In Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, Friar Laurence plays a major role; in the impossible marriage of Romeo and Juliet, Juliet’s “death” plan as well as in Romeo’s death. Without the Friar many crucial and tragic events would not have happened in Romeo and Juliet, but how much does Shakespeare convince us that the Friar is to blame for the tragic ending, and that he is the sole influence that drives Romeo and Juliet to end their lives so terribly?
The Friar is established as an honoured man, who sells herbs and medicines to the people of Verona and is an ancient pharmacist, who produces potions for both causes of good and evil. He makes his first appearance in the play at the beginning of Act Two, Scene 3, during which Shakespeare gives us a background to his thoughts and personality through his short lecture on herbal drugs that can kill and cure. “O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies/ In plants, herbs, stones, and their true qualities.
For naught so vile that on earth doth live / But to the earth some special good doth give; / Nor aught so good but, strained from that fair use, / Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.” and “Wisely, and slow. They stumble that run fast.” give the impression that he is a wise and intelligent man, and from his speech you get the impression that he is good-hearted and has good intentions. The Friar’s close relationship with Romeo is also revealed in this scene, as Romeo confesses his love for Juliet to Friar Laurence, who is clearly accustomed to hearing Romeo’s confessions of love and who has evidently given him advice in the past.
His knowledge of Romeo’s life builds the reputation that he is a man of trust, not one that would deceive a true friend, although other parts of the speech indicate a slight foreshadowing of the incidents that will occur – “Within the infant rind of this small flower / Poison hath residence, and medicine power; / …Full soon the canker death eats up that plant”. In this way, it would seem that Shakespeare is leading us to believe that the Friar is to some extent in control of the story and the plotline, and will play a vital part in the scenes ahead – whether it is for the good of his own intentions or for Romeo and Juliet’s benefits. Perceptibly this morality literally applies to the drug that he will provide for Juliet, as well as the poison that Romeo takes to kill himself. However, it also surely reflects upon the romance around which the play centres, though the Friar’s meaning is questionable. Does he mean that love is true when it is freely given, but unworthy when it is used as the tool for politics and agreements (between the Capulets and the Montagues) as modern audiences might assume, or does he mean that lawful married love is honourable and that it becomes sinful when it is carried out for “unhonest desires” amidst the “shame of stol’n contracts”?
After all, Friar Laurence does not immediately approve of Romeo’s plan to marry Juliet, and asks him “Is Rosaline, that thou didst love so dear,/ So soon forsaken?” In this scene the use of the Friar’s formal language of rhyme and proverbs as opposed to Romeo’s romantic poetry stresses the need for caution towards Romeo and represents the Friar as a fatherly sort of figure. As well as this, the Friar’s sophisticated tone of language shows his wisdom and understanding, which does change later in the play as he begins to get more desperate and uncertain of his actions. This change of character and decrease in confidence leads the audience to believe that perhaps the Friar’s plan is not so well-thought out after all and gives them reason to doubt that the Friar is an all-knowing wise man who knows what to do in problematic situations.
Romeo’s arguments in favour of his current love for Juliet are hardly very creditable: “Her I love now/ Does grace for grace, and love for love allow/ The other did not.” In this scene (Act 2 Scene 3), Shakespeare shows Romeo as irrational and impatient, determined to marry Juliet after only one brief encounter the previous evening. The Friar even tries desperately to convince Romeo that he is being far too hasty, and that he should hold back and think about his true feelings – if he is acting on impulse or if it is true love – “So soon forsaken? Young men’s love then lies/ Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.” In this way, the Friar does do the right thing and does seem to respond to what the audience is actually thinking at this point (have they not only seen each other once? Is it not only the next day?). Shakespeare gives the audience someone to relate to and this builds up the trust between the audience and the Friar at the start of the play for additional dramatic effect later on.
Friar Laurence does agree to help Romeo and Juliet as he is convinced by Romeo’s sincerity, but for a specific reason (“in one respect”, as he says), specifically that “This alliance may so happy prove/ To turn your households’ rancour to pure love.” Here the audience is given the idea that the Friar’s intentions are in fact good – to resolve the everlasting feud between the Capulets and the Montagues. Looked at more closely, Friar Laurence could be accused of helping to arrange Romeo and Juliet’s marriage for reasons that have nothing to do with their love; though he wants to create peace, he is arguably as keen to use marriage for the purposes of “alliance” as Juliet’s father is when he attempts to make Juliet marry Paris. As things get more twisted and the plot thickens, the Friar’s motive for marrying Romeo and Juliet evidently leads to destruction, as everybody seems to keep secrets from each other for different purposes; whether it is for love, hate or for carrying on the family name. It is impossible that all of these plans will turn out well – at least some will fail, and even though the Friar may be portrayed as a trigger for the chain of tragic events that follow, it cannot be all down to him.
