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A Merry Devil: Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice

From The Fools of Shakespeare by Frederick Warde. London: McBride, Nast & Company.

In that delightful comedy, "The Merchant of Venice," we have a type of the shrewd but ignorant serving man, or boy, drawn on the same lines as Launce and Speed in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," and the two Dromios, in "The Comedy of Errors," but apparently younger and less matured than either of them.

His name is Launcelot Gobbo, a fact of which he is somewhat proud. He has a crude philosophy and a rude kind of wit. He uses big words and misapplies them most ingenuously. He is good-natured, full of fun, and rejoices in a practical jest.

Launcelot is the servant to Shylock, a wealthy Jewish merchant and money lender of Venice, with whom he lives and of whom he stands in wholesome awe. His fun-loving nature, however, has served to brighten the dull and dreary home of that stern and revengeful gentleman, a fact that Jessica, the Jew's daughter, frankly acknowledges in her first interview with the boy.
Our house is hell, and thou a merry devil
Did'st rob it of some taste of tediousness.
Launcelot does not appear until the second scene of the second act of the comedy, when we find him stealthily leaving his master's house. We learn that he feels aggrieved at some apparent wrong at the hands of his employer, and is debating whether to remain in his service, or to run away. His soliloquy or self-argument on the point is most entertaining. He would be just, but being both plaintiff and defendant, as well as advocate and judge of the question at issue, he can scarcely be credited with impartiality.

However, the motives that he frankly acknowledges, and the reasons he advances are most delightfully human, and most humorously expressed. The entire passage is a quaint, and by no means unnatural, self-contention between duty and inclination; the conclusion, as a matter of course, being in favor of inclination.
Certainly, my conscience will serve me to run from this Jew, my master: the fiend is at mine elbow, and tempts me, saying to me, "Gobbo, Launcelot Gobbo, good Launcelot, or good Gobbo, or good Launcelot Gobbo, use your legs, take the start, run away." My conscience says - "No; take heed, honest Launcelot; take heed, honest Gobbo; or," as aforesaid, "honest Launcelot Gobbo; do not run; scorn running with thy heels." - Well, the most courageous fiend bids me pack; via! says the fiend; away, says the fiend; for the heavens rouse up a brave mind, says the fiend, and run. Well, my conscience, hanging about the neck of my heart, says very wisely to me - "my honest friend Launcelot, being an honest man's son" - or rather an honest woman's son; - for, indeed, my father did something smack, something grow to, - he had a kind of taste; - well, my conscience says - Launcelot, budge not;" "budge," says the fiend; budge not," says my conscience. Conscience, say I, you counsel well; fiend, say I, you counsel well; to be ruled by my conscience, I should stay with the Jew, my master, who, Heaven 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, and, in my conscience, my conscience is but a kind of hard conscience, to offer to counsel me to stay with the Jew : the fiend gives the more friendly counsel! I will run; fiend, my heels are at your commandment, I will run.
However, Launcelot does not run; he is spared that violence to his conscientious scruples by the unexpected advent of his father, an old Italian peasant, whose voice is heard calling in the distance, and halts the would-be runaway.

Launcelot's decision of character is not very marked, nor his resentments very strong, for in a moment his wrongs are forgotten, and he is designing a practical jest on his aged parent.

"O heavens!" he exclaims, "this is my true-begotten father; who, being more than sand-blind, high-gravel-blind, knows me not: - I will try confusions with him."

Old Gobbo, bent with age, almost blind, and feeling his way by the aid of a staff, hobbles on the scene; he carries a small basket on his arm, and in a voice of "childish treble" cries: "Master young gentleman, I pray you, which is the way to master Jew's?"

Launcelot takes the old fellow by the shoulders, and turns him first to the right, then to the left, and finally completely round, giving him the following, somewhat confusing directions: "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, turn of no hand, but turn down directly to the Jew's house."

Small wonder that the old man exclaims: "By God's sonties, 'twill be a hard way to hit."

However, he is seeking and most anxious to find his son, and as soon as he has recovered from the jolting he has received at the hands of his demonstrative informant, he asks him the following most extraordinary and confusing question: "Can you tell me whether one Launcelot, that dwells with him, dwell with him, or no?"

This is excellent matter for the boy to try confusions with, so he answers question with question, prefacing it, however, with an aside, "Mark me now; now will I raise the waters. Talk you of young Master Launcelot?"

But the old man will not admit that his son is entitled to the dignity of "Master" Launcelot: so that eccentric young gentleman, who certainly has a novel sense of humor, tells him that his son is dead. The sincere grief of the old man evidently shames the boy, for he quickly changes his tone, and asks: "Do you know me, father?"

Old Gobbo pitifully replies: "Alack, sir, I am sand blind; I know you not."

This induces some shrewd observations from Launcelot, which are worthy of note: "If you had your eyes, you might fail of the knowing me: it is a wise father that knows his own child."

Launcelot then kneels down with his back to his father, and continues: "Give me your blessing: truth will come to light, murder cannot be hid long, a man's son may, but in the end truth will out."

