Monthly Archives: August 2011

Romeo and Juliet–The Case of the Foolish Friar

[Apologies for the formatting: one day I will figure out how to get WordPress to format play excerpts consistently . . .]

So: the Balcony Scene ends with Romeo and Juliet, joyously acceding to their destinies. Juliet says that if Romeo really intends to marry her (“If that thy bent of love be honourable/Thy purpose marriage”), he’ll give the details to the person she will send to him tomorrow. See how completely in control she is? Anyway, if Shakespeare were to let us step back and think, we might notice that this is an awfully foolhardy idea. He’s a Montague, she’s a Capulet—and she’s engaged! Hilarity ensues. Back in the 1595 audience, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d just seen the setup for a romantic comedy. Old Will’s done it before, after all. Maybe there will be cross-dressing!

And yet, the seeds of tragedy are present. I’ve spoken at length about the atmosphere of menace that pervades Verona, making a Montague-Capulet marriage a practical impossibility. That aside, what responsible adult, on hearing of Romeo and Juliet’s plan, would fail to say: “Whoa, wait up there a minute, kids. You can’t get married. Juliet, no matter what your parents want, you’re only thirteen. And Romeo, you go from crush to crush. This is puppy love!”? Plainly, none. So to get married and kick off the romantic comedy hijinks, the happy pair needs to find an adult who is not responsible. Luckily for them, such a person is ready to hand, in the form of Friar Laurence, the last important character we will meet. Friar Laurence is my candidate for Most Contemptible Character in Shakespeare. It will be some time before we reach Hamlet, but you already know about Polonius, the old fool and busybody famous for giving hackneyed advice; think of Friar Laurence as a dry run for Polonius. He may not be quite as irritating, but his advice will turn out to be much worse—indeed disastrous.

When we see him first, pottering around in his herb garden, he seems harmless, maybe even a little eccentric.


The grey-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night,
Checking the eastern clouds with streaks of light;
And flecked darkness like a drunkard reels
From forth day’s path and Titan’s burning wheels:
Now, ere the sun advance his burning eye
The day to cheer ,and night’s dank dew to dry,
I must upfill this osier cage of ours
With baleful weeds and precious-juiced flowers.

(II.iii.1-4 [see Postscript])

Hold on a minute. What’s this about “baleful weeds”? It turns out that he wants to develop a theme—at great length:


For naught so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give;
Nor aught so good but, strain’d from that fair use,
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.
Virtue itself turns vice being misapplied,
And vice sometime’s by action dignified.


At this rather abstract summation, Romeo enters. Apparently Friar Laurence doesn’t even notice him, for he continues without a pause:


Within the infant rind of this weak flower
Poison hath residence, and medicine power:
For this, being smelt, with that part cheers each part;
Being tasted, slays all senses with the heart.


From this it seems that one of Friar Laurence’s functions is to deliver sententiae, or moral maxims that, in Shakespeare, seldom apply straightforwardly and without irony to the situation at hand. Again, think Polonius. But as we should expect from Shakespeare now, this speech turns out to be far more important than it looks at first.

I haven’t quoted the whole speech (it’s a little trying out of context), but the theme Friar Laurence develops is clear. Everything in nature contains both good and evil, or has good and bad aspects. Any plant, to be specific, can be beneficial or harmful to humans (“Within the infant rind of this small flower/Poison hath residence and medicine power”). The timing of Romeo’s entrance here is significant. It comes right after Friar Laurence delivers a little summation (“Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied;/And vice sometimes by action dignified”) and right before he starts talking about poison, which will turn out to be another crucial association for him. We assume the Friar is good—he’s a man of the Church, after all, and he does marry the lovers—but apply his own sententia to him and we know we should be alert to hidden malignity, in effect if not intent.

You’d expect this little theme of Friar Laurence’s to apply to humans as well as plants, and he does make the point:


Two such opposed kings encamp them still
In man as well as herbs: grace and rude will;
And where the worser is predominant,
Full soon the canker death eats up that plant.


