The Merchant of Venice – Act II – Explanation

The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare

Explanation – Act II

Prince of Morocco prepares to have a go at the puzzle of caskets that he must win to get Portia. He is a rather dark-complexioned man, but is well-built, and handsome. He enters in a pompous way, but is clearly told by her that if he fails in cracking the casket puzzle, he can’t woo any other woman for the rest of his life. With the possibility of life-long celibacy hanging over him, the Prince proceeds to try his luck.

Act II, Scene 1

The palace of Portia in Belmont is agog with excitement. The Prince of Morocco comes in with his retinue of servants duly attired for the occasion. Portia and Nerissa also enter with their maids.

Sensing that his darker skin could undermine his chances, the Prince of Morocco asserts that his brown skin is due to exposure to sunlight from childhood. However, he is as valorous (red-blooded) as any other brave man, and is a worthy choice to win her hand.

Portia opens up. She laments that the casket puzzle set by her late father had robbed her of the freedom to choose her husband. She tells the Prince that left to herself, she could have considered him a choice as worthy of her hand as other suitors.

The Prince can’t hold himself back, but Portia sets her condition. If the Prince failed, he can’t woo any other woman for the rest of his life. In the heat of the moment, the Prince agrees and urges Portia to go ahead with her casket test.

Act II, Scene 2

The scene is a street in Venice. Launcelot Gobbo is a servant of Shylock. He mulls fleeing from his master, because there is no love lost between the two. He is torn between two opposite options. His disenchantment with his Jewish master’s devilish ways tell him to flee. On the other hand, being a upright and principled person, he feels it morally repugnant to desert his employer without any notice.

At this time, his old and blind father enters the scene. He wants to be escorted to Shylock’s house where he wants to meet his son. Launcelot is amused at his father’s request. He plays a prank on the old man by giving him confusing directions to Shylock’s house, and then declaring that Launcelot is dead. But, he soon assures his father that it was just a prank, and his dear son Launcelot is alive. The old man being completely blind is not convinced. After some more coaxing, the old father is reassured that his son Launcelot is standing before him. The latter informs his old father that he is leaving Shylock’s job to join Bassanio as his servant. Quite coincidently, Bassanio appears in the scene. The old father and the son plead with him to engage the latter as servant. Bassanio takes some time to ponder the offer, but agrees after a while.

Bassanio meets his friend Gratiano and asks him to accompany him to Belmont. Since Gratiano is a chatterbox, Bassanio sternly asks him to restrain himself and not do anything unbecoming there. Gratiano agrees to behave himself there. The two decide to do some merriment at night before departing for Belmont the next day.

Act II, Scene 3

Undoubtedly, Shylock’s daughter Jessica was not quite at ease with her father. She told the departing Launcelot that his presence had somehow made her living with her dour father less jarring. She bade him goodbye and gave a letter to him meant for delivery to Lorenzo, Bassanio’s friend. Launcelot becomes emotional, and is barely able to hold back his tears. A sense of remorse overwhelms Jessica to think that she is so ill at ease with her father. Although Shylock was her biological father, he seldom won her love or adoration. On the contrary, his manners made her to despise him. She hopes for deliverance from the care of her father by marrying Lorentzo after converting to Christianity.

Act II, Scene 4

Gratiano, Lorenzo, Salarino, and Solanio have gathered in the street of Venice to chalk out a plan for bringing Jessica and her lover Lorentzo together. Gratiano feels their plan is half-baked and needed more preparation. Lorentzo tries to convince his other friends that the camouflage dresses could be managed in short time, and the torch bearers also could be arranged with no great delay. He says, they had enough time for doing these two things. As they talk, Launcelot arrives with Jessica’s letter. Lorenzo recognizes the writing and becomes ecstatic. He blurts out, “The hand that penned the letter must be whiter than the paper it writ on” . Lorenzo pleads with Launcelot to go back to Shylock’s house one last time, and reassure Jessica that her lover will not let her down in any case.  Launcelot departs, quite loyally. Lorenzo asks his friends to proceed to make arrangements for the night’s celebration. Salarino and Solanio proceed to do the work assigned to them. Lorenzo narrates the plans to Gratiano the way Jessica would escape from Shylock’s house.  She would disguise herself as a torchbearer of Lorentzo to Gratiano that Jessica will escape from Shylock’s house by disguising herself as Lorenzo’s torchbearer. Lorenzo proudly gives the letter to Gratiano, and asks him to read it. He departs with his heart agog with excitement. He can’t wait for the dusk to descend.

Questions and answers …

Q1. Why was Portia resentful about her late father’s conditions relating to her marriage?

Answer .. Portia inherited a vast fortune from her father, but his stipulation that the groom must win the casket choice contest made her very unhappy. It robbed her freedom to marry the man of her heart. Instead, the process of selecting the most deserving groom was reduced to a wild gamble. This apart, Portia had wanted to marry Bassanio, but, the casket gamble could well have closed her option and sent her to a man she didn’t quite approve of. These thoughts made Portia very uneasy and angry.

Q2. What condition Portia laid out for the Prince of Morocco?

Answer .. Portia explained the presence of the three caskets, and told the Prince to choose the right one very discerningly. If he made the right choice, he would win her hand, and he made the wrong choice, he must not only make a quick exit, but also never court a woman for the rest of his life.

Q3. What sort of man was the Prince of Morocco? How did he react after listening to Portia’s pre-conditions?

Answer .. The Prince of Morocco was a handsome man with a robust build. Although his skin was a bit dark, he assumed that Portia wouldn’t hold this as a disqualification. He was a pompous and proud man, and very eager to finish the contest. With his heart aflame in love for Portia, he couldn’t realize that luck could rob him of his chance to win the gamble. He asked Portia to let him take the contest with no more delay.

Q4. Why was Jessica unhappy with her father?

Answer .. Shylock, Jessica’s father, was a dour and dry man who conducted his money-lending business with merciless stringency. He was very possessive about Jessica, and imposed needless restrictions on her. He stood on the way of her marriage with Lorentzo. Such attitude made Jessica seethe in anger against her father.

Q5. What plans were made by Lorentzo to take away Jessica from her home to marry her?

Answer .. An elaborate plan of deception was thought of by Lorentzo and his friends. According to this, Jessica would come out of her home disguised as a torchbearer of Lorentzo, and once outside she would be in the midst of Lorentzo and his friends to complete the marriage rituals. Festivities were to be conducted in the evening.

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