Merchant of Venice
Act 3 scene 5
Q. How does Shakespeare make this scene amusing for the audience?
The above-given extract has been taken from “The merchant of Venice” written by William Shakespeare. The extract revolves around Lancelot’s dialogue with Jessica, where he tells her that he believes that she would ‘be damned” because of her Jewish bloodline. The extract is a light-hearted one providing comic relief from the other dramatic scenes in the play. This is brought out by Shakespeare’s apt usage of diction, humor and role reversal.
Shakespeare uses apt diction to make the scene increasingly amusing. Lancelot say that Jessica should “be o’good cheer” since according to him, she is “damned”. The sheer bluntness in the line makes it comical. The very fact that Lancelot thinks that Jessica should be happy of the fact that she would be going to hell is ironic. It leads the audience to contemplate whether or not Lancelot truly even understands what he is saying. Lancelot had previously also tried to impress his father with the usage of refined diction but had failed. In a similar attempt, he tries to use refined diction here but instead, misuses the words, which makes it comical for the Audience. This amuses the audience as it leads them to question the man’s intellect. Lorenzo also jokingly expresses his jealousy of Lancelot as he takes Jessica into “corners”. This holds a sexual jibe on the growing intimacy between Lancelot and Jessica. The fact that Lorenzo made this joke at Jessica’s expense, in her presence reflects the lightheartedness and trust in their bond which amuses the audience. Jessica had left her father and a life of certainty for Lorenzo, with whom her life was uncertain. Her elopement shows to the audience how much she loved Lorenzo, so the prospect her having any sort of relationship other that friendship with anyone but Lorenzo amuses the audience thoroughly.
Shakespeare also adds many humorous conventions to make the extract more amusing to the audience. Lancelot expresses how he was almost certain that Jessica would be sent to hell because of “the sins of her father”. He goes on to say that the only hope for Jessica to avoid her damnation is a “bastard hope”. The word “bastard” over here could have two interpretations. It may simply mean that it is illegitimate and there is no way that Jessica can prevent her imminent place in hell after life. Lancelot could also be referring to the literal meaning of the word i.e. an offspring born from parents not married together. He means to say that the only way to escape going to hell would be the possibility that she was not the Jew’s daughter. But rather a bastard born as a result of her mother having a sexual relationship with another man while being married to Shylock. The connotations of crass humour that this word holds may come across as amusing to the audience. The emphasis on the bloodline determining one’s afterlife may come across as amusing to the audience. What further amuses the audience is the jester’s absurd logic, criticising Lorenzo’s act of “make(ing) me(Jessica) a Christian”. Instead of being happy for Jessica, he blames the increasing ‘pork’ prices as a result of her actions. Traditionally, Jews do not eat pork, but Christians do. The act of converting Jews to Christians (as Lorenzo did Jessica) would thus mean the consumption of pork would increase, thereby pushing uptake prices. It maybe very amusing for the audience to see Lancelot speak in terms of business transactions and industry which are themes that are crucial to the play. What may amuse the modern audience is that Lancelot doesn’t even have to pay for his food. Living under rich lords and ladies, they’d provide for his food and hence he has no reason to be concerned. His pretending to be concerned with this amuses the audience.
Another aspect which makes the scene thoroughly amusing for the audience is the role reversal. Conventionally, the master is supposed to be more refined and sophisticated than his worker, but in the extract, this stereotype is reversed. Lancelot, with his humour and instant wit comes across as the more intelligent one in the exchange between Lorenzo and Lancelot. Lorenzo, on the other hand appears to be at a loss of words. Rather Lancelot is seen suggesting him words. Lancelot uses the two meanings of the word “cover” to confuse Lorenzo which amuses the audience. He first suggests the word to Lorenzo using its first meaning-laying a table. After Lorenzo uses the same word in the same context, Lancelot pretends to assume the second meaning of the word-putting on one’s hat. By doing so, Lancelot confuses Lorenzo with his wit which is rather unconventional for a worker, which makes it amusing. What further amuses the audience is that Lorenzo gets frustrated and angry by this, seeing him so, is also amusing for the audience.
Thus by using apt diction, humour and role reversal, Shakespeare makes this extract Amusing for the audience.