This idea that everything contains both good and evil, a not uncommon Renaissance conceit, is one we could trace throughout the play. Notice, for example, how good events occur under cover of night (the balcony scene, Romeo and Juliet’s night together) and bad ones in the fullness of day (the brawl, the duel, Romeo’s banishment). (Though this pattern isn’t rigid; the wedding takes place by day and the lovers’ deaths by night.) Critics have traced how Shakespeare opposes gold and silver throughout the play, with gold being baleful and silver benevolent. (You might want to try this as an exercise.) And Montagues and Capulets are the play’s paradigms of a mixture of good and bad. Hold this last point in mind; it becomes crucial at the end of the scene.

Romeo finally gets Friar Laurence’s attention:


Then plainly know my heart’s dear love is set
On the fair daughter of rich Capulet.
As mine on hers, so hers is set on mine,
And all combin’d save what thou must combine
By holy marriage. When, and where, and how
We met, we woo’d, and made exchange of vow
I’ll tell thee as we pass; but this I pray,
That thou consent to marry us to-day.


Friar Laurence hasn’t yet gotten his head around the news that Romeo is no longer in love with Rosaline:


Holy Saint Francis! what a change is here!
Is Rosaline, that thou didst love so dear,
So soon forsaken? Young men’s love then lies
Not truly in their hearts but in their eyes.
Jesu Maria! What a deal of brine
Hath wash’d thy sallow cheeks for Rosaline.
How much salt water thrown away in waste,
To season love, that of it doth not taste.
. . .
Lo here upon thy cheek the stain doth sit
Of an old tear that is not wash’d off yet.
If ere thou wast thyself ,and these woes thine,
Thou and these woes were all for Rosaline.
And art thou changed? Pronounce this sentence then:
Women may fall when there’s no strength in men.


Romeo doesn’t quite believe what he’s hearing:

Thou chid’st me oft for loving Rosaline.


For doting, not for loving, pupil mine.


To “dote,” of course, means to have an unreasonable attraction; it’s where we get “dotage” as a term for the senescent phase of old age, and applied to young people like Romeo it essentially means “have a crush on.” So it looks as if Friar Laurence is going to be the mature, even wise counselor we expect a priest to be. He’s pointing out that Romeo just mistook infatuation for love with Rosaline, and he’s probably doing it all over again. As teenagers will.


I pray thee chide me not, her I love now
Doth grace for grace and love for love allow.
The other did not so.


O, she knew well
Thy love did read by rote that could not spell.


Throughout most of this scene, one can perhaps see why Romeo turns to him as a mentor rather than to his parents. (He wouldn’t tell them he wants to marry a Capulet, but judging from their earlier appearance they don’t exactly seem engaged in general.) But then the mask drops and we see what manner of man he truly is:


 But come, young waverer, come, go with me,
In one respect I’ll thy assistant be.
For this alliance may so happy prove
To turn your households’ rancour to pure love.


There it is. He knows this marriage is a bad idea, but he’ll perform it because he thinks that he can bring the families together that way.

I want to pause to contemplate how brilliant a dramatic stroke this is. First and probably least, it masterfully solves the plot problem I implied at the start of the post. If a rational adult gets wind of what Romeo and Juliet want, they get separated and there is no second half of the play. Friar Lawrence should be that rational adult, but he is blinded by his overweening arrogance. He will be the one to bring the families together and create order in Verona. And that’s the second brilliant aspect—the way this passage sums up the character of Friar Laurence. He is certainly the play’s representative of the Church (and I really have to wonder about those who insist Shakespeare was Catholic, given this picture), but (within the play, of course) he is also a living, breathing human being whose deep character flaw is laid bare. Instead of working to reconcile the families step by patient step, he tended his garden; now, he thinks he sees a chance to unite them with one stroke. How foolishly naïve he’ll turn out to be!

And the third brilliant thing is how this ties in to all that talk at the beginning of the scene about the double nature of all things. By bringing Montagues and Capulets together, by turning “rancour” into “pure love,” Friar Laurence will make Verona a whole with its parts in balance—a macrocosm of the humans within it, good and bad combined. But creating such wholes isn’t the work of humans. It was not Friar Laurence who created the “infant flower” that can kill or cure. Finally the abstractions in his garden pay off. In striving to bring the families together he is arrogating to himself the role of God.

