Act II, Scene One
The Prince of Morocco meets with Portia and tells her that he is often considered very handsome on account of his black skin. She tells him that unfortunately she does not have the right to choose the man who will marry her. Instead, her father created three caskets from among which each suitor must choose. Portia warns the Prince that if he chooses the wrong casket, he must swear to never propose marriage to a woman afterwards. The Prince of Morocco agrees to this condition and joins Portia for dinner before attempting to choose.
Act II, Scene Two
Lancelot, referred to as a clown, is the servant to Shylock. He tells the audience that he is thinking about running away from his master, whom he describes as a devil. However, he cannot make up his mind about whether to run away or not because his conscience makes him guilty when he thinks about leaving Shylock.
Lancelot's father, and old man named Gobbo, arrives with a basket. He is nearly completely blind and cannot see Lancelot clearly. Gobbo asks his son which way leads to the Jew's house, meaning Shylock's house. He mentions that he is searching for his son Lancelot. Lancelot decides to have some fun with his father, and so he pretends to know a "Master Lancelot" (a term for a gentleman's son, not a servant). He informs Gobbo that "Master Lancelot" is deceased.
Gobbo is clearly upset by this, and Lancelot kneels down in front of him and asks his father for his blessing. Gobbo at first does not believe that Lancelot is really his son, but then he feels his head and recognizes him.
Lancelot tells his father that he is wasting away serving Shylock and that he will turn into a Jew himself if he stays there much longer. Gobbo has brought a present for Shylock, but Lancelot instead convinces his father to give it to Bassanio, whom Lancelot hopes to have as his new master. Bassanio, coming onto stage at that moment, accepts the gift of doves and tells Lancelot that he may leave Shylock and join his service. He then orders one of the men to get Lancelot a new uniform to wear, and sends Lancelot away.
Graziano arrives and tells Bassanio that he wants to join him on the trip to Belmont, where Bassanio plans to go and woo Portia. Bassanio feels that Graziano is too loud and rude and asks him if he will be able to act more appropriately. Graziano says that he can, and that he will "put on a sober habit" (2.2.171). Bassanio then agrees to take him to Belmont.
Act II, Scene Three
Jessica, the daughter of Shylock, meets with Lancelot and tells him that she will miss him after he leaves to go work for Bassanio. She hands him a letter to take to Lorenzo, who is supposed to be a guest of Bassanio's that night. After Lancelot leaves, Jessica remarks,
"Alack, what heinous sin is it in me
To be ashamed to be my father's child!
But though I am a daughter to his blood,
I am not to his manners. O Lorenzo,
If thou keep promise I shall end this strife,
Become a Christian and thy loving wife.
Jessica thus informs the audience that she is in love with Lorenzo, a Christian. She intends to meet him soon and run away from her father's house in order to marry Lorenzo.
Act II, Scene Four
Lorenzo, Graziano, Salerio and Solanio are preparing for a masque that night. Lancelot arrives with the letter from Jessica and hands it to Lorenzo. Lorenzo reads it and tells Lancelot to inform Jessica that he will not fail her. Lancelot leaves to bring the news to Jessica, and also to invite Shylock to Bassanio's house for dinner.
After the other two men leave, Lorenzo shows Graziano the letter from Jessica. He tells his friend that he and Jessica plan to steal away from her father's house that night, along with a great deal of her father's gold and jewels.
Act II, Scene Five
Shylock informs Lancelot that he will have to judge for himself whether Bassanio is a better master. He then calls Jessica, hands her the keys to the house, and tells her that he must leave for dinner that evening. Lancelot tells Shylock that there will likely be a masque that night. At this news, Shylock orders Jessica to lock up the house and not look out the windows. He says, "Let not the sound of shallow fopp'ry enter / My sober house" (2.5.34-35).
As Shylock gets ready to depart, Lancelot privately tells Jessica that Lorenzo will come for her that night. She is grateful for the message, and after Shylock leaves she comments that, "I have a father, you a daughter lost" (2.5.55).
Act II, Scene Six
Salerio and Graziano are part of the masquers partying through the street of Venice. They stop and wait for Lorenzo, who has asked them to meet him at a certain spot. Lorenzo arrives and thanks them for their patience. He then calls out to Jessica, who appears in the window of Shylock's house dressed as a man. She throws out a casket to Lorenzo filled with much of her father's gold and jewels. Jessica then goes back inside and steals even more ducats (golden coins) before joining the men on the street.
