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Shakespeare's Characters: Friar Laurence (Romeo and Juliet)

From Romeo and Juliet. Ed. K. Deighton. London: Macmillan.

When first we meet the Friar, he is out in the early morning culling simples for use in medicine, a science he has deeply and successfully studied. He has been Romeo's spiritual adviser from early youth, his confidant in regard to Rosaline, and his aid is now sought to solve the difficulty of marriage with Juliet. A good old man who in his youth has known stormy passions and the stress of life, he has sought in religion and retirement the comfort he could not elsewhere find; his great delight is to alleviate suffering of whatever kind, and above all to promote peace among his fellow-creatures. In the matter, however, before us, his pursuit of this goodly task masters his sounder judgment, and with too ready compliance he assents to Romeo's request. He in fact does evil that good may come and with the usual result of such temporizing.

His piety, benevolence, and sympathy are undoubted, but whereas in his solitary musings and his priestly intercourse with human nature he thinks to have garnered up the teachings of philosophy, he has in reality missed true wisdom of life. Face to face with Romeo's distress at the sentence of exile, he can indeed reprove his despair with wholesome counsel, and by reasonable argument bring him into a sounder frame of mind. But when he has himself to act, his stored up wisdom only leads him wrong. He errs in being a party to the marriage, and his ingenuity and resource suggesting an escape from the inconvenient consequences of this step, he thinks to remedy his first error by a stratagem in which the child-like Juliet is to be involved.

No doubt the courage to confess to the parents how matters stand would bring down upon himself much unpleasantness. It would bring down something worse upon Romeo and Juliet, and this consideration we may well believe weighs more heavily upon him than any personal penalties. Still, his duty is or should be clear before him. Even at the last when the tragic ending has come, and he is forced to unburden himself of his secret, though he palliates nothing, his confession of error is only conditional; "if aught in this," he says,
"Miscarried by my fault, let my old life
Be sacrificed some hour before his time
Unto the rigour of severest law."
"If aught!" yet without his too facile compliance there would be no tragedy to bewail! Hudson has "always felt a special comfort in the part of Friar Laurence. How finely his tranquillity contrasts with the surrounding agitation! And how natural it seems that from that very agitation he should draw lessons of tranquillity!" Tranquillity, yes; but what if it be a tranquillity that differs not much from an easy-going evasion of unpleasant realities, a tranquillity which is to be maintained at the cost of three lives?

According to Gervinus, the Friar "represents, as it were, the part of the chorus in this tragedy, and expresses the leading idea of the piece in all its fullness, namely, that excess in any enjoyment, however pure in itself, transforms its sweet into bitterness; that devotion to any single feeling, however noble, bespeaks its ascendancy; that this ascendancy moves the man and woman out of their natural spheres; that love can only be an accompaniment to life, and that it cannot completely fill out the life and business of the man especially; that in the full power of its first feeling it is a paroxysm of happiness, the very nature of which forbids its continuance in equal strength; that, as the poet says in an image, it is a flower that
'Being smelt, with that part cheers each part;
Being tasted, slays all senses with the heart.'"
But surely Shakespeare means nothing of the kind. Surely he does not seek to "moralize this spectacle" through the agency of one who despite his long years, his acquisition of knowledge, his experience of life, his trusted philosophy, errs so grievously, errs in broad daylight, and without the excuse of passion to disturb his calm and tranquil mind. Shakespeare, it seems to me, dramatizes Brooke's narrative in his own incomparable fashion, and he does nothing more.



From The Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. 8. Ed. Evangeline Maria O'Connor. J.D. Morris and Co.

Friar Laurence is full of goodness and natural piety, a monk such as Spinoza or Goethe would have loved, an undogmatic sage, with the astuteness and benevolent Jesuitism of an old confessor brought up on the milk and bread of philosophy, not on the fiery liquors of religious fanaticism.

It is very characteristic of the freedom of spirit which Shakespeare early acquired, in the sphere in which freedom was then hardest of attainment, that this monk is drawn with so delicate a touch, without the smallest ill-will towards conquered Catholicism, yet without the smallest leaning towards Catholic doctrine the emancipated creation of an emancipated poet. The Poet here rises immeasurably above his original, Arthur Brooke, who, in his naively moralising "Address to the Reader," makes the Catholic religion mainly responsible for the impatient passion of Romeo and Juliet and the disasters which result from it.

It would be to misunderstand the whole spirit of the play if we were to reproach Friar Laurence with the not only romantic but preposterous nature of the means he adopts to help the lovers the sleeping-potion administered to Juliet. This Shakespeare simply accepted from his original, with his usual indifference to external detail.

The Poet has placed in the mouth of Friar Laurence a tranquil life-philosophy, which he first expresses in general terms, and then applies to the case of the lovers. He enters his cell with a basket full of herbs from the garden. Some of them have curative properties, others contain death-dealing juices; a plant which has a sweet and salutary smell may be poisonous to the taste; for good and evil are but two sides to the same thing (II.iii):

"Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied,
And vice sometimes 's by action dignified.
Within the infant rind of this sweet 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.
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."
When Romeo, immediately before the marriage, defies sorrow and death in the speech beginning (II. vi.) :
"Amen, Amen ! but come what sorrow can,
It cannot countervail the exchange of joy
That one short minute gives me in her sight,"
Laurence seizes the opportunity to apply his view of life. He fears this overflowing flood-tide of happiness, and expounds his philosophy of the golden mean that wisdom of old age which is summed up in the cautious maxim, "Love me little, love me long." Here it is that he utters the above-quoted words as to the violent ends ensuing on violent delights, like the mutual destruction wrought by the kiss of fire and gunpowder.
Brandes: William Shakespeare. _________

For much more on the character of Friar Laurence, please see the Romeo and Juliet explanatory notes for 2.3.
For more on the Franciscan order of friars, Friar John, and the plague please see the Romeo and Juliet explanatory notes for 5.2.

_________

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