The Merchant of Venice By William Shakespeare Summary and Analysis Act II: Scene 5

Summary

Preparing to leave for Bassanio's dinner party, to which he has accepted an invitation after all, Shylock encounters Launcelot, who has come to deliver Lorenzo's reply to Jessica. Shylock chides his former servant and says that in Launcelot's new capacity as Bassanio's attendant, Launcelot will no longer be able to "gormandize" and "sleep and snore" as he was (theoretically) able to do with Shylock. All the while that Shylock is expostulating to Launcelot, his speeches are broken with repeated calls for Jessica. When she finally appears, he gives her the keys to the house and tells her that he is going to attend Bassanio's dinner party. Grumbling, he confesses that he accepted the invitation "in hate, to feed upon / The prodigal Christian." He elaborates further and says that he is "right loath to go"; he has a foreboding that "some ill [is] a-brewing."

Launcelot urges his former master to go; he too has a premonition. He has a "feeling" (because his "nose fell a-bleeding on Black Monday last at six o'clock in the morning . . .") that Bassanio is preparing an elaborate masque as part of the evening's entertainment. Shylock is horrified at the suggestion that he may have to endure the bawdy, showy heresies of a Christian masque. He insists that if Jessica hears any sounds of the masque, she is to "stop up [his] house's ears," and she herself is to keep inside and not "gaze on Christian fools with varnished faces [painted masks]"; he vows that no "sound of shallow foppery" will enter his "sober house." Despite grave misgivings, Shylock finally decides to set out for Bassanio's dinner party — but not before repeating one final command for Jessica to stay inside: "Fast bind, fast find — / A proverb never stale in thrifty mind." Shylock exits then, not realizing that Launcelot was able to whisper a quick word of advice to Jessica before he left: She is to be on watch for "a Christian" who will be "worth a Jewess' eye" — Lorenzo.

Alone on the stage, Jessica anticipates her impending elopement and utters a prophetic couplet that closes the scene:

Farewell; and if my fortune be not crossed,

I have a father, you a daughter, lost.

(55-56)

Analysis

This scene elaborates on and gives additional dimension to the character of Shylock. We know of Jessica's intended elopement, and thus we understand Shylock's sense of foreboding when he speaks of "some ill a-brewing." Indeed, ill is brewing for him, and much of the drama in this scene is derived from the fact that both Jessica and Launcelot are anxious to get Shylock on his way so that they can make final arrangements for the elopement. Their suspense at his indecision as to whether to go or stay is the key to the drama here; Shylock says, "I am bid forth . . . But wherefore should I go? . . . But yet I'll go . . . I am right loath to go." Launcelot, in his excitement and anxiety, almost gives the elopement plans away. He lets slip the phrase "They have conspired together" (22), but he immediately covers his mistake with some confused nonsense about his own prophetic dream; he predicts that there will be a masque at the party because his "nose fell a-bleeding on Black Monday." This is not only a comic parallel of Shylock's superstition concerning dreams, but also diverts the old moneylender from the suggestion that his daughter might be planning to elope.

Also central to this scene is Shylock's concern with his possessions; note, for example, his obsession with locking and guarding the house, which he entrusts to Jessica. He calls her to him and gives her his keys, then almost takes them back again: "I am loath to go," he says. The emphasis is on the protection of his wealth, and this emphasis appears again when he says, "Hear you me, Jessica: / Lock up my doors," and it occurs again in "stop my house's ears — I mean my casements"; even the idea of music entering his house is repellent to Shylock. He warns Jessica that perhaps he "will return immediately," thus producing new anxiety in her — and in the emotions of the audience. Shylock's last words — "shut doors after you. / Fast bind, fast find" — illustrate his inability to leave his possessions. Yet, even so, Shakespeare manages to suggest in his portrayal of Shylock's miserliness a kind of unspoken, grudging affection for his daughter and, in this scene, for Launcelot; he calls Jessica, affectionately, "Jessica my girl," and of Launcelot he says, "the patch [a kindly nickname for a clown] is kind enough." Still, though, both phrases are immediately followed by a return to his central fixation — his possessions. The great irony of the scene, of course, lies in our knowledge that while Shylock is concerned with his valuables, it is his daughter that he is about to lose, and it is to her that he entrusts his possessions. This is classic dramatic irony.

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