Everyone departs except for Bassanio, who unexpectedly meets Antonio. Antonio tells him to get to the ship heading for Belmont, because the wind has started blowing the right way and the ship is ready to depart.
Act II, Scene Seven
The Prince of Morocco is brought into a room containing three caskets, gold, silver and lead. Portia tells him to make his choice. The Prince reads the inscriptions on all the caskets. Gold reads: "Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire" (2.7.5). The silver casket has, "Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves" (2.7.7). Finally, the dull lead casket bears the inscription, "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath" (2.7.9).
Portia tells the Prince that the correct casket, or the one that will allow him to marry her, contains a miniature picture of her likeness. The Prince looks over all the inscriptions a second time, and decides that lead is too threatening and not worth risking anything for. He also spurns the silver, which he feels is too base a metal to hold such a beautiful woman as Portia. The Prince therefore chooses gold.
Portia hands him the key, and he opens the casket to reveal a golden skull. The skull holds a written scroll that poetically indicates that he chose superficially. The Prince departs after a hasty farewell. Portia watches him go, and remarks, "A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go. / Let all of his complexion choose me so" (2.7.78-79).
Act II, Scene Eight
Salerio and Solanio meet in the street and discuss the hasty departure of Bassanio and Graziano for Belmont. They further tell the audience that Shylock returned home and discovered his daughter had run away with Lorenzo. Shylock then woke up the Duke of Venice and tried to stop Bassanio's ship, which had already set sail. Antonio assured Shylock that Jessica was not on board the ship, but rather had been seen in a gondola with Lorenzo. However, Shylock continues to blame Antonio for the loss of his daughter and his money.
Solanio informs Salerio that Shylock was later seen in the streets crying,
BLOCKQUOTE"My daughter! O, my ducats! O, my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O, my Christian ducats!
Justice! The law! My ducats and my daughter!
A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats,"]
Solanio is worried about Antonio, whom he says had better repay his bond with Shylock on time, because Shylock is furious about losing his daughter and his money and blames Antonio for it. Salerio indicates that a Frenchman mentioned a Venetian vessel had sunk in the English Channel the day before. Both men hope that it is not Antonio's ship.
Act II, Scene Nine
The Prince of Aragon arrives in Belmont and decides to choose from among the three caskets. Portia takes him into the room and makes him recite the oath never to reveal which casket he chooses, and further to promise never to marry should he choose the incorrect casket. The Prince of Aragon agrees and starts to read the inscriptions.
He rejects lead because of the ominous warning, and thinks that gold refers to the foolish populace. Instead he chooses silver which indicates he will receive what he deserves. The Prince takes the key and opens the casket to reveal a "blinking idiot" (2.9.53). The scroll indicates that those who are self-loving deserve to be called idiots, and would not make good husbands for Portia. The Prince is upset by his choice, but is forced to leave.
Portia is happy that the Prince has chosen the wrong casket. Her messenger comes into the room at that moment and informs her that a young Venetian has just arrived. Portia goes to see who it is, while Nerissa secretly wishes that it might be Bassanio.
The virtue of marriage is very important for Shakespeare, who often ends his comedies with multiple marriages to signify a happy solution to many of the problems the characters have faced. Marriage is thus a way of achieving inclusion for Shakespeare, and it is notable that the characters which remain unmarried are often isolated and removed from the society, specifically Antonio and Shylock within this play. Marriage also represents a way to overcome difficulties; for Bassanio it will remove his debt, for Portia it will free her from her father's will and for Jessica is will allow her to escape her father.
Given this view of marriage, the choice of the caskets presents a horrifying risk for many of the participants, namely the threat that if they choose wrong casket they must swear to never propose marriage to a woman afterwards. In a sense, the failure to marry is as good as being castrated. In fact, Shakespeare creates this very analogy throughout The Merchant of Venice and ties it to the ability to make money breed. Thus in the first act Shylock mentions that he makes his money breed as fast as ewes and lambs. Antonio will further this metaphor in the final act, when he remarks that he is like a wether, or a castrated lamb, and thus unable to breed. For the suitors to Portia, then, swearing to never wed puts them on the same level as Antonio. By agreeing to not marry, they themselves become castrated.
Lancelot the clown is one of the more interesting characters. His treatment of his father is awful, considering that his father is mostly blind and has brought a present to his son. The entire scene mimics the biblical story of Jacob and Esau, though. The bible tells how Jacob tricked his father into giving him the inheritance by wearing wool so his father would think he was Esau. Lancelot does the same thing, by bending down and making his father "know" him by feeling his head.
