Shylock’s young servant, Lancelot Gobbo, very slowly opened his master’s front door, peered round it, looked up and down the street, then came out and stood in front of the house. His mind was in turmoil. On the one hand he felt no guilt about running away from the Jew, his master – the devil was at his elbow, tempting him, saying ‘Gobbo, Launcelot Gobbo, good Lancelot,’ or ‘good Gobbo,’ or ‘good Lancelot Gobbo’. Use your legs: get started: run away.’ But on the other hand, his conscience was saying ‘no, be careful, honest Lancelot, be careful, honest Lancelot,’ – or, using the same form of address as the devil had, ‘honest Lancelot Gobbo’ – ‘don’t run, don’t take off.’ Then the valiant devil tells him to pack his stuff. ‘Off you go,’ he says. ‘Away! For heaven’s sake, be bold, and run!’ Then his conscience, like a great weight on his heart says, very wisely, to him: ‘My honest friend Lancelot, being an honest man’s son…’ – an honest woman’s son, more like it, because his father was a bit dodgy – ‘… Lancelot, don’t budge.’ ‘Budge!’ says the devil. ‘Don’t budge!’ says his conscience.
Lancelot shook his finger at the imaginary figure at his right elbow. ‘Conscience,’ he said out loud, ‘you give me good advice.’ He shook his finger in the other direction. ‘Devil,’ he said, ‘you give me good advice.’ To satisfy his conscience he would have to stay with his master, the Jew who, bless us all, was a kind of devil. If he ran away from the Jew he would be satisfying the Devil himself, bless us all! One thing was certain, the Jew was the devil personified. For heaven’s sake, his conscience was being very tough on him to suggest staying with the Jew. The devil’s advice was much more friendly. He tapped his left elbow. ‘My heels are at your command,’ he said. ‘I’ll run.’
He narrowly missed knocking an old man off his feet. The old man grabbed his coat and clung to it with one hand as he righted himself. He held a basket in the other.
‘Master young man,’ he said, ‘please, which is the way to Master Jew’s?
Lancelot recognised the voice. He stepped away from the old man and looked at him. Good heavens, it was his own father! He was more than a bit blind, now, and didn’t recognise his own son. He smiled. He would have a bit of fun with him.
‘Master young man,’ old Gobbo said again, ‘please, which is the way to Master Jew’s?’
‘Turn right at the next corner, but at the very next corner turn left. Then at the last corner don’t turn any way but turn down indirectly to the Jew’s house,’ said Lancelot, shouting and speaking as rapidly as he could.
‘By God’s saints, it’s a hard way to go,’ said old Gobbo. ‘Can you tell me whether one Lancelot, who lives with him, lives with him or not?’
‘Are you referring to young Master Lancelot?’ Young Gobbo smiled. He was about to make the tears flow. ‘Do you mean young Master Lancelot?’ he shouted in the old man’s ear.
‘Just Lancelot, with respect to your mastership.’
‘That’s right, Master Lancelot. But don’t talk about Master Lancelot, old man, because the young gentleman – as a result of something like fate, destiny, or some such old wives’ tale, the fatal sisters or some such thing – is deceased, or as one would say in plain terms, gone to heaven.’
‘Oh God forbid!’ exclaimed the old man. ‘The boy was the staff of my old age: my prop!’ He dropped his basket and sunk to the ground.
Lancelot knelt beside him and smiled. ‘Do I look like a stick or a corner post, a staff or a prop? Don’t you recognise me father?’
His father looked at him closely then gave up and shook his head. ‘Alas, sir, I’m almost blind, I don’t recognise you.’
‘No, even if you weren’t blind, you might still not recognise me. It’s a wise father that knows his own child.’ He sat beside his father in the street. ‘Well, old man,’ he said, ‘I’ve got news about your son. Give me your blessing. The truth always comes out and murder can’t be concealed for long, even though a man’s son may be, but in the end the truth will out.’
Old Gobbo took his son’s arm. ‘Please, sir, stand up.’ Lancelot helped him up and he scrutinised the young man’s face. He shook his head. ‘I’m sure you aren’t my boy, Lancelot.’
‘Come on now,’ said Lancelot, ‘let’s stop fooling around: give me your blessing. I am Lancelot, who was your boy, who is your son, and who will always be your child.’
‘I can’t believe you’re my son.’
‘I don’t know what to say to that,’ said Lancelot. ‘But I am Lancelot, the Jew’s servant and I’m certain that your wife, Margery, is my mother.’
The old man started. ‘Her name is Margery!’ he exclaimed. I swear, if you are Lancelot, you’re my own flesh and blood. Thank God!’ His hands reached towards Lancelot’s face but the young man turned his back to him and his hands landed on the back of his son’s head. ‘What a beard you’ve got!’ he exclaimed. ‘You’ve got more hair on your chin than my carthorse, Dobbin’s, got on his tail!’
Lancelot laughed. ‘Dobbin’s tail must go backward,’ he said. ‘I’m sure he had more hair on his tail than I had on my face last time I saw him.’
‘Lord how you’ve changed!’ Old Gobbo stared at him, trying to see him. ‘How do you get on with your master? I’ve brought him a present. Come on now, how do you get on?’
