Friar Lawrence plays a key role in Romeo and Juliet, as an advisor to the couple, as the cleric who marries them to each other, and by planning the means of their escape from Verona. Throughout the play, his intentions may be played as being good (although this is debatable), however, the ironic outcome of his various failed stratagems is to bring about the lovers’ deaths, which he should have foreseen and ought to have avoided.
His actions are heavily ironic, as he says in his first speech, ‘Virtue itself turns vice being misapplied’ (1.3.21), meaning that even well-intentioned clerics can cause immense evil and suffering through their actions. Similarly, he advises Romeo ‘Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast’ (2.3.94) which is in obvious contradiction to his agreement to marry a couple who have only been together less than hour!
Although Lawrence is able to prevent Romeo from killing himself after his banishment (3.3.109-199) it is arguably his irresponsible encouragement of the romance, and his conduct of an unlawful ‘clandestine’ marriage which brings Romeo, and then Juliet to the depths of despair.
Lawrence could be played an unworldly and somewhat naï¿½ve man, perhaps well-intentioned, but also vainly ambitious (to end the feud), and with little real sense of the depths of hatred between the feuding families. Zeferelli’s film makes clear the scale of the public violence surrounding the families’ vendetta, and the degree to which innocent bystanders are drawn in.
However, Buz Luhrman’s (1996) version cast Pete Postlethwaite as a ‘hippy’ Friar Lawrence, whose retreat from reality – and knowledge of plants and potions – is due to a drug habit. This resurrects a note familiar to Shakespeare’s first audience, that Franciscan friars were immoral people, whose outward spirituality was often just a cover for a life of vice. Such immoral clerics were familiar from medieval mystery plays, anti-catholic propaganda, and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, which cast the demon Mephistopheles as a friar.
Lawrence, in his hillside cell, could be seen as remote from the reality of his community, and therefore a poor choice of an advisor for the couple, who more than anything need informed, practical advice. People often shop around for the advice they can agree with, and Lawrence is the only person in Verona who would encourage this marriage, since he believes it offers an opportunity ‘To turn [the] households’ rancour to pure love.’ (2.3.92)
A celibate churchman would not be many teenagers’ first choice of an advisor, and the couple only choose him because they cannot trust anyone else. The couple cannot trust their parents or extended families, and Romeo shuts out Mercutio and Benvolio from his thoughts. Juliet hasonly the Nurse to confide in, who is an even less reliable advisor.
When he first appears collecting plants on a hillside above Verona, he may seem a rather distracted and professorial figure. He believes ‘nought so vile that on earth doth live, / But to the earth some special good doth give’ which seems naï¿½ve after what we have seen of the behaviour of the Capulet and Montague servants (1.1) and especially Tybalt, who needs no encouragement to violence, and spurns good sense and moderation (1.1. 68-9 & 1.5.52-7, 1.5.88-91)
His actions are illegal, according to (1) the English law of marriage, (2) Catholic canon law, as the ‘marriage’ he concludes is clandestine, done without the consent of the couple’s parents. Moreover, Romeo and Juliet are minors (at least in England), and here the play’s exotic ‘Italian’ setting allows Shakespeare to suspend the audience’s disbelief. If Lawrence does not know what he has done, he is foolish naï¿½ve, whereas if he does, he is dishonest.
Evidence for the second point of view is the way he arranges Juliet’s faked ‘death’ (4.1.89-120) as the means of helping her avoid the hastily planned marriage to Paris. Unlike Romeo, Juliet does not fully trust Lawrence, fearing he might ‘poison’ her ‘Lest in this marriage [to Paris] he should be dishonoured /Because he married me before to Romeo? / I fear it is.’ (4.3.24-28). When she says ‘he hath still been tried a holy man’ (4.3.29) her belief seems a rationalisation, grudging at best: at this point, she has no alternative but to trust the friar.
When Juliet’s drugged body is been discovered, Lawrence calmly and efficiently stage manages her removal, proving he can – when he needs to be – be an accomplished liar, or (at best) an improviser. The Capulet family clearly trust him, (4.2.13; 4.2.31) and his actions are, by any standards, a betrayal of that trust.
Later on, Juliet’s doubts are vindicated, as Lawrence abandons her after Romeo’s suicide. Having failed to prevent this, Lawrence should foresee Juliet’s likely reaction, which is, of course, to kill herself. Lawrence’s final desperate ‘plan’ is to ‘dispose of [Juliet] / Among a sisterhood of holy nuns’ (5.3156-7) His use of the the verb ‘dispose’ could be significant, implying he is more concerned about his own reputation, safety and interests than in Juliet’s. She considers herself a grieving widow and has no vocation to be a celibate religious. This action shows once again Lawrence’s cavalier attitude to religious ceremonies and vows; he will ‘marry’ people who barely know each other, and encourage the ordination of people with no vocation. Hearing the arriving Capulets, his main fear is for himself, saying ‘I dare no longer stay’ (5.3.159), leaving Juliet to contemptuously (?) reply, ‘Go, get thee hence, for I will not away.’ (5.3.160) For the second time in the play, she is abandoned by an unreliable, self-reserving adult in whom she had placed her trust.
