Katherine BRENCHLEY 12th December 2003
Romeo and Juliet – William Shakespeare
The human psyche is a multi-faceted beast. Under Friar Lawrence’s ceremonial robes there is just a man.
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The main themes in Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, are love, death, passion, violence and fate. When examining Friar Lawrence’s role in the drama, it is fate which seems to be the most common theme. Friar Lawrence is not only subject to the fate which dominates the play he, in many ways, brings that fate about.
The drama is set during the Renaissance period. The protagonists, Romeo and Juliet, are “A pair of star-cross’d lovers” who struggle against fate. Fate manifests itself in the guise of public and social customs and traditions which either directly or indirectly oppose their love. Most of Romeo and Juliet’s problems stem from the ongoing ancient feud between their families. When issues such as: families and family power held by the father; religion; the social importance of honour; law and the need for public order, clashed with each other, Romeo and Juliet needed a friend to guide them through their troubles. Friar Lawrence was the natural person for them to turn to for help.
The character Friar Lawrence is introduced at the beginning of act II, scene iii. My first impression was that he is a kind-hearted and level-headed Franciscan priest. My opinion of his character changes as the play develops and I believe there is more to the Friar than meets the eye. Consequently it is hard to say that he is solely an honourable man or a self-serving opportunist or a meddling fool.
In Friar Lawrence’s opening speech, he shares with the audience some of his extensive knowledge of plant-lore.
“O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In herbs, plants, stones, and their true qualities.”
He also shows that he is aware of the potent uses of these “baleful weeds and precious juiced flowers”.
“Within the infant rind of this small flower
Poison hath residence and medicine power:”
He also shows us that he understands good and evil in men. The Friar explains that even well intentioned gestures sometimes have negative outcomes that are unexpected or unavoidable. This could be seen as foreshadowing the actions and motivations of Friar Lawrence in relation to Romeo and Juliet’s plight.
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At the outset of the play, Friar Lawrence stood firm to his religious beliefs and was shocked when he realised that:
“Romeo hath not been in bed tonight.”
The Friar initially thought that Romeo had spent the night with Rosaline because Romeo claimed that:
“That last was true; the sweeter rest was mine.”
It was only when Friar Lawrence exclaimed:
“God pardon sin! Wast thou with Rosaline?”
that Romeo explained that he was not with Rosaline, but at the Capulet’s party where he met Juliet and they fell in love. Friar Lawrence was appalled because pre-marital sex was against all social and religious conventions of the time.
Friar Lawrence is a crucial character in the play because of his role within his community. To the people of Verona he is their priest, their confidant and their moral and spiritual guide. Both Romeo and Juliet thought of Friar Lawrence as their spiritual guide. Romeo claims him to be “[his] ghostly father” and Juliet echoes these sentiments just before she is married to Romeo by calling the Friar “my ghostly confessor”. Friar Lawrence’s role as confessor to Romeo and Juliet gave him the necessary power to influence the outcome of the play.
I think that so far, Friar Lawrence is shown as a good and honourable man. It is only when external influences, for example Tybalt’s death and Lord Capulet moving the wedding forward in time, that you see some of the Friar’s negative characteristics. The hasty plan to marry Romeo and Juliet meant that the Friar had not had time to think about what could go wrong, and more importantly, how to counteract the problems.
Friar Lawrence had taken it upon himself to take charge of the three main events that lead up to the “star-cross’d lovers” deaths. He agrees to marry Romeo and Juliet in secret, he initiates the plan to remove Romeo from Verona after he murdered Tybalt and he devises the plan for Juliet to avoid marriage to Paris by encouraging her to take a sleeping draft to feign her own death.
Although Friar Lawrence’s made a hasty decision to agree to marry Romeo and Juliet, I think that he had been looking for a way to stop the feud for a long time. Love and hate are two sides of the same coin, and I think that Friar Lawrence realises that something as strong and positive as the love between Romeo and Juliet will be enough to overcome the violent feuding between their families.
Essentially Friar Lawrence is full of good advice for the impatient couple. After the Friar agrees to marry Romeo and Juliet and be “[Romeo’s] assistant” Romeo says:
“O, let us hence – I stand on sudden haste.”
Friar Lawrence gives him good advice by saying:
“Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast.”
Friar Lawrence’s reason for marrying Romeo and Juliet was to unite their two families. This simple statement would add weight to the case that the Friar was a good and honourable man. On the other hand, if you consider him to be schemer, only involving him self to gain favour from the Prince, then the secrecy of the marriage does not appear to be a good idea. The fact that the wedding was carried out in secret meant that Friar Lawrence was going against the families’ wishes. This seems to be a poor way of gaining favour with the Capulets and the Montagues as they would have been forced into a situation that meant that they would have to publicly back down. As they were noble families, their social status meant that they had the ear of the Prince and could influence how he felt about the Friar. This points more to him being a foolish meddler rather than being a schemer.
Just before the wedding, Romeo and Friar Lawrence meet. Friar Lawrence now shows signs of uncertainty about his plan.
“So smile the heavens upon this holy act,
That after hours with sorrow chide us not!”