It remains only to note that Friar Laurence is the first draft of a figure Shakespeare returns again and again: the behind-the-scenes manipulator, the (would-be) puppet master. Iago is malign and brings about calamity. The Duke in Measure for Measure is comic and things end well, or maybe not, either because of or in spite of him. Only Prospero gets the happy ending he plans. Friar Laurence is the incompetent bumbler. He may think he’s playing God but his plans are foolish and doomed to failure.

At this point, calamity can still be averted. If you were in the 1595 audience, in spite of the background of violence, you might well think Friar Laurence’s plan could work. At this point Romeo and Juliet could go either way; comedy or tragedy. A happy ending is possible even after Mercutio’s death. Later we shall see how Friar Laurence’s intermeddling tips the scales over into catastrophe.

Postscript: a note on the text. IF you are following along in the Arden Second edition, you’ll note that the editor does not include the first four lines of Friar Laurence’s first speech:

The grey-eyed morn smiles on the frowning night,
Chequering the eastern clouds with streaks of light,
And flecked darkness like a drunkard reels
From forth day’s path and Titan’s fiery wheels:

These lines only appear in the Second Folio, which appeared in 1632 and is generally held to have less authority than the First Folio or the Quartos of Romeo and Juliet, so one can see why the editor excluded them. Not all editors have, however; the Oxford World’s Classics edition, which I have also been using, does include them. I like them because I think they add to the characterization. They are couplets, and we have seen how Shakespeare uses couplets in this play to convey pomposity. Here they add a singsong quality to Friar Laurence’s speech that helps undercut the notion that he can be trusted with anything. In fact he speaks this entire scene in couplets; the only two lines he has that don’t rhyme form couplets with Romeo’s preceding or succeeding lines.

The TIFF Schedule Is Out–

and here is the info for Coriolanus. What kind of sadist programs this, of all movies, at 9:30 on a Saturday morning? I just might rouse myself–you’ll know if Coriolanus abruptly appears on The Calendar–and if so I’ll give you the lowdown.

As for Anonymous, you can navigate to the info from the Coriolanus link. Be my guest.

Shapiro at Stratford

The world-famous Stratford Festival is just a couple of hours away from me by car. So why don’t I go, and post about it here? First, I said “by car.” I not only don’t have a car, I don’t drive. (Since I’m amblyopic, that’s a good thing. I couldn’t even play right field in softball as a kid because the ball would fall three feet to the left of where I thought it was; do you really want me behind the wheel?) Yes, there are buses, but they are oriented toward daytripping tourists who’ll spend money in the town, not serious theater fans from Toronto who just want to get in and out.

Be that as it may, I’m sorry to have missed this lecture last weekend by James Shapiro. I’ll talk about Contested Will in some detail when the time comes, but this article gives a nice summary of Shapiro’s thesis, which is why I consider his book the most important written on Shakespeare at least since Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare: reading the life from the work is wrong, whether you’re Thomas Looney making the case for Famous Farter the Earl of Oxford as real author or, with Stephen Greenblatt, conjuring a fantasy of Shakespeare splattered with blood from the martyr Edmund Campion. The same bad ideas about writing—that writers are mysteriously incapable of doing research, so that any kind of expertise their wirks show necessarily comes from their direct experience, and that they are mysteriously incapable of making stuff up, so that incidents in their works are necessarily reflections of incidents in their lives—underly both the Oxfordians (or Baconians, Marlovians, Elizabethans, or who have you) and the speculative biographers. Contested Will is the riposte I would have written if I were a first-rate Shakespeare scholar.

Oh, Shapiro’s historical research is wonderfully enlightening and sometimes hilarious, especially his account of the cryptological shenanigans some of the Baconians got up to in the nineteenth century. Just prepare to be disappointed if you are as much of a fan of Mark Twain as I am; it seems that he really was an anti-Stratfordian and now, as I had so long believed, taking the piss. Well, not exactly piss if you’ve read “1601.”