The old man has been deceived once and hesitates; upon which Launcelot exclaims with some impatience: "Pray you, let's have no more fooling about it, but give me your blessing; I am Launcelot, your boy that was, your son that is, your child that shall be."

Still the old man is not convinced, and protests: "I cannot think you are my son." To which Launcelot answers: "I know not what I shall think of that; but I am sure Margery, your wife, is my mother."

This is conclusive, and Old Gobbo proceeds to lay his hand upon his son's head to give him his blessing; but Launcelot having knelt with his back towards him, the paternal hand encounters the back of the boy's head which is crowned with a luxurious growth of hair, and causes the old man to exclaim: "Lord worshipp'd might he be! what a beard thou hast got: thou hast got more hair on thy chin than Dobbin, my fill-horse, has on his tail."

Which informs us, that though "exceeding poor," Gobbo is sufficiently well off to own a shaft horse, and as he subsequently states, he has brought a dish of doves as a present to Launcelot's master, we may infer that he and his wife Margery cultivate a piece of ground, or a small farm outside the city; and possibly raise pigeons and doves, a not uncommon industry among the Italian peasantry.

Having established his identity with his father, Launcelot proceeds to tell him of his intention to run away from the Jew's service, and we gather his reason to be, that he does not get sufficient food to satisfy his youthful appetite; but perhaps the fact that the Lord Bassanio is engaging servants, and giving them "rare new liveries," may be the temptation.

The contemptuous reference to the Jewish race by this ignorant boy, and his vulgar pun on the word Jew are significant indications of the general prejudice against the Jews at this period; not only in Venice, but in all parts of the civilized world.
Well, well; but, for mine own part, as I have set up my rest to run away, so I will not rest till I have run some ground. My master's a very Jew; give him a present! give him a halter; I am famish in his service; you may tell every finger I have with my ribs. Father, I am glad you are come; give me your present to one Master Bassanio, who indeed gives rare new liveries; if I serve not him, I will run as far as God has any ground. - O rare fortune! here comes the man: - to him, father; for I am a Jew if I serve the Jew any longer.
The interview between Old Gobbo, his son, and the Lord Bassanio is delightfully entertaining. Launcelot's usual volubility halts in the presence of the young nobleman, and his father's assistance becomes necessary to prefer the suit "impertinent" to himself, and express "the very defect of the matter." However, the suit is granted, and Launcelot is instructed to take leave of his old master, and report at the lodgings of his new employer.

The self-satisfaction of Master Launcelot at his success is most humorously expressed, and with an egotism equally amusing; while his optimistic views of the future, obtained from the lines in his hand, indicate a confidence in the science of palmistry, which the author evidently does not share.
Father, in. - I cannot get a service, no; I have ne'er a tongue in my head. - Well, if any man in Italy have a fairer table, which doth offer to swear upon a book! - I shall have good fortune. - Go to, here's a simple line of life; here's a small trifle of wives; alas! fifteen wives is nothing! eleven widows and nine maids is a simple coming-in for one man; and then to 'scape drowning thrice, and to be in peril of my life from the edge of a feather bed, - here are simple 'scapes. Well, if Fortune be a woman, she's a good wench for this gear. - Father, come; I'll take my leave of the Jew in the twinkling of an eye.
Notwithstanding his scruples of conscience that caused him so much anxiety, when we first met him, Launcelot has not been entirely loyal to his master, and on leaving we find him secretly bearing a letter from Jessica, the Jew's daughter, to her young Christian lover, Lorenzo. The missive requires a reply which Launcelot obtains verbally, and the cunning young rascal cleverly manages to convey it to the young Jewess, while bearing an invitation to her father, from his new master, Bassanio. His words are not brilliant, but serve to indicate his ingenuity.
Mistress, look out at window, for all this;
There will come a Christian by,
Will be worth a Jewess' eye.
Launcelot accompanies his new master to Belmont, where on our next meeting we find him comfortably installed; very much at home, and in a new livery. He is still bandying words with Jessica, who is now the wife of Lorenzo, and, in the absence of Portia, mistress of the house. His self-esteem seems to have grown in his new service, his vocabulary has increased, and he speaks with more authority, but with the same unfortunate propensity for punning. He is obviously favored by his "betters," and like many others of small mind takes advantage of that fact to speak with a freedom that is not entirely devoid of impudence. However, his humor atones for much, and his good-nature accomplishes the rest.

The dialogue quoted (with some slight eliminations) below takes place in the garden of Portia's house (Act 3, Scene 5). It is apparently the continuation of a discussion of the old theme of Jessica's parentage, and her father's sins; Launcelot taking a literal view of the scriptural precept in her case.
Laun. Yes, truly; for, look you, the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children; therefore, I promise you, I fear you. I was always plain with you, and so now I speak my agitation of the matter; therefore, be of good cheer; for, truly, I think thou art damned. There is but one hope in it that can do you any good. Jess. And what hope is that, I pray thee? Laun. Marry, you may partly hope that you are not the Jew's daughter. Jess. So the sins of my mother should be visited on me. Laun. Truly then I fear you are damned both by father and mother; thus when I shun Scylla, your father, I fall into Charybdis, your mother; well, you are gone both ways. Jess. I shall be saved by my husband; he hath made me a Christian. Laun. Truly, the more to blame he; we were Christians enow before; e'en as many as could well live, one by another. This making of Christians will raise the price of hogs; if we grow all to be porkeaters, we shall not shortly have a rasher on the coals for money.
The entrance of Lorenzo puts an end to Launcelot's calamitous predictions, and that gentleman having little appreciation of the latter's verbal fooling, directs him. "Go in, sirrah: bid them prepare for dinner."