Despite this, Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet so that the plotline does seem to almost entirely revolve around the Friar’s plan going horribly wrong and around his attempts to solve the dreadful problems that arise. He is extremely optimistic despite the horrific events taking place, as shown in Act 3 Scene 3 when he tries to console Romeo after Tybalt’s death and gives him the news of his banishment – “turn’s that black word ‘death’ to banishment. / This is dear mercy, and thou seest it not.” The fact that he is so optimistic about his highly unsuccessful plan gives the audience more reasons to put the blame on him when dreadful things do happen, and Shakespeare perhaps emphasized this to give the audience someone to hold responsible other than the lead characters in the play.
However, Shakespeare makes it apparent that even Romeo and Juliet themselves can be blamed to some extent for the tragedy. Their extreme impatience and impulsiveness to get married so soon is bound to have its difficulties, and on top of all of the other factors preventing their marriage this will surely lead to the tragic ending. Their undying love seems to get in the way of their rational thinking, and the phrase ‘blinded by love’ corresponds exclusively to their situation. The Friar recognises that Romeo and Juliet are far too ambitious in their desires to marry so soon and warns them that they should prepare themselves for the dreadful consequences and terrible situations that will arise. Again, the Friar’s sophisticated and intelligent language contrasts with Romeo and Juliet’s romantic sonnets, giving you the impression that the Friar is shrewd enough to resolve all the problems; he will marry the lovers, solve issues with Juliet’s father and Tybalt and in the end the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues will be over.
Accordingly, it seems that the Friar knows all along that “These violent delights have violent ends” (Act 2, Scene 6). Shakespeare constantly uses the Friar to foreshadow future events in the play, possibly so that we are lead to believe that he one way or another knows the couples’ fate and the plot is in his hands. In addition Shakespeare shows him as an ‘I told you so’ character in the plot, someone that foretells the ending to a tragic tale and someone we can refer back to for evidence that the ending was expected to happen all along. Could this be leading us to thinking that because he knows their fate, he is to blame for his prediction turning out to be true? Surely we cannot blame him simply because he guessed accurately, but automatically the audience would turn to the person who is mostly in control of the plotline and knows the fate of the two lovers outwardly before he even knows they are in love.
If Shakespeare was in fact trying to lead his 16th century, and most likely very religious audience into believing that Friar Laurence was to blame for Romeo and Juliet’s not-so-happy ending, what was he trying to say about religion in those times? Religion in Elizabethan times was thrown into turmoil after the reformation when England broke with Rome and matters were not helped either as the Protestant religion was being continued by Elizabeth after her father Henry VIII restarted it. In this Protestant church, cracks started appearing with extremist groups such as the Puritans disapproving of society and the church. Many people were beginning to question religion despite Catholicism being forbidden by Queen Elizabeth, and were in no doubt confused. The Catholicism shown in Romeo and Juliet was unknown territory despite the play being set in Italy, and therefore the audience would have been unfamiliar and unsure about the morals of holy characters such as the Friar.
Around the time when Romeo and Juliet was written, people were also beginning to question traditional beliefs about rank and social order, and ideas that people should be superior simply because they were born into wealthier families, or that those in power should always be obeyed without question. Because of this, Shakespeare had plenty of real-life examples for the royal wrongdoers, strong-willed women and disobedient children in all of his plays. Perhaps in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare was aiming to demonstrate to his audience that religion was not the ideal and perfect answer to the way people should have acted and behaved and that in fact the church could not be one-hundred-percent trusted. Maybe Shakespeare was simply using the Friar as a blunt example for this theory – that even the holiest and most trusted people could be corrupt and not have your best intentions at heart.