Shylock's character starts to emerge very strongly within this act. We see him now not only as a moneylender demanding interest, but also as a villain. He shows a marked aversion to fun, demanding that Jessica lock the door and close the windows when he finds out there will be a masque that night. However, contrary to his statement in the first act, Shylock leaves his house to enjoy a dinner with Bassanio. Much of this act therefore develops the negative aspects of Shylock character.
However, the Christian faults are also exposed within this act. The faithlessness of Jessica has been an issue of discussion for many centuries, with the debate raging over whether she is justified in leaving her father. The crucial difficulty is that she does not merely run away, but she insists on stealing large amounts of her father's jewels and gold. Thus when Graziano remarks, "Now, by my hood, a gentile, and no Jew" (2.6.51), we can only see it as ironic. Ironic because she is stealing her father's money, so he is essentially implying Christians are thieves.
Jessica's actions also leave unanswered the question of why she is locked up in her father's home. The answer to this comes from an understanding of the relationship between money and breeding. Whereas in the beginning Antonio is impotent in the sense that his money does not breed, Shylock is not. Shylock further has the advantage of having a daughter. Since the Jewish lineage is passed down via the maternal line, Jessica represents a way for Shylock's family line to continue. Thus, hoarding Jessica and his gold is Shylock's way of guaranteeing his successful breeding. In fact, Solanio makes this connection between daughter and money abundantly clear when he tells us that Shylock ran through the street of Venice crying:
"My daughter! O, my ducats! O, my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O, my Christian ducats!
Justice! The law! My ducats and my daughter!
A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats,"
Thus for Shylock the simultaneous loss of his daughter and his money is in a sense the loss of his fertility.
Not only does her conversion to Christianity destroy Shylock's family line, it also makes him impotent in a metaphorical sense. Jessica takes two stones with her, which represent the "testicles" of Shylock, since stone was often used to mean testicle. Thus after her theft, Shylock joins Antonio in impotence, having lost his ability to breed. Indeed, the escape of Jessica marks the turning point of Shylock's fortunes, which will lead to his eventual destruction.
It is important that Jessica escapes not dressed as herself, but as a man. In fact, there is a never a scene on the Venetian streets in which a woman is present. The only way a woman can walk through the street of Venice is to dress as a man, a fact that will reinforced when Portia pretends to be Balthasar and dresses as a man before entering Venice. This is one of the primary differences between the worlds of Venice and Belmont.
The three caskets each bear inscriptions that tell us about the personalities of the characters who pick them. Gold reads: "Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire" (2.7.5). The silver casket has, "Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves" (2.7.7). Finally, the dull lead casket bears the inscription, "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath" (2.7.9). The Prince of Morocco first chooses gold and gets a death skull. The Prince of Aragon receives the picture of an idiot. This is symbolic, for he is an old man and hence is an idiot for thinking himself deserving of a young woman.
One of the most debated lines is when Portia sends the Prince of Morocco away by saying, "A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go. / Let all of his complexion choose me so" (2.7.78-79). This provincial comment stands in contrast with her upbringing and nobility. However, what soon becomes clear is that Portia is a very narrow character in her sense of friends. She chooses Bassanio over the more cosmopolitan suitors because he represents her Christian and Venetian world. Bassanio wins her because of the same thing, namely he alone of the suitors possesses the local characteristics necessary to interpret which casket to choose.
Unlike Portia and Bassanio, Jessica never has to be chosen by a casket. Instead, she tosses her casket out of the window for Lorenzo to catch. Thus her relationship, unlike that of Portia and Bassanio, has no test to make sure it is a good relationship. This lack of a test will create problems later, foreshadowed by Shakespeare when Lorenzo and Jessica compare themselves to many famous failed romances.
The Merchant of Venice is largely a play about interpretation. The suitors to Portia are condemned to sterility because they misread the caskets. Shylock's interpretation of the contract in 1.3 takes the "pound of flesh" seriously and literally, whereas Antonio thinks Shylock is being "kind." Later in the final scene, the outcome of the play - whether it becomes a comedic ending or a tragic one, will rest on Portia's interpretation of the law. Thus the play creates its drama and its plot through the constant interpretation of events and words. This crucial aspect is frequently used by Shakespeare in his remaining comedies, and it forms a crucial part of the plot in Much Ado About Nothing.