Explanatory Notes for Act 2, Scene 2
From The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Felix E. Schelling. New York: American Book Co.
The old stage direction reads: "Enter the Clowne alone." This term, like the term fool, was carelessly employed in Shakespeare's time. Launcelot is neither a fool nor a clown within the strict meaning of either word. The student is advised not to try too narrowly to make sober sense out of Shakespeare's inimitable nonsense. Logic is not Launcelot's forte; and as to some of his phrases, we may well echo Dr. Furness's warning in the words of
Bottom: "Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this." In this scene Launcelot changes his service from Shylock to Bassanio, and
Gratiano is granted his suit to accompany Bassanio to Belmont.
9. scorn running with thy heels. To scorn a thing with the
heels, to kick at it, was a proverbial saying. Compare Much Ado
About Nothing, iii. 4. 51: "I scorn that with my heels."
11. Via! Italian for away; and very commonly employed.
12. for the heavens, for heaven's sake.
17. did something smack [of the knave] ... grow to, has
been explained as "a household phrase applied to milk when
burnt to the bottom of the saucepan, and thence acquiring an
25. God bless [or save] the mark, is used as a parenthetical excuse for the use of a profane or disrespectful word. Launcelot is
here waggishly apologizing for using the word devil. Compare the clause, "Saving your reverence," below, line 27, used in precisely
the same manner.
29. incarnal, Launcelot means incarnate. The "nice derangement of epitaphs," as Mrs. Malaprop afterwards called this use of
a word of similar sound but of different sense for ludicrous effect,
is very common in the old drama.
37. sand-blind, purblind, half-blind. Compare stone-blind, wholly
blind; high-gravel-blind is of course Launcelot's jest.
39. confusions, Launcelot's word for conclusions; but Launcelot's conclusions are confusions, as the rest of this interview discloses.
44. marry, originally Mary, a remnant like by'r Lady (by our
Lady), God's sonties below, and dear me (Deus meus) of a ruder
age in which everyday conversation was interlarded with oaths.
These terms had by Shakespeare's day ceased to have more force
than mere exclamatory phrases or expletives.
47. sonties. Variously derived from sanctities or from saints,
saunties, little saints. Compare by'r Lakin, "by our Ladikin."
55. well to live, with every prospect of living long.
58. Your worship's friend and Launcelot, sir. Launcelot
whimsically endeavors to get his father to speak of him as Master
Launcelot, which his father is unwilling to do out of respect for his
"worship," whom he thinks he is addressing.
59. But I pray you, ergo, old man. Launcelot is not without
some sense of the meaning of the learned word which he uses. I
pray you, ergo [for that reason, because he is my worship's friend,
call him] Master Launcelot. But enough: Launcelot is trying his
"confusions" on us as well as on his father.
61. an't, if it.
64. father, a general term used in addressing old men. Gobbo
does not as yet recognize his mischievous son.
71. hovel-post, post supporting a shed.
82. give me your blessing. Here, according to an old stage
tradition, Launcelot kneels with his back to his father, who, groping about, touches his son's long hair, and mistaking it for a beard,
of which Launcelot has no sign, says, "Pray you, sir, stand up:
I am sure you are not Launcelot, my boy." See below lines 86-91.
100. fill-horse, shaft-horse.
110. set up my rest, a phrase taken from the fashionable game
of primero, signifying, to stand by the cards one has in one's hand;
and hence to determine, make up one's mind.
114. tell, count.
115. give me [i.e. for my benefit] your present. The old dative
of the personal pronoun is often used where we should use for
me or to me; sometimes where the word would seem unnecessary to the modern reader. Compare the phrase, "Do me a favor."
115. your present. Old Gobbo is the bearer of a gift from the
country to Shylock, Launcelot's master. This gift Launcelot diverts
to Bassanio, with whom he desires to take service.
119. I am a Jew. An asseveration used elsewhere. Compare
Much Ado About Nothing, ii. 3. 272: "If I do not love her, I am
121. The old editions read, "Enter Bassanio with a follower or
121. hasted, hastened.
123. put the liveries to making, have the liveries made. The
old termination en was often confused with ing in Elizabethan
125. anon, at once.
128. Gramercy! French grand merci, much thanks.
133. infection, for affection, desire.
139. cater-cousins, a word of doubtful derivation and original
meaning, applied to persons on intimate terms with each other,
and used occasionally as if synonymous with cousins-germain. It
has been thought that the word is connected with cate or cake, and
caterer; and means mess-fellows.
142. fruitify, for certify.
146. impertinent, for pertinent.
152. defect, for effect.
155. preferr'd, recommended for promotion.
158. The old proverb. Launcelot alludes to the saying, "The
grace of God is gear [wealth] enough."
162. inquire...out, seek by asking.
164. guarded, trimmed with braid.
166. Well, if any man, etc. Table is the palm of the hand in
chiromancy or palmistry. Take the relative which as referring to
table and in the causal relation equivalent to for it doth. The
meaning of the passage then is: There is no hand in Italy offering
fairer signs of palmistry than mine, for it doth offer to swear upon
a book that I shall have good fortune.
169. Go to, equivalent to our Come, come. To is here an adverb. Compare its use to "to and fro," and the nautical expressions, "heave to, come to."
169. a simple line of life, literally a mean, poor line of life. But
Launcelot is speaking ironically in reference to his good fortune.
The line of life is the circular line surrounding the thumb. The
table line or line of fortune runs from the forefinger, below the
other three fingers, to the side of the hand. Launcelot pretends
to be reading his own fortune by palmistry, and discovers that he
is to be married fifteen times, and other like matters.
176. gear, matter.
178. Notice how the play falls again into blank verse with the
departure of the low comedy of Launcelot from the scene.
194. liberal, licentious.
196. skipping spirit. We should say vivacious or frivolous
temper. Compare 1 Henry IV, iii. 2. 60: "The skipping king,
he ambled up and down." Spirit is pronounced as one syllable.
See below, v. 1. 86.
202, 203. hood mine eyes Thus with my hat. Hats were commonly worn by all persons of station at dinner. To take off the
hat, except for courtesy in company, was an acknowledgment of inferiority.
205. ostent, appearance. Compare below, ii. 8. 44: "Fair ostents
How to cite the explanatory notes:
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Felix E. Schelling. New York: American Book Co., 1903. Shakespeare Online. 20 Feb. 2011. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/merchant_2_2.html >.