Romeo and Juliet–The Return of the Foolish Friar

Juliet’s world is shattered. Is it any surprise she makes the worst possible decision?

I’ll to the Friar to know his remedy.

You—well, I—want to shout at her “Don’t go there, girl!”  but can you really blame her? Who else does she have to turn to now?

Yet she can’t even talk to him at first, for she interrupts a conference with, who else, the County Paris. Aren’t you amazed she doesn’t scream?

They’ve met, if at all, only offstage, at the Capulet party, and we have to wonder whether that introduction went like this:

Happily met, my lady and my wife.

That may be, sir, when I may be a wife.

That may be must be, love, on Thursday next.

What must be, shall be.

That’s a certain text.

 When Juliet met Romeo their conversation formed a sonnet. Here Juliet and Paris also speak in stichomythia (one line, one line, back and forth) but the dialogue refuses to get off the ground. Juliet’s answers to Paris form couplets, which previously were associated with inauthentic feeling (Romeo’s “passion” for Rosaline) and here express barely concealed loathing. Meanwhile Friar Laurence is so perfectly in character, completing Juliet’s line with a sententious platitude that also brings the verse to a thudding halt. (Read these lines out loud and see if you get a sense of how bad the rhyme is. “Next” and “text”? Really? Note also Paris’s “may be must be, love”; you can just hear him patting himself on the back at getting off this line whose rhythm is clunkier than he thinks it is.)

Writers are always being told to show, not tell. Here’s how it’s done. Shakespeare shows us how disastrously matched Juliet and Paris would be through their verbal Ping-Pong. Here’s another exchange, to give you the flavor:

Come you to make confession to this father?

To answer that, I should confess to you.

Do not deny to him that you love me.

I will confess to you that I love him.

So will ye, I am sure, that you love me.

The plays on “confess” (in the sacramental sense to Friar Laurence, in the colloquial sense to Paris) and “love”—let alone the “him” in “I will confess to you that I love him” that doesn’t refer to Friar Laurence—are typical Juliet, but unlike her exchanges with Romeo you can feel the words being dragged out of her. Worse, Paris isn’t getting the jokes. He only has one thing in mind.

That is no slander, sir, which is a truth,
And what I spake, I spake it to my face.

Thy face is mine, and thou hast slander’d it.

It may be so, for it is not mine own.

Paris and Old Capulet agree: Juliet is a piece of property. A feisty one, though, who is suddenly getting Paris out of the way by asking whether Friar Laurence has time for some private devotion.

Spare the old priest a smidgen of pity. What a terrible moment this must be for him too. His dream of being Verona’s peacemaker lies shattered, and he’s trapped in his own chamber with a hysterical girl waving a knife around and threatening to kill herself with it (“If in thy wisdom thou canst give no help,/Do thou but call my resolution wise,/And with this knife I’ll help it presently” (IV.i.52-54), and a bit later “Give me some present counsel, or behold:/’Twixt my extremes and me this bloody knife/Shall play the umpire . . .” (IV.i. 61-63; in Juliet’s mind the knife is already bloody—shades of the Macbeths). He must be a little flustered. But the scheme he proposes has all the earmarks of something he’s carefully considered over some little while:

If, rather than to marry County Paris,
Thou hast the strength of will to slay thyself,
Then is it likely thou wilt undertake
A thing like death to chide away this shame
. . .

Juliet responds with the white-hot eloquence we’re getting used to. The macabre settings she describes are more terrifying here than they will shortly be when they become reality:

O, bid me leap, rather than marry Paris,
From off the battlements of any tower,
Or walk in thievish ways; or bid me lurk
Where serpents are. Chain me with roaring bears,
Or hide me nightly in a charnel-house
O’ercover’d quite with dead men’s rattling bones,
With reeky shanks and yellow chapless skulls.
Or bid me go into a new-made grave,
And hide me with a dead man in his shroud—
Things that, to hear them told, have made me tremble—
And I will do it without fear or doubt,
To live an unstain’d wife to my sweet love.

