Launcelot Gobbo, a clown, servant to Shylock.
The Merchant of Venice, dramatis personae
In Italian, the word gobbo means “hunchbacked,” and some scholars have squeezed this term to suggest that the Launcelot Gobbo of The Merchant of Venice is, like Richard III and Caliban, physically deformed. It must be said that this reading receives no support from the text; Shakespeare does not thematize deformity with Gobbo as he does with Richard and Caliban, although, formally speaking, Gobbo does occupy a place in the structure of the play similar to that of Shakespeare’s stigmatized characters, not only Richard and Caliban, but also Falstaff and indeed Shylock himself. Like Shylock, who may or may not have been stigmatized with an artificial nose on the Elizabethan stage, Gobbo may or may not have been played as a hunchback: the keynote of stigma in The Merchant of Venice is uncertainty. Yet, after the question of a visible physical abnormality represented in their costumes comes up empty, it can be noted that both Shylock and Gobbo do exhibit the other elements in what I have called the figure of stigma: villainy, irony, and tragicomedy. Gobbo’s villainy is clearly a different brand than Shylock’s. If Shylock points back to the vengeful violence of Richard, Gobbo points forward to the merry mischief of Falstaff, the latter pair being the kind of villain who recalls the etymology of that word, villain, from the Latin villa, “country house,” making a villain a low-born and base-minded social inferior like Gobbo. As for irony, both Shylock and Gobbo collude with the audience, Shylock with his tragic soliloquies, and Gobbo with his comic asides. That is, between Shylock and Gobbo, the one is a bit more tragic, the other a bit more comic, but both contain the essence of tragicomedy that is always an element of stigma in Shakespeare’s plays, as represented by the shared fate of these two characters. Each is a tragicomic remainder in a relentless romantic comedy, each being included in but alienated from the supposedly sacred societies established at the end of The Merchant of Venice - Shylock a Jewish convert in Christian Venice, Gobbo an unmarried man in the otherwise completely conjugal Belmont. Because Shylock and Gobbo mirror each other, and each is possibly but not certainly stigmatized in his body, it is tempting to think that Shakespeare did indeed have the concept of stigma in mind as he was crafting these characters, though we have no stable footing on this issue, which is exactly the point. Gobbo’s hunchback and Shkylock’s nose are both question marks. In The Merchant of Venice, as in life, the origins of stigma are beset with uncertainty, its operation with uneasiness, and its outcome with a mixture of happiness and sadness.
Gilbert, Miriam. “The Problem of Launcelot Gobbo.” Shakespeare at Stratford: The Merchant of Venice. London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2002. 67-79.
Drakakis, John. “Present Text: Editing The Merchant of Venice.” Presentist Shakespeares. Ed. Hugh Grady and Terence Hawkes. Abington: Routledge, 2007. 79-95.