Welcome Bardfilm to the Blogroll

I guess I’m late to discover Bardfilm, which as its name implies is about all aspects of Shakespeare and film, but it’s well worth calling to your attention. I found it because of this post–three clips (perhaps the only three clips) of the legendary 1970 Peter Brook production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And in case that weren’t enough, it had me ( you knew this was coming) with an equally rare attraction, a clip from Doctor Who in which the First Doctor and his first companions (Barbara and Ian–and Susan!) eavesdrop on the conversation in which Elizabeth I suggests that Shakespeare write just a little more about Falstaff (with a guest appearance by Francis Bacon).

This excellent site bears watching as we draw closer to the release date of a certain extravaganza calculated, as James Shapiro says, to give us all headaches. . . .

I Missed a Trick–

 When I discussed Juliet’s lines

 Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet,

 I did note that they were actually a subtle proposal: she’s saying “promise me your love, and I’ll give up the name “Capulet”—that is, she’ll marry him. What I could have underlined is that this is a circumstance, very much in the newly engaged Juliet’s mind, in which the name changes and the person doesn’t; a perfect example, one would think, of the theory behind “What’s in a name?” so there is an even better reason for Juliet to utter the famous line than I said in my original post; it’s at the heart of her experience. No wonder she places so little importance in names.

 Alas, as in the original discussion, other people take them far more seriously. It’s not just changing her name that is at stake, but changing it as a result of marriage—which means assuming a changed position in an enormous web of social relations. A married woman’s mind and body, her individual characteristics, have not changed, but her social characteristics couldn’t be more different. Marriage is an institution that changes women in some of the most radical ways possible in Western society.

 Though Romeo is usually the dimmer of the star-crossed lovers, he gets it this time. Consider his astonishing statement to Tybalt:

 And so, good Capulet, which name I tender
As dearly as mine own, be satisfied.

 Romeo—a Montague!—holds “Capulet” dear because of the particular Capulet who just gave up her name for him. But as dearly as his own? How is Tybalt, of all people, even supposed to make sense of this? Not the most reflective character in the play, even if he learned of Juliet’s marriage he could not be expected to welcome Romeo into the family, to imagine he had changed because her name had changed.

 It’s a pity Mercutio never found out about the marriage, or even about Juliet. If you’re inclined toward this sort of speculation, I can think of few juicier subjects than what would have happened if Mercutio and Juliet had met. The woman with the downright operatic soul and the lightning-tongued woman-hating trickster; what an amazing scene it could have been!

 But that’s why Shakespeare didn’t write it; he knew it would have upended, if not upstaged, the rest of the play. I’d even say that one reason he killed off Mercutio was precisely to prevent him from encountering Juliet. Which leaves it for us to imagine. It’s certainly more interesting than the old saw “How many children had Lady Macbeth?” 

Coming soon! The wretched Friar Laurence.

Popeye and Cloudy’s Fifteen Minutes Are Up . . .

. . . because when the New York Times finally catches up with you, it’s official: you are so over. (Even though it was plainly this Times article and a copycat piece in Time—yes, possums, I can no more explain it than you, but Time still exists!—that generated six hits on this site in the last 24 hours on variants of the merry buskers’ names. (No, I have no shame. I’ll even write a post like this to get some extra hits.)

Meanwhile, the real actors—not buskers—of the Spur-of-the-Moment Shakespeare Collective go quietly along, with minimal publicity, entertaining people confined to hospitals, old-age homes, and the like in their Shakespeare’s Briefs series. Who would you rather follow on Facebook?

Romeo and Juliet: At Last! The Balcony Scene

At last we come to the scene my whole discussion of Romeo and Juliet has been building up to. Forget everything you think you know about it: all the clichés, all the sentiment, all the parodies—even Bugs Bunny. (Though after you’ve read this post, why not treat yourself to a double bill of “What’s Opera Doc?” and “Duck Amuck”? Embeds at the end.) As I’ve asked you to do before, imagine yourself at the 1595 world premiere of Romeo and Juliet and that you know nothing about the play except what you have seen thus far.

What exactly have you seen thus far? You’ve seen a master dramatist set the stakes exceptionally high for the “star-cross’d lovers.” Verona is a tinderbox, a height-of-summer session of Mafia Wars with an ineffectual godfather. The “civil strife” between Capulet and Montague stacks the deck against Young Love as high as it could possibly be stacked.

