Act Two: Little Women

Act Two of The Merchant of Venice is the longest in the play (slightly longer than Act Three). If the focus of the first act was our Merchant, Antonio, the same cannot be said of the second act: Antonio appears in just one of the nine scenes of the act, and then speaks only two lines. So who then does this act turn the focus upon? Two women:

  • Portia, the object of Bassanio’s love, whom we met in Act One, Scene Two
  • Jessica, the daughter of Shylock.

and I’ve got to wonder if the last word in her first line to Morocco is supposed to be a hint as to which casket to choose…

When we left Venice in Act One, we left Shylock the Jew, the outsider. When we begin Act Two, we meet the Prince of Morocco, another outsider, who asks that Portia “mislike (him) not for (his) complexion” (II.i.1). He is there to win Portia, and she reminds him that she cannot be “solely led // By nice direction of a maiden’s eyes” (II.i.13-14), as there is the casket lottery to be won.

Morocco says he’s up for the task, and the short scene ends with Portia taking him to the caskets.

Act Two, Scene Two begins with the introduction of Lancelot Gobbo, “the Clown” (II.ii opening stage direction), and his soliloquy on whether or not he should “run from this Jew (his) master” (II.ii.1-2). He wants to leave Shylock, but he is confounded:

To be ruled by my conscience, I should stay with the Jew my master, who, God bless the mark, is a kind of devil; and, to run away from the Jew, I should be ruled by the fiend, who, saving your reverence, is the devil himself. Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnation

— II.ii.20-25

Here, we get more anti-Semitism, with a little punny humor thrown in: Lancelot should say that Shylock is “the very devil incarnate”… but he doesn’t, he says that Shylock is the devil “incarnation.” Why is this important/funny? Incarnation is the theological term for belief that Jesus was the son of God through the immaculate conception of Mary.

The scene continues with the introduction of Lancelot’s father (Old Gobbo, of course), who is half-blind, so there is some humor of (mis) identification as the son toys with the father, then tells his father of his plan to escape Shylock and serve Bassanio (whom he has presumably met during the negotiation of the loan). Bassanio also enters, and there is more comic wordplay as Bassanio attempts to understand the Gobbos’s pleas to have the Venetian take on Lancelot as his servant. Bassanio agrees, and agrees, too, to allow Gratiano to accompany Bassanio on his excursion to the Belmont to woo Portia. Gratiano, it seems, is a bit of a loudmouth and smartass (“too wild, too rude, and bold of voice” [II.ii.169]), and in exchange for his accompanying Bassanio, Gratiano agrees to “put on a sober habit” (II.ii.178).

At the beginning of the very short Act Two, Scene Three, we see Jessica with Lancelot, and she tells him, “I am sorry thou wilt leave my father so; // Our house is hell” (II.iii.1-2). She is, obviously, Shylock’s daughter and she sympathizes with Lancelot’s plight as her home is no place to live. She gives him one last errand, though: to deliver a letter “secretly” (II.iii.7) to Lorenzo, who is a guest of Bassanio. When Lancelot exits, we learn that she plans to “become a Christian and (Lorenzo’s) loving wife” (II.iii.21).

In the not much longer Act Two, Scene Four, we see the letter delivered by Lancelot to Lorenzo, who is accompanied by Gratiano and two more friends of Bassanio and Antonio’s, Salarino and Solanio.

In Act Two, Scene Five, Shylock warns Lancelot that he may not be happy with his change of employer; “Well, thou shalt see, thy eyes shall be thy judge, // The difference of old Shylock and Bassanio” (II.v.1-2), he tells the servant. When Jessica arrives, Shylock gives her the keys to their house (as he is going out to dinner), and warns her, “Look to my house. I am right loath to go. // There is some ill a-brewing towards my rest” (II.v.16-17). There is partying in the street, and he does not want “the sound of shallow foppery enter // (His) sober house” (II.v.35-36). Shylock isn’t a very fun guy, and one that Jessica will not miss, as she says upon his exit: “Farewell; and if my fortune be not crost, // I have a father, you a daughter, lost” (II.v.55-56).

Outside Shylock’s house, Gratiano and Lorenzo wait for Jessica, who comes out dressed as a boy [ah, Willie and his girls cross-dressing].  She goes back in to “gild (her)self // With some more ducats” ( She comes back, having taken more from her father’s house, and Antonio arrives to facilitate their escape upon Bassanio’s ship.

Act Two, Scene Seven takes us back to the Belmont where the Prince of Morocco makes his choice from among the caskets of gold, silver, and lead. Morocco chooses the golden chest and is met with a skull and some verse beginning with:

All that glisters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told.
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold.

— II.vii.65-68

So Morocco is out, and he is sent home. As the scene closes, Portia pleads to the powers that be, “Let all of his complexion choose me so” (II.vii.79). Now “complexion” here could mean “temperament” (Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]), as it did as early as the late fourteenth century, allowing Portia to say that she hopes those who care more about money (gold over silver or lead) choose that casket. However, given the anti-Semitism of the characters in the play, we can’t help but wonder if she means the “natural color, texture, and appearance of the skin” (OED), hoping that any dark-skinned men pick incorrectly as well.

In Act Two, Scene Eight, we get an unusual scene, one of straight reportage. We don’t see anything happen, we only hear Salarino and Solanio discuss the events that have transpired. Shylock has returned home to find his daughter and money gone; he has gone through the streets proclaiming it; he has attempted to stop Bassanio’s ship to search it; Antonio has stopped him, telling him that “they were not with Bassanio in his ship” (II.viii.11).

Their discussion grows foreboding, as Solanio says that Antonio had better repay the debt or “he shall pay for this” (II.viii.26); and the repayment may be in doubt as Salarino tells of a French merchant ship that was lost “in the narrow seas that part // The French and English” (II.viii.29-30).

In this scene, we also hear of the goodbye “with affection wondrous sensible” (II.viii.48) Antonio had given to Bassanio.

In the ninth and final scene of Act Two (Merchant has more second act scenes than any play in the Canon), the Prince of Aragon takes his chances with the three caskets, and he picks the silver chest, only to find “the portrait of a blinking idiot” (II.ix.53) and more gloating verse. We, as an audience, now know the right casket, and the scene and act ends with the arrival of a “young Venetian” (II.ix.86).

Bassanio has arrived.