Alas, the “roaring bears” cannot be the ones in the bear-baiting pits around the Globe, since Romeo and Juliet was performed before the Globe was built in 1599 (the First Quarto dates from 1597). But observe how expertly Juliet conjures the very terrors Friar Laurence has in store for her. “Chapless,” that is, jawless, skulls would have made more immediate sense to the world premiere audience; “chap” meaning “jaw” was then a usage less than fifty years old, and everyone would have seen paintings littered with such skulls, memento mori. But it’s “reeky shanks” that seems to me to have a touch of genius. A charnel house, as you’ll recall from your H.P. Lovecraft, is a building that holds the remains of exhumed dead (ah for the days when Venice had a whole charnel island, Sant’Ariano). We would expect it to contain not just whole floors paved with chapless skulls but gobbets of decaying—reeky—flesh. “Reeky” is not just superbly evocative, more than “decaying” or “rotting” and, in its slight strangeness, even more than “reeking”; it plays off the k sound in “shanks” (and further down the line in “skulls”) to evoke the sound of “dead men’s rattling bones.” Admit it: now that you’ve heard the phrase you’ll never forget it.

But I digress. Here comes Friar Laurence’s cunning plan. (Yes, Percy, of course that’s a Blackadder reference.)

This is a very long soliloquy—and you know what the plan is already—but I’ll give you the gist:

. . .
Tomorrow night look that thou lie alone.
. . .
Take thou this vial, being then in bed,
And this distilling liquor drink thou off;
. . .
The roses in thy lips and cheeks shall fade
. . .
Each part depriv’d of supple government
Shall stiff and stark and cold appear, like death
. . .
Thou shall be borne to that same ancient vault
Where all the kindred of the Capulets lie.
In the meantime, against thou shalt awake,
Shall Romeo by my letters know our drift
And hither shall he come, and he and I
Will watch thy waking, and that very night
Shall Romeo bear thee hence to Mantua
. . .
Give me, give me! O tell not me of fear.

Hold. Get you gone. Be strong and prosperous
In this resolve. I’ll send a friar with speed
To Mantua. with my letters to thy lord.

What could possibly go wrong?

It took me a long time to see the flaw in the plan, but it’s staring us all in the face. Romeo is under a death sentence if he returns to Verona, and the plan requires him to do so. But Friar Laurence claims to be able to get a monk to Mantua with a message for Romeo (as we know, in the event he won’t, but that’s a question of plot-convenient ill fortune). So why can’t he get Juliet there in person? Why can’t she accompany that monk, no doubt disguised as a friar herself? That would even be an excuse to get in some cross-dressing, a device Romeo and Juliet conspicuously lacks in spite of its significant comic element. Even if there is some reason it’s necessary for Juliet to feign death to get out of Verona (which sounds reasonable at first blush but remember, Lady Capulet has spies in Mantua, so it will do little good once Juliet is seen traipsing around the streets there alive), why does Romeo have to come back?

We all know why. Without Romeo’s return we wouldn’t have Act V and the final tragedy we’re all familiar with. And although through the centuries some have succumbed to the temptation to give the lovers a happy ending (none better, though in explicitly parodic vein, than friend of the blog Richard Nathan), we also know that Shakespeare is right to end the play the way he does. Romeo and Juliet started out as a romantic comedy in the manner of Much Ado About Nothing, but it’s been nothing but dark ever since the duel. Assuming you’re not Romeo and Juliet’s age, would it feel right to you if they survived to star in Romeo and Juliet II: A New Beginning?

No. No, it would not. Verona can’t let these lovers live. More on that when we get to the end; because that’s how the play does have to end, Romeo has to come back from Mantua. He has to risk all and lose all for Juliet. But what could bring him back once he’s safe in a banishment he can only endure because it’s temporary? Nothing short of a summons from the one man in Verona he trusts, Friar Laurence. And so Shakespeare turns the friar’s fecklessness to advantage in this moment of crucial dramatic need. We are so accustomed to his foolishness that we gloss right over the simpler way to achieve his aims. The pity is that Romeo and Juliet gloss over it too. Juliet’s ineffably poignant “Give me, give me!” is the cry of a woman so desperate she is not about to ask any questions—a woman out of opera, or Greek tragedy.

What some call Fate is the result of an untold number of individual choices. The characters have made their choices. There’s nothing left now but for the unstoppable wheels to start grinding.

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