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.

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