbo exclaims, "'twill be a hard way to hit!"
There is more visual comedy when the two Gobbos confront Bassanio at line 120. Here, it is suggested by the lines that Launcelot bends down behind his father, popping up to interrupt him at every other line and finishing his sentences for him. This kind of comedy depends on visual and verbal confusion, especially mistaking obvious words and phrases. Particularly characteristic of this clowning is the confusion of word meanings. Here, Launcelot speaks of his "true-begotten father," and he uses "infection" for affection, "frutify" for certify, "defect" for effect, and so on.
Toward the close of the scene, two more details of the central plot are developed. First, Launcelot leaves Shylock's household for that of Bassanio; this prepares us for a similar, if a much greater defection from Shylock by his daughter, Jessica, in the following scene. It also makes it possible for Launcelot to appear at Belmont in the final act, where a little of his clowning adds to the general good humor. Second, Gratiano announces his intention of going to Belmont with Bassanio; he must be there to marry Nerissa and take part in the comedy of the "ring story," which ends the play with lighthearted teasing wit.