To which the irrepressible Launcelot replies: "That is done, sir; they have all stomachs." With some impatience, Lorenzo exclaims: "Goodly Lord, what a wit-snapper art thou! then bid them prepare dinner."

This does not discourage the boy, who responds: "That is done too, sir; only, cover is the word."

Lorenzo, with some irritation, seeks to bring this equivocation to a close, and now gives his directions with emphasis: "I pray thee, understand a plain man in his plain meaning; go to thy fellows, bid them cover the table, serve in the meat, and we will come in to dinner."

The imperturbable self-esteem and good-nature of Launcelot is proof, however, against censure or sarcasm; and with unruffled gravity he replies with humorous iteration: "For the table, sir, it shall be served in; for the meat, sir, it shall be covered; for your coming in to dinner, sir, why, let it be as humors and conceits shall govern."

And having thus delivered himself, Launcelot makes a dignified exit from the scene.

Lorenzo's apostrophe to Launcelot's discourse is an admirable summary of the shallow mind, that mistakes the mere jugglery of words for wit.

It was a favorite method of Shakespeare's to furnish humor in his "simples" and serving men, and proved an amusing diversion in their mouths: but, in others, it is the unconscious tribute that ignorance and incapacity pays to knowledge and distinction.
Lor. O dear discretion, how his words are suited!
The fool hath planted in his memory
An army of good words; and I do know
A many fools that stand in better place,
Garnish'd like him, that for a tricksy word
Defy the matter.
Launcelot makes one more brief appearance, to announce the early return of Bassanio to Belmont, and as a harbinger of glad tidings we leave him in the service of a noble master and a gracious mistress.

The business of the Shakespearean clowns is traditional. It has been handed down by comedians from generation to generation. It was familiar to every stage manager of experience, in the days of the resident stock company; and any departure from the conventional business of these parts was, until recently, viewed with disapproval, and regarded as presumption.

A most interesting and unique performance of Launcelot Gobbo was given some years ago by that sterling character actor, Mr. Robert Peyton Carter, so long associated with Miss Maude Adams. I was the Shylock of the performance to which I refer. Mr. Carter's Launcelot was not a boy, but a humorous and mischievous young man. At no time during the performance, even when trembling with fear before his master, was a smile absent from his face; with this result, the audience were smiling all the time Launcelot was in view. You knew, as you looked at him during his self-argument between duty and inclination, that his mind was already made up to run away, and that his conscientious scruples (if he really ever had any) were overcome before he uttered them. His practical jest with his father, when he misdirects him to the Jew's house, indicated that it was but a sample of the pranks the young man had played upon him all his life, and the bright twinkle in his eyes as his young mistress called him "a merry devil" connoted a thousand tricks that the young rascal had played during the term of his service in the Jew's house and robbed that somewhat dreary residence of its "taste of tediousness."

Mr. Carter's business on the delivery of Jessica's letter to Lorenzo was original and good; his exaggerated obeisance to the several friends in company with that gentleman being particularly characteristic and happy. In the last act of the comedy, too frequently omitted in representation, Mr. Carter's appreciation of Shakespearean humor was manifest. The importance of his new employment, his vanity in his "rare new livery," and confidence of privileged service were delightfully presented, and rounded out a performance as notable as it was consistent and effective.

"The Merchant of Venice" held an important place in the repertoire of the late Mr. Richard Mansfield. In discussing the various characters in the play with that distinguished gentleman, he told me he considered the Launcelot Gobbo of Mr. A. G. Andrews, of his company, the best he had ever seen. It did not surprise me, for I knew Mr. Andrews to be a thorough and painstaking artist, studying out to the most minute detail every point of his make-up, costume and business. Mr. Andrews presented Launcelot as a boy to whom life was a very serious problem. His costume was extremely characteristic; his doublet and trunks were worn and patched, his hose seamed and darned, and his sandal-shoes with their leather straps had seen service hard and long. He made his first entrance from his master's house hastily, then looked round fearfully and, finding himself unobserved, sat down upon the door-step and seriously held self-communion as to the justice of leaving his master's service. In other respects he followed the traditional business of the part; but nothing was exaggerated, rather subdued; his object being to present Launcelot as a possible human being, and not an impossible clown, as many comedians have done. The humor of the part was always present, never intruded, but conveyed naturally and without effort: the result being a well proportioned and artistic performance.

How to cite this article:
Warde, Frederick. The Fools of Shakespeare. London: McBride, Nast & Company, 1915. Shakespeare Online. 20 Feb. 2011. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

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