You’ve seen Shakespeare ratchet up the tension. The brawl incited by Sampson and Gregory; the appearance of “fiery Tybalt” (who, though ultimately ineffectual, looks terribly menacing at the start); Juliet’s being promised to the County Paris (and I should have mentioned at the time how much must be riding on this for Old Capulet—a match between his family and the Prince’s would have to be devastating to the Montagues); Romeo with eyes for nobody but Rosaline; all combine to show that not only is love between Capulet and Montague forbidden, love between this particular Capulet and this particular Montague is impossible.

And yet—it happens. The instant Romeo sees Juliet, he forgets Rosaline. That their first words to each other are a sonnet shows more clearly than anything else could that they were made for each other. Boy and Girl Against the World may be a cliché (thanks at least in part to Romeo and Juliet itself) but here, for once, we can believe it.

You’ve seen one other thing: you’ve seen Shakespeare build tension through the way his characters speak, as much as through what they say. From the vulgar jests of Sampson and Gregory and Old Capulet’s couplets, almost mechanical in their regularity, to Mercutio’s quicksilver and the Nurse’s vulgarity, a subtext emerges of the soulless world in which the lovers find themselves—an infernal machine. To the 1595 audience, then, the balcony scene is not a cliché. It is a miniclimax within the play, the culmination of the initial struggle between nothing less than Love and Death.

That’s why I have spent so much time on the on the runup to this scene. Out of context, it’s a subject for parody, even boredom. In context, it is not only thrilling, it is of a piece with all that has come before; it too is all about language. I could only strip away four centuries of overfamiliarity and get to the essence by showing you exactly how we got here.

So let’s pick up where we left off:


O Romeo, that she were O that she were
an open-arse and thou a poperin pear!


Allow me to remind you that Mercutio delivers one of the dirtiest lines in all of Shakespeare right before the balcony scene. Romeo, who had been hiding, must have heard it, because when Mercutio and Benvolio leave he comes out and says:


He jests at scars who never felt a wound.


That is, Mercutio only mocks because he has never been in love.

And then it begins. Juliet is standing at a window. (That’s the actual stage direction; I’m afraid you’ve been misled all these years about the balcony, but “Window Scene” doesn’t have the same ring to it. Just remember not to leave a request for romantic advice at the balcony if you ever visit Verona. By the way, I was going to embed clips, but both Zeffirelli and Luhrmann cut too many crucial lines—though Claire Danes is rather charming—and a version filmed at the Globe is marred by a badly acted Romeo and Blair Witch camera movement.)

Romeo looks up.


But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!
Arise fair sun and kill the envious moon
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou her maid art far more fair than she.
Be not her maid since she is envious,
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it. Cast it off.


We saw how Romeo’s imagery improved from the moment he first saw Juliet (“O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright”). Here the astronomical imagery is more conventional—“Juliet is the sun,” yadda yadda—but Romeo does something interesting with it. Juliet does not realize she is the sun; she’s a handmaid of the moon, which is sick with jealousy of the very idea that Juliet will discover her true nature. But what is that nature, and what does the moon—much though I loathe putting it this way—symbolize? Well, look at the “vestal livery” he exhorts Juliet to “cast off.” In ancient Rome, the Vestals were priestesses of the goddess Vesta, and they took an oath of chastity. When we also recall that the Moon is sacred to the virgin goddess Diana, Romeo’s meaning becomes unmistakable: “cast off” your virginity.

Suddenly Romeo has become as clever as Mercutio. And as with the Queen Mab speech it makes sense to think that Shakespeare was writing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the Moon is referred to at least fifty times, at the same time.

With your indulgence, I’m going to skip over the rest of Romeo’s thirty-line soliloquy. It’s worth close reading, but I want to get to the famous bit. Not because it’s famous, but because it’s really important. The entire soul of the play has rested in how its people use language. We’ve just seen Romeo’s language begin an extraordinary transformation, from clichéd to soaring, on the basis of one exchange with a thirteen-year-old girl. Her language had better be at least as extraordinary. For that first audience of attentive listeners, everything rides on what Juliet says next:

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