Character Sketch of Launcelot Gobbo in Merchant of Venice – ICSE Class 10, 9 English


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A Clown as well as a Servant

Launcelot Gobbo is the servant, first of the Jew, and later of the Christian Bassanio. But he is not merely a servant. Shakespeare describes him as a clown, meaning that he is a jester too. The word “fool” is also used for a person of that kind in Shakespearean drama. As a clown or a fool or a jester, Launcelot Gobbo makes a substantial contribution to the comedy of this play. However, he is not as clever and intellectual a clown as certain other clowns created by Shakespeare.

His Low, Cheap, Crude, and Farcical Kind of Humour

Much of the humour of Launcelot’s talk is of a crude and farcical kind; and the same is true of his behaviour and conduct. Hi£ fooling of his aged and blind father is not only crude and farcical but also in very bad taste. He tells his father that the young master Launcelot has died. This sort of thing fills us with disgust. It is all right for him to use his father to get a job under Bassanio; but to put up a pretence that he is dead means giving a shock to an old man who might not have been able to bear to shock. Indeed, Launcelot’s sense of humour in this particular episode is very cheap and Low. And, even in using his father to aid him in getting a job under Bassanio, he behaves in a manner which seems to us to be stupid and grotesque. He first prompts his father to say something and then he interrupts his father when the old man begins to say what he has been prompted to say. Every sentence begun by the old man is interrupted by his young son who then completes that sentence. This sort of thing certainly amused the groundlings in those times and had its utility from the point of view of public entertainment; but from the literary and artistic point of view this kind of humour ranks very low.

His Capacity to Make Truly Witty Remarks

A better example of Launcelot’s sense of humour is to be found in the conflict which is going on in his mind and which he describes in a really amusing manner. The conflict is between his desire to get a job under Bassanio and his conscience which stands in the way of his quitting the Jew’s service. While his conscience does not permit him to quit the Jew’s service, the fiend or the devil urges him to quit this job and seek one under Bassanio. The devil urges him to run away from Shylock’s house, while his conscience urges him to scorn running, and to remain loyal to his present master. Later in the play, Launcelot shows that he is also capable of making truly witty remarks. When Jessica informs him that her husband has converted her to Christianity, Launcelot makes a truly witty remark by saying that this making of Christians would raise the price of hogs, and by going on to say that, if all the Jews turn Christians and begin eating pork, there would not be a single slice of bacon available in the market at any price. He also shows his wit in using words in a double sense. His talent at punning makes Lorenzo call him “wit-snapper”; and Lorenzo then tells Jessica that this fool “has planted an army of good words in his mind”, and that he uses those words when occasion demands. Launcelot is also capable of making intelligent remarks indicative of a certain measure of wisdom. For instance, lie says to Bassanio: “You have the grace of God, sir, and he (Shylock) hath enough” On the whole, his humour and wit may be described as an interesting mixture of various elements.

Not Devoid of Sentiment: His Affection for Jessica

Launcelot is not devoid of feeling or sentiment. While leaving Jessica after having given up his job under Shylock, he becomes quite sentimental, and his eyes fill with tears. He is evidently attached to Jessica who also has a good deal of liking for him. He is glad to have got a job under the large-hearted Bassanio, but he is sorry to lose the company of Jessica.

His Manifold, But Flimsy, Role in the Play

Launcelot’s role in the play, apart from his contribution to the comedy of the play, is very slight. He does a service to Jessica by carrying a letter from her to her lover, Lorenzo. He also does a service to her by telling her indirectly that a masked procession would go through the streets at night. Later, he goes to Belmont in the company of his new master, Bassanio; and still later he conveys to Lorenzo and Jessica the information that his master Bassanio would be returning to Belmont at an early hour in the morning. He also serves to emphasize the contrast between the miserliness of Shylock service he is famished (that is, starving), while Lord Bassanio gives rare liveries to his servants. He is also brought into the Bond story because it is he who goes to Shylock with an invitation from Bassanio, asking Shylock to dine with him at the feast which Bassanio has arranged for his friends on the eve of his departure for Belmont. In fact, Launcelot appears at different places and among different persons on different occasions. He moves from Venice to Belmont, and from Belmont to Venice. He moves from the Jew’s house to Bassanio’s, and from Bassanio’s house to the Jew’s. He figures in the Lorenzo- Jessica love-affair, in the Caskets story, and also in the Bond story, though he does not play any vital part in any of these stories. By moving from one place to another and from one group of characters tc another, he contributes, in some measure, to the interweaving of the various stories in the play. In othe: words, he serves as a connecting-link among the various stories. But his chief contribution to the play is to amuse and entertain the audience (and the readers). This is how a critic describes his role in the play: “Shakespeare, always careful about the knitting of a play into unity, links Launcelot to the Jew, to Lorenzo, and to Jessica; and then, having bound him up with the Jew, binds him up with the Caskets story. He sends him to Belmont as one of Bassanio’ servants.”

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