Part of our series of posts that focus on a key character from exam set texts. Offering alternative interpretations and insights, these are ideal for sharing with students as they revise and prepare for their English Literature exams.
“Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied”
When we are introduced to Friar Lawrence, it is via his soliloquy – a series of oxymoronic statements about the natural world, its ability to heal and to destroy in equal measure. His words are a metaphor for human nature and for the constant battle between good and evil. For me, his words are also indicative of his part in the narrative of Romeo and Juliet, ‘Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied’. It is this very misapplication of his role and responsibility that hastens the tragedy. Friar Lawrence is typically analysed as wise, trustworthy, caring, well-intentioned. However, he could equally be analysed as a scheming, political character who well knows how he could benefit from being seen to bring about a reconciliation between two warring clans. He is at best misguided, at worst vainglorious and willing to take great risks with the lives of others in order to fulfil his ambition to reconcile the feuding overlords of his city.
Friars, unlike monks or priests, were itinerant (travelling) and mendicant (begging) – meaning they had no way of supporting themselves and were entirely reliant on the charity of the communities they visited. Friars were dedicated to teaching and preaching whilst monks were usually based in monasteries and dedicated their lives to prayer and study. Perhaps Shakespeare just wanted a holy label with a certain poetry and rhythm to it (Priest / Monk Lawrence has less of a cadence about it!) but this context is worth considering:
- Might Friar Lawrence be all the more likely to benefit personally from peace and stability which also meant wealth and prosperity for a city?
- Does it also suggest he is simply able to move on if things get tricky for him?
- Should we ask if he is as thoroughly committed to Verona as we tend to assume?
- Could his role as teacher incentivise him to intervene with the two young lovers despite the consequences?
Friar Lawrence’s consent to marrying Romeo and Juliet in Act 2, Scene 3 is highly irresponsible given what he says elsewhere in this same scene.
1) He accuses Romeo of falling for a woman’s good looks: ‘Young men’s love then lies / Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.’ This is a worrying accusation and one which suggests he knows full well that Romeo is likely to be truly in love as he barely knows Juliet.
2) He acknowledges Romeo’s fickle nature –‘Is Rosaline, that thou didst love so dear, / So soon forsaken?’
3) He makes it plain that he believes Romeo is unreliable, ‘Women may fall, when there’s no strength in me.’
4) He addresses him as ‘young waverer’, again drawing attention to his inconsistent nature.
5) In the same handful of lines, he tells Romeo that he doesn’t know what love is and that he mistakes obsession for love: ‘For doting, not for loving’.
Doesn’t all this make him suspicious of Romeo’s latest declaration of love? It seems that Juliet is a price he’s willing to pay. His offer of help is clearly driven by his desire to ‘turn your households’ rancour to pure love’. His final advice to Romeo is not only ironic but hypocritical too – ‘Wisely and slow’ is quite the opposite of the Friar’s own actions.
Useful Vocabulary – you could use these words to explore character, context and events:
well-intentioned itinerant trustworthy compassionate mendicant reckless irresponsible misguided ambitious self-motivated vainglorious political scheming complex oxymoronic
Jill Carter is an Advanced Skills Teacher and former Leader of English and has been teaching for 23 years. Jill currently works part-time as an English teacher and GCSE Interventionist, as well as authoring for Oxford University Press.
Take a look at the RSC School Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet. Produced in partnership with the RSC, and featuring vibrant RSC performance photographs to bring the play to life in the classroom, this series helps students establish a lasting understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare’s work.