‘So so,’ said Lancelot. ‘But for my own part, as I’ve made up my mind to run away I won’t rest till I’ve covered some distance. My master’s a real Jew. Give him a present? Give him a noose! I’m starving in this job. You can count every one of my fingers with my ribs! Father, I’m glad you’ve come. Give your present to a certain Master Bassanio, who issues beautiful uniforms. Either I’ll work for him or run as far away as I can. Oh, what a co-incidence! Look, he’s coming this way. Go to him father: if I work for the Jew any longer then I’m a Jew!’
Bassanio was walking toward’s Shylock’s house. His servant, Leonardo, and a few other young servants were with him. He was talking to one of them as he walked.
‘Yes, you can do that,’ he was saying, ‘but hurry up about it and make sure that supper is ready by five o’clock at the very latest. See that these letters are delivered, and order the servants’ uniforms from the tailor, and ask Gratiano to come to my house later.’
Lancelot turned his father, pointed him towards Bassanio and gave him a shove. ‘Go to him, father,’ he said.
The old man groped the air until his hand found Bassanio’s doublet then he bowed low in front of him. ‘God bless your worship!’ he exclaimed.
‘Thank you,’ said Bassanio, stepping back. ‘Did you want something?’
‘This is my son, sir, a poor boy…’
Lancelot interrupted him. ‘Not a poor boy, sir, but the rich Jew’s servant who, as my father will explain…’
‘He has a great ambition, sir, as they say, to serve…’
Lancelot pushed the old man aside. ‘Well the short and long of it is that I serve the Jew, but would like, as my father will explain…’ He nudged the old man.
‘He and his master, with respect to your worship, are scarcely on speaking terms,’ said Old Gobbo.
‘To cut a long story short,’ said Lancelot, ‘the plain truth is that the Jew, having treated me badly, makes me… as my father, being an old man, will explain to you.’
Old Gobbo lifted his basked and held it up in front of Bassanio’s face. ‘I have here a dish of doves that I would like to give to your worship, and my request is…’
‘Very briefly,’ said Lancelot, ‘his request concerns me, as your worship will find out from this honest old man, and though I say it myself, old man, although poor man, my father…’
Bassanio laughed. ‘One can speak for both of you.’ He looked Lancelot up and down. ‘What is it you want?’
‘To work for you, sir,’ said Lancelot.
‘That’s the heart of the matter, sir,’ said Old Gobbo.
‘I know you well,’ said Bassanio. ‘Your request is granted. ‘Your master, Shylock, spoke to me today and recommended you, if it’s real promotion to leave a rich Jew’s service to become a follower of such a poor gentleman.’
‘The old proverb fits my master, Shylock, and you, sir. You have the grace of God and he has the money.’
‘You’ve put it well,’ said Bassanio. ‘Go with your son, old man.’ He put his hand on Lancelot’s shoulder. ‘Take your leave of your old master and go and find my house. Give him a fancier uniform than all the others,’ he told one of the young servants. ‘Make sure it’s done.’
Lancelot could hardly believe it. His mind was a blur. Bassanio took Leonardo aside to have a word with him and Lancelot grabbed hold of his father’s shoulders. He guided him in the direction of Shylock’s house. ‘After you,’ he said. ‘I can’t get a job, can I? I don’t have a tongue in my head, huh? Well.’ He held his palm upward. ‘Have you ever seen a palm that indicates a better fortune? Come on, look at this lifeline. And that small matter of women. Fifteen wives is nothing. Eleven widows and nine virgins is nothing to a man like me. And then to escape drowning three times, not to mention not getting caught in bed with those women. Those are all minor matters. Well, if fortune is a woman, she’s the right girl for this job. Come on father, I’ll take my leave of the Jew in the twinkling of an eye.’
Old Gobbo entered slowly, feeling his way through the door. Lancelot followed.
Bassanio completed his instructions to Leonardo. ‘Take care of everything, please, good Leonardo. And when you’ve done everything and packed carefully, come back as fast as you can. I’m dining with my noble friend tonight. Off you go then.’
‘I’ll do my best,’ said Leonardo. He encountered Gratiano at the end of the street.
‘Where’s your master?’ said Gratiano.
Leonardo pointed. ‘He’s over there.’
Gratiano called to his friend. ‘Bassiano!’
‘Gratiano!’ Bassiano came hurrying towards him.
‘I need a favour,’ said Gratiano.
‘You have it.’
‘Don’t say no to this,’ said Gratiano. ‘I want to go with you to Belmont.’
‘Well then you must come with me. But listen Gratiano. You’re too wild, too rude, too outspoken. To our eyes, those aren’t faults: but with people who don’t know you they’re inappropriate. I beg of you, please try and tame your high spirits a little – let’s have a bit of modesty otherwise your behaviour will spoil things in Belmont and destroy my chances.’
Gratiano drew himself up. ‘Signior Bassanio,’ he said. ‘Listen to me. If I don’t dress in a sober manner, talk respectfully, swear only now and again, carry prayer-books in my pocket, assume a modest look – even more than that, when they say grace, take off my hat, and sigh, and say ‘amen’: be on my best behaviour at all times, like one bent on pleasing his grandmother – never trust me again!’
Bassanio regarded him for a moment then nodded. ‘Well we’ll see how you behave.’
Gratiano shook his friend’s hand vigorously. ‘Yes, but we won’t count tonight. You mustn’t judge me on what we do tonight!’
‘Of course not: that would be a pity. I would beg you, instead, to be at your best tonight, because our friends intend to have a good time. But goodbye for now: I have some business to attend to.’
‘And I must find Lorenzo and the others. But we’ll all come to you at dinner time.’
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very good and helpful.