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
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
"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?
Be sacrificed some hour before his time
Unto the rigour of severest law."
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
'Being smelt, with that part cheers each part;
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.
Being tasted, slays all senses with the heart.'"
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,
When Romeo, immediately before the marriage, defies sorrow and death in the speech beginning (II. vi.) : —
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."
"Amen, Amen ! but come what sorrow can,
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.
It cannot countervail the exchange of joy
That one short minute gives me in her sight,"
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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