Laun. [Aside.] O heavens, this is my true-begotten father, who being more than sand-blind, high-gravel blind, knows me not. I will try confusions with him.
Gob. Master young gentleman, I pray you, which is the way to Master Jew’s?
Laun. Turn up on your right hand at the next turning, but at the very next turning of all, on your left; marry, at the very next turning, turn of no hand, but turn down indirectly to the Jew’s house.
Gob. Be God’s sonties, ‘twill be a hard way to hit.
The Merchant of Venice, 2.2.35-46
There are six fully cogent readings of Old Gobbo’s blindness. The first is the most literal, but perhaps also the most overlooked: old age is disabling . If we consider Old Gobbo as a blind man, and nothing more, his exchange with his son is remarkably unsettling. Is it possible to imagine a greater cruelty than the confusions which Launcelot uses to ensnare his disabled father and the blindness he exploits to effect them? Our readiness to laugh along with Launcelot relates to a second reading of Old Gobbo’s blindness, one which also comes from the perspective of disability studies, specifically from the notion of disability as a “narrative prosthesis.” Without really representing the personal or social reality of disability, Shakespeare used Old Gobbo’s blindness as an easy way to characterize Launcelot as a clown. Alongside these readings that take disability at face value, and critique the trappings of our failures to do so, are some readings that trek beyond the literal to the allegorical meanings of Old Gobbo’s blindness. A third reading personifies the proverb that “love is blind” and involves a surprising parallel between Old Gobbo and the blinded Earl of Gloucester in King Lear. There are a couple of lines in the scene with the Gobbos that suggest Launcelot may be a bastard son of Old Gobbo’s, just as Edmund in King Lear is the bastard son of Gloucester, who later becomes blind, like Old Gobbo, partly to symbolize the random, unreasoned, reckless, blind lust of the adulterer. The fourth reading of Gobbo’s blindness refers to another proverb, “fortune is blind,” perhaps alluding to Launcelot’s future having just decided to flee from Shylock’s service. In a fifth reading, it is neither love nor fortune but justice that is blind, specifically the justice of the Old Testament that Old Gobbo represents (as does “Old Shylock,” as he is called) in contrast to the mercy of the New Testament that Launcelot stands for (alongside his new Christian masters). As several critics have noted, this allegory of justice and mercy – the Old and the New, the elderly and the young – operates (in a sixth possible reading) with reference to the Biblical story of Esau, Jacob, and their blind father, Issac. Like Launcelot, Jacob deceives his blind father, an event that is read typologically in Renaissance Bible commentaries: just as Israel (Jacob) supplanted the Edomites (Esau), the Christians supplanted the Jews. As rich or open as Old Gobbo’s blindness is, nothing prevents us from believing Shakespeare had all or none of these meanings in mind as he worked out this fleeting scene. In other words, we as an audience experience Old Gobbo’s blindness as we as humans experience anyone’s blindness: it comes to us as both a visceral, creaturely disability and an unintentional, unwitting metaphor laden with meaning, and we do not know whether to announce ourselves and our good intentions or to step aside and stand in silence as the blind person passes us by.
Fortin, René E. “Launcelot and the Uses of Allegory in The Merchant of Venice.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 14.2 (Spring, 1974): 259-70.
Waddington, Raymond B. “Blind Gods: Fortune, Justice, and Cupid in The Merchant of Venice.” English Literary History 44.3 (Autumn, 1977): 458-77.
Colley, John Scott. “Launcelot, Jacob, and Esau: Old and New Law in ‘The Merchant of Venice’.” The Yearbook of English Studies 10 (1980): 181-89.
Covey, Herbert. “Shakespeare on Old Age and Disability.” The International Journal of Aging and Human Development 50.3 (2000): 169-83.
Ardolino, Frank. “ ‘Lord, how art thou chang’d’: The Incarnation of Lancelot Gobbo.” Shakespeare Newsletter 55.2 (Summer, 2005): 55-56.
Zamir, Tzachi. “The Fool, the Blind, and the Jew.” Shakespeare and Moral Agency. Ed. Michael Bristol. London: Continuum Books, 2010. 142-58.