Lawrence’s use of language at various points in the play is extremely skilful, which only serves to underline the crassness of his final remark to Juliet. He is generally well able to manipulate others’ feelings, as in (3.2) where he adroitly shames Romeo out of his first suicide attempt by accusing Romeo of first effeminacy and then irrationality: ‘Art thou a man? Thy form cries out thou art’ yet ‘Thy tears are womanish; thy wild acts denote the unreasonable fury of a beast.’ He uses cleverly puns ‘Unseemly [i.e. improper] woman in a seeming [i.e. apparent] man; / Or ill-seeming beast in seeming both!’ (3.2.107-112). He then skilfully urges Romeo to stay alive and consider his wife, as his death would ‘slay thy lady that in thy life lives’ (3.2.115-6), which is of course what happens in (5.3).
Similarly, in (4.5) Lawrence emphasises the grieving Capulet’s guilt in Juliet’s first (apparent) suicide, which he blames on the family’s thirst for ‘promotion’ and ‘advancement’ by an unwanted marriage to Paris, whereas the Capulets’ true rationale was pressing the marriage as a means of distracting Juliet from her ostensible grief for Tybalt. Lawrence’s wordplay is extremely clever, as he harps on the Capulets’ desire to see Juliet ‘well-married’; they meant to see her married to a good man, whose steady character and honest affection for Juliet was plain for all to see. Now, in the ‘death chamber’ Lawrence emphasises the iniquity of the Capulets pressing the marriage to Paris for its economic benefits. Now, he argues, Juliet is, in ‘death’ ‘advanc’d / Above the clouds, as high as heaven itself’ (4.5.69-74).
He uses a series of clever oxymorons to point out the way in which, by trying to make Juliet happy, they unintentionally compounded her misery: ‘O! in this love, you love your child so ill’ (4.5.74). He continues, ‘She’s not married well, that lives married long; / But she’s married best that dies married young’ (4.5.76-8); this must not make much sense to the listening Capulets, but is full of significance (and dramatic irony) for the audience. Unknown to her family, Juliet is already ‘married well’ and by the prologue chorus’s prophecy, we know she will not be ‘married long” and will indeed ‘die young’. It also makes us speculate what Lawrence believes would have happened – in view of Romeo and Juliet’s hasty marriage – if the couple had somehow been able to survive and be together for a decent length of time.
Lawrence’s most eloquent and effective speech is his final ‘brief’ (40 line) summing up of the play’s action (5.3 229-269). This is dramatically necessary to inform both the Monatague and Capulet families, as well as the Prince, of the full truth of the preceding events. Often cut from productions on the grounds of redundancy, this speech can be dramatically effective, moving audiences, as it clearly moves those on stage, so that – ironically – Lawrence is final able to shock and shame the couple’s feuding families into a final reconciliation.
As in (4.5), Lawrence does not seek to soften the blow for the grieving parents. On top of the horror of seeing the gore of the tomb, which they can see for themselves, Lawrence draws their attention to both their dead bodies and previously hidden past history (‘Romeo, there dead … And she, there dead’, 5.3.231-2); he persistently asks the audience to confront the tragedy of their deaths, as well as those of Paris and Tybalt (5.3.234-64), thus emphasising the scale of the tragedy – almost a whole generation wiped out – for nothing. He then reveals the truth of the lovers’ relationship, adding a note of pathos by commemorating the couple’s devotion and fidelity, underscoring their hidden identities as bride and groom, husband and wife (‘husband to that Juliet’, ‘Romeo’s faithful wife’, 5.3.231-2). Lawrence’s recapitulation of events demands that the audience relive and reconsider the totality of the play’s action.
It is also an opportunity for Lawrence to spread the blame for those events on to others, before – only at the end – accepting any blame himself. His ‘short date of breath’ (5.3.229) is arguably an appeal for sympathy before beginning his account. At first, he merely notes that ‘I married them’ and quickly glosses over the self- compromising details of ‘ their stolen’ marriage-day’ (5.3.233). Everyone is held accountable: ‘You [Capulets] … Betroth’d and would have married [Juliet] perforce, /To County Paris’ (5.3.237-29). Juliet’s ‘wild looks’ and suicide threat (4.1.49-69 )forced Lawrence into action. He then goes into the bare facts of his plan: the feigned death, reviving Juliet in his cell, and bringing Romeo back from Mantua, drawing first Friar John (5.3.250-252) and then the Nurse (5.3.266) into his tangled web.
He glosses over his final hasty plan, so his final acceptance of responsibility and plea for punishment arguably sounds less sincere (5.3.266-269). He omits to say why he is too ‘scared’ to stay with the ‘desperate’ Juliet and prevent at least her suicide. While Romeo’s final letter to his father confirms most of Lawrence’s account, (5.3.286-290), Lawrence has arguably ‘spun’ the story of the lovers’ courtship, marriage and death in his own favour.
The last word on Lawrence – in the play – goes to the Prince, who still says ‘We still have known thee for a holy man’ [emphasis added]. This line, which eerily echoes Juliet (4.3.29, above) could be made to bristle with tension, and the family members could be directed to blanch at any attempt to clear the Friar. And even if the Prince’s words are meant to be taken at face value, one wonders if he and the grieving families will be so forgiving later.
In conclusion, Friar Lawrence is a morally ambiguous character in the play, whose actions play a great part in the lovers’ tragedy, and whose motivation is anything but clear and straightforward.