Responsibilities in William Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice

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Responsibilities in William Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice

The small and seemingly insignificant details in a story often hold together an entire theme of the work. This phenomenon is recognizable in the plays of William Shakespeare, as a speech or incident with a minor character can point the audience to a much larger truth about the work as a whole. The Merchant of Venice contains such a minor character, Lancelot, whose story gives a clue to the reader about the roles of the other characters in the play. Lancelot abandons his servitude to Shylock, and thereby weakens his own value as a member of society fulfilling a role. Lancelot’s decision is noteworthy because it represents a conflict of responsibilities that can be found in
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Lancelot’s mistake is in choosing what seems to be the lesser of two evils instead of remaining true to the greater of two responsibilities. Once Lancelot departs from Shylock’s house, he finds shame and trouble in his service to Bassanio. Soon after Bassanio has employed Lancelot, Lorenzo makes a troubling report: “The Moor is with child by you, Lancelot,” (3.5.33). Lancelot has impregnated one of Portia’s servants, and elicits humiliation from Lorenzo, his new master’s friend, who calls him a “fool” (3.5.37). Though Lancelot seems flippant about the circumstance, it is clear that his superiors think him reckless and imprudent. He has opened up trouble for himself by neglecting his primary responsibility to Shylock, and mischief follows Lancelot for the rest of the play. This mischief seems to dominate the misfortunes of the characters that do not fulfill their roles. Portia and Nerissa mischievously pretend to have slept with the doctor and the court clerk, furthering the shame that is upon Bassanio and Grazziano. It seems only fair, as Bassanio has neglected his responsibility to Portia. Up until Bassanio is married to Portia, his primary duty is as a friend to Antonio. However, as soon as he is married, he is responsible first to Portia. When he allows Antonio to convince him to give up his wedding ring to the doctor who defended them, he dishonors his first duty and thereby invites shame. Even knowing that “more depends on
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