Romeo is claiming that it is worth the risk because his love for Juliet will overcome anything. Father Lawrence advises Romeo to calm down and not be so emotionally charged because:
“These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,”
Friar Lawrence’s unease shows again when he wants to hurry the couple along and begin the ceremony, perhaps for fear of Juliet being missed by her parents, and their opportunity slipping away.
“Come, come with me, and we will make short work,”
After the wedding, Romeo is involved in a street fight which ends when Romeo kills Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin. No knowing what to do, Romeo runs to Friar Lawrence for advice. Romeo is distraught, and can only think of suicide as a means avoiding separation from his love, Juliet. Again the Friar calms Romeo and talks him out of killing himself. Friar Lawrence would have been horrified at the thought of suicide, as this is another mortal sin, and berates Romeo, saying:
“O deadly sin! O rude unthankfulness!”
He goes on to explain that the prince has altered the punishment from death to banishment. This is better for Romeo and Friar Lawrence admonishes him:
“This is a dear mercy, and thou seest not.”
When the nurse visits and relays news of Juliet’s equally distraught condition, Romeo determination to die is renewed. Friar Lawrence intervenes by saying:
“Hold thy desperate hand!”
Friar Lawrence, the schemer, then tells Romeo how things can turn out for the best, if he follows the Friar’s plan. He sends Romeo to Juliet, primarily so that the marriage can be consummated, thus denying their parents the ability to annul the marriage. Romeo leaves Verona before dawn and travels to Mantua to await word, from the Friar, that he is welcome home.
Fate steps in again, after Tybalt’s death, when Lord Capulet brings Juliet and Paris’s wedding day forward in time. The feeling that time is running out for the couple eventually affects the Friar.
“It strains me past the compass of my wits.”
Juliet becomes mortally desperate to avoid marrying Paris and states that she will stab herself with a “bloody knife” before being untrue to Romeo. Friar Lawrence devises a hasty plan to calm her, and again advises patience:
“Hold, daughter, I do spy a kind of hope,
Which craves as desperate an execution
As that is desperate which we would prevent.”
Friar Lawrence suggests the use of a sleeping draft that would put her in a death-like trance. The Friar comments that tasting these plants “slays all senses with the heart.” He is already within the grasp of fate’s reach, foreshadowing Juliet’s death by initiating a plan that involved her drinking “[a] distilling liquor”.
It was critical to Juliet’s spiritual well-being that she did not marry Paris as she would be committing bigamy. This is classed as a mortal sin. Also, Friar Lawrence would not have been able to conduct the wedding with Paris, knowing he had already married her to Romeo. This is another reason why he had to ensure Juliet did not marry again. This was a highly motivating incentive to encourage Juliet to carry out his desperate plan. The lack of time to think of a better plan is the basis for such a bizarre idea to seem an acceptable solution.
As Friar Lawrence has undertaken the role of co-ordinator, it was his responsibility to ensure Romeo knew what was happening. He sent word to Romeo in Mantua, telling him come back to Verona to coincide with Juliet waking from her deep sleep. He entrusted Friar John to convey the message, but fate intervenes again, in the form of an “infectious pestilence”. The messenger was not allowed to go to Mantua for fear of spreading the germs.
Although Friar Lawrence sent a second message to Romeo, he knew that Romeo would not be able to get back to Verona before Juliet woke up; therefore he has to go to the tomb alone. He meets Balthasar on the way, and after being denied his company, the Friar shows his nervous character again:
“Stay then; I’ll go alone. Fear comes upon me.
O, much I fear some ill unthrifty thing.”
On finding Paris and Romeo dead, and hearing the watch arriving, he endeavours to remove Juliet from the scene:
“I hear some noise. Lady, come from that nest
Of death, contagion and unnatural sleep.”
Friar Lawrence suggests that her only escape was to go with him. He thought to “dispose” of her “among a sisterhood of holy nuns”. His final words to her show cowardice:
“I dare no longer stay.”
Juliet refuses, saying:
“Go, get thee hence, for I will not away.”
The watch had been alerted, and arrive at the tomb. On finding Paris, Romeo and Juliet dead, they set out to find suspects. Friar Lawrence is caught carrying “this mattock and this spade”. The Prince questions Friar Lawrence as he is “most suspected”. The Friar responds:
“And here I stand, both to impeach and purge
Myself condemned and myself excused.”
The Friar tells the tale from the beginning. He tells it to give the impression that he only involved himself because Romeo and Juliet asked for his help; he even manages to implicate the nurse. The speech finishes by Friar Lawrence accepting punishment if found guilty. Friar Lawrence’s story is confirmed by Paris’s page and Romeo’s letter to his father and is exonerated by the Prince:
“We still have known thee for a holy man.”
I think Friar Lawrence emerges as a good and honourable man, but more specifically, a man. I think that he shows a range of character traits, ranging from intelligence and calm to cowardice and panic. It is human nature to try to do the best for people and help them when asked. It is also natural to panic and show cowardice when plans go awry. Friar Lawrence was a tool of fate, and as such, could not have foretold the problems that occurred.