Moreover, Friar Laurence is very much a rebellious religious character as he takes no consideration into the possible consequences of his actions, only focusing on getting through each problem the easy way out. Romeo and Juliet’s emotions seem to be of no concerns to him, even though he should be the most rational character in the play as a 16th century audience would have expected of a highly commended Friar. He does not take into account the other characters, and other possible actions that could complete the same goals; instead he attempts to mask death and then sends word to Romeo, consequently ignoring the myriad of problems that could go wrong. In the later scenes, Friar Laurence is shown beyond doubt not to have the maturity of his age and status, something that was allegedly unheard of at the time that the play was written.
Referring back to the play, even after Mercutio’s death and Romeo’s banishment Friar Laurence does not see the destructiveness of Romeo and Juliet’s marriage. Instead he continues to attempt to keep Romeo and Juliet together. However, his plan is short-sighted, poorly thought out and risky. Friar Laurence devises the plan in haste and in desperation simply because Juliet is there in his presence threatening suicide rather than to marry Paris. “Unless thou tell me how I may prevent it. / If, in thy wisdom thou canst give no help, / Do but call my resolution wise, / And with this knife I’ll help it presently” (Act 4 Scene 1).
To appease Juliet, Friar Laurence gives her a potion to consume that will enable her to feign death, by this means avoiding her marriage to Paris. He calls his plan “as desperate as an execution” as he is telling her of it which is quite an ironic thing to say, as it suggests that if Juliet does decide to go ahead with his plan she could get killed in an exceptionally painful death approximating an execution, and his language here is indeed desperate. The fact that the Shakespeare gives the Friar language that causes him to appear extremely desperate and distressed at this point triggers you to begin to worry; given that he is established at the start of the play as a very wise, knowledgeable and holy man who can even prefigure some of the events that do in fact take part later on, this gives you more reason to consider that something is not quite right and that the plan is perhaps not working as well as anticipated.
In addition, is Friar Laurence attempting to get himself out of the mess he has created by planning Juliet’s stimulated death? If Juliet did, to her dismay, get married to County Paris, she would have been a wife to two different men. In Shakespearean times, marriage laws were extremely strict and therefore this double marriage would ultimately have resulted in the Friar’s execution. This situation leads you to believe that Friar Laurence may just be acting on his own agenda, trying to save himself from the situation that he has put himself in rather than Romeo and Juliet, therefore giving you more reason to place more blame on him for the tragedy.
More to the point, it is he who almost interrupts the dramatic scene of Romeo and Juliet dying in each others’ arms with his frantic talking as he enters the churchyard – “Saint Francis be my speed! How oft tonight / Have my old feet stumbled at graves! Who’s there?” The fact that he interrupts such an intimate and anticipated scene to some extent ruins the moment, and the audience are quite likely left feeling dreadfully annoyed with the Friar for this reason. In addition he stumbles over the graves, and this was known as a bad omen in Shakespearean times; all the more reason to get the feeling that the Friar was in reality not a ‘matchmaker made in heaven’.
Conversely, despite all that has gone wrong, the Friar does admit in the final scene (in a rather longwinded speech) that he has done wrong and is ready to face the fatal consequences of his actions – “I will be brief, for my short date of breath / Is not so long as is a tedious tale”. This sentence almost sums up how the Friar understands that his plan was “Miscarried” by his fault and he is ready for his “old life / Be sacrificed, some hour before his time, / Unto the rigour of severest law.” This could be Shakespeare’s way of showing us that the Friar does show remorse to a degree for his unlawful activities, and he is somewhat ashamed of his actions that lead to such devastation. Although the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet’s deaths is upsetting, the family feud between the Capulets and the Montagues is well and truly over, only because of the Friar’s plan going wrong. This therefore means that one of the Friar’s motives for the marriage plan (to make alliance between the two families) does in fact turn out well and according to plan, and some good does come out of his disastrous scheme.
To conclude, the Friar is a very interesting character to analyse in Shakespeare’s play of Romeo and Juliet as there is no true answer as to whether or not Shakespeare was trying to show that he is to blame for the tragedy. He is guilty to some extent, for it is he who is mostly in control of the plotline throughout and could have done differently to adjust the ending, but do we actually want the ending to change? Romeo and Juliet die in each others’ arms for their extreme love for one and other and the feud between their two families is finally over, despite there being a few deaths along the way. Perhaps the Friar’s plan is for the greater good after all, as a happy ending would have defeated the purpose of Shakespeare’s tragedy.