I have to say, when I first read the entry of Lancelot, Shylock’s servant, I was a little skeptical about him being called a ‘clown’. After being introduced to the character and how he interacts with people, however, made me realize exactly how correct that description really is.
I’m a big fan of Lancelot. His way of speaking is incredibly clever, despite its appearance. When first taking a look at Lancelot, he seems quite idiotic: he talks to himself as if talking to a shoulder angel and a shoulder devil (his conscience and the “fiend”, as described in 2.2.2). He goes back and forth between these two versions of his conscience and argues about whether or not to run away from Shylock, the man he describes as a devil(2.2.21).
This first monologue reveals to the audience the true character of Lancelot in twenty-five lines (2.2.1-25). On one hand, the audience sees the man as knowing that he is honest (I believe he is using ‘honest’ not for truth-telling but referring to being humble and respectable as a working man) and that he should not run away from Shylock. He refers to his mother being honest and gives the impression that he knows better than to be a coward.
On the other hand, there is the ‘fiend’, the part of his conscience that insists that he runs away from Shylock, the “very devil incarnation” (2.2.21). The fiend does not give Lancelot any sound reason to leave Shylock, other than the fact that he is a devil, while his conscious, which Lancelot knows is wise and in itself, honest (2.2.11), gives him solid reasons: to save his dignity and not come out of the situation a coward.
The true character of Lancelot reveals itself in the final lines of this monologue:
“… my conscious 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” (2.2.22-25).
This shows that though Lancelot is aware that for his honest reputation, he should stay and endure working for Shylock. However, he decides not to stay with his master because it is too “hard”: the fiend gives a “friendly counsel”, and he decides to follow that. This goes to show the cowardice of Lancelot; he chooses to run off because it is easier than staying with Shylock.
Despite this depiction of Lancelot, I still find him to be a likable character. He is unintentionally humorous due to his use (or misuse) of words. He mixes many of his words while talking to people: one of my favorite moments is with Bassanio.
During act two, scene two, Lancelot and his father, Gobbo (another humorous character) talk to Bassanio together as if they are a single person. Within about fifteen lines, both Lancelot and Gobbo misuse four words, using the word ‘infection’ for ‘affection’, ‘frutify’ for ‘certify’,’ impertinent’ for ‘pertinent’, and ‘defect’ for ‘effect’ (2.2.109-125). Though these words seem to be accidentally used, I believe that Lancelot uses each word purposefully, meaning both what he says and what he supposedly means. Some are obviously incorrect –‘frutify’ is not a word –but when Lancelot refers to the dish of doves his father has supposedly for Bassanio as “impertinent to myself” (2.2.22), it can be believed that Lancelot is inadvertently telling the truth. The dish of doves was not to be originally given to Bassanio –those doves were to be given to Shylock, and were not going to be pertinent to Lancelot at all.
I look forward to reading more about Lancelot as we continue to read The Merchant of Venice. He reminds me of Dogberry from Much Ado About Nothing, unintentionally being comical with his confusing diction and witty yet ridiculous moments in the play.