A Detailed Analysis of the Dramatic Contribution That Friar Lawrence Makes to William Shakespeare’s Tragic Love Story ‘Romeo and Juliet’

A Detailed Analysis of the Dramatic Contribution That Friar Lawrence Makes to William Shakespeare’s Tragic Love Story ‘Romeo and Juliet’
Ben Jonson once claimed that William Shakespeare (1564-1616) “wanted art” (lacked skill) and this viewpoint can be instantly refuted by the manner in which Shakespeare handles the role of Friar Lawrence in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. The conventional love play, featuring characters who are supposedly doomed from the start and whose “outcome is destined to be lose-lose” (Pam Marshall), can be viewed as a simple story with an outcome which will move the Elizabethan audience. However, Shakespeare can be seen to challenge the ideas of fate, belief through the character of Friar Lawrence and the themes of light and darkness.
In this essay, I will look at the role of Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet – in particular, the eventual tragic deaths of the “star-crossed” lovers – and the manner in which Shakespeare uses Friar Lawrence as a means to challenge ideas of fate and light/darkness through his use of language, imagery and metaphor.
From the first appearance of Friar Lawrence in Act 2 Scene 3, we can see that he uses a lot of contrasts which help to depict the dramatic contrasts in the entire play. His statements such as, “eastern clouds with streaks of light; and flecked darkness like a drunkard reels” and “baleful weeds and precious-juiced flowers” show that Friar Lawrence helps to set-up the contrasts within the entire play, and that he hints towards the eventual deaths of Romeo and Juliet. The contrasts between ‘tomb’ and ‘womb’ in the line “the earth that’s nature’s mother is her tomb; what is her burying grave, that is her womb”, also show for the audience that the fate of Romeo and Juliet is almost foretold and that despite the play resulting in their deaths, their families will begin a new ‘life’ as allies. Friar Lawrence further hints at his role in the lives of Romeo and Juliet with, “Full soon the canker death eats up that plant”, which shows the foretold feud between the families (‘the canker’) will eat up the life of the ‘plant’ – or the blossoming young love of Romeo and Juliet.
Friar Lawrence attempts to question Romeo’s new found love for Juliet in Act 2 Scene 3 with, “Young men’s love then lies not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes” and even warns Romeo with “wisely and slowly, they stumble that run fast”. His final warning to Romeo in this scene uses dramatic irony to hint that a terrible event will come to affect both Romeo and Juliet, and from this line, we also can see that Friar Lawrence becomes an important figure for the audience in the play. His ominous warnings continue in Act 2 Scene 6 as he states that, “so smile the heavens upon this holy act, that after-hours with sorrow chides us not”, which again hints to the audience that Fate – directly from heaven and God – may have a key role in the outcome of the two lovers marriage, and that he also will play a part in the events of the play. His statement “These violent delights have violent ends, and in their triumph die like fire and powder” shows another warning over the fate of the two lovers, and Friar Lawrence’s continually negative statements shows the audience that perhaps the fate of Romeo and Juliet is unavoidable. Even the use of words such as ‘violent’ shows the background to the lovers’ families and the fact that this statement is in iambic pentameter allows Shakespeare to draw attention to the statement.
The warnings of Friar Lawrence towards the doomed lovers who are at the hand of fate are also hinted in Romeo’s ornate language – as if it is rehearsed and from a book. The ornate language of “let rich music’s tongue unfold the imagined happiness that both receive in either by the dear encounter” seems as if it is written in a book – much the same as their fate is written in the stars: “my mind misgives some consequence yet hanging in the stars”. The fact that the fate of Romeo and Juliet is ‘hanging in the stars’ possibly shows that Friar Lawrence is not responsible for the deaths of the two lovers at the end of the play. However, this can be seen differently from his ironic statement: “come, come with me, and we will make short work”, which hints that the lives of the lovers will be short. Friar Lawrence makes a further dramatic contribution to the play by telling the audience in soliloquy that there is an inevitability to Romeo’s actions with, “thou are wedded to calamity”. When he informs Romeo of his banishment from Verona, Romeo refuses to listen fully to the Friar as he claims that he is “taking the measure of an unmade grave”. Despite Friar Lawrence contributing towards Romeo’s angry and careless outbursts, this statement shows that Romeo is playing into the hands of fate himself, and that he will be cause of the tragedy within the play. Romeo even attempts to commit suicide, however Friar Lawrence prevents him from doing so: “Hold thy desperate hand!” Although, a contrast is made again by Friar Lawrence and he hints at his own contribution to their downfall with “wilt thou slay thyself, and slay thy lady that in thy life lives, by doing damned hate upon thyself?” which is a reference to Romeo and Juliet’s eventual suicide.
Friar Lawrence makes a key dramatic contribution towards the end of the play in Act 4 Scene 1 when he learns that Juliet is to be married off to Paris to quell her ‘sorrow’ at Tybalt’s death, and that she threatens suicide if this happens: “do thou call my resolution wise, and with this knife I’ll help it presently”. Juliet’s threats to kill herself again shows that she is hinting towards her eventual outcome and Friar Lawrence attempts to interrupt the hand of fate by claiming that she “cop’st with Death himself to scape from it…I’ll give thee remedy”. This quotation shows the intentions of Friar Lawrence to provide an escape plan for Juliet from the dangers of marrying Paris, however, it also shows that Friar Lawrence is facing the inevitable association with the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. By attempting to help them, Friar Lawrence is actually playing out fate: “the roses in thy lips and cheeks shall fade” and “Shall Romeo by my letters know our drift”. Friar Lawrence continues to refer to the hand of fate in Act 4 Scene 5 with, “Heaven and yourself had part in this fair maid, now Heaven hath all” which shows that God is the director of events and that he has mapped out the fate of others. This sentence goes a long way to showing the effect of fate upon the characters as Friar Lawrence shows that he is a key contributor to the events in the story by hatching a plan that will contribute towards the eventual deaths of Romeo and Juliet. By seemingly stopping the actions of fate (stopping each character from committing suicide), Friar Lawrence is actually fulfilling fate through his actions and his dramatic contribution towards the events of the play can be seen as unavoidable. This can be seen in Act 5 Scene 1 as Romeo has a dream which foreshadows his fate: “I dreamt my lady came and found me dead”, and upon learning of the events incorrectly that Juliet has ‘died’ Romeo challenges fate with “then I defy you, stars!”. These statements show that the fate of Romeo and Juliet is perhaps unavoidable, although Friar Lawrence’s failure to tell Romeo of the plan is a contributing part in the dramatic events of the play. Romeo’s claim of “Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight” further shows that Romeo is heading towards an unavoidable fate in which Friar Lawrence plays a key role.
In Act 5 Scene 2, Friar Lawrence’s role in the play is finalised as he receives news that the letter of information was not delivered to Romeo: “[they] would not let us forth, so that my speed to Mantua there was stayed… I could not send it”. This information allows the audience to view the role of Friar Lawrence in full and that he has assisted in the deaths of Romeo and Juliet: “Thus with a kiss I die” (Romeo) and “This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die” (Juliet). The inability of Friar Lawrence to inform Romeo of the plan involving Juliet’s faked death led to Romeo believing her to be dead and to kill himself. This of course led to Juliet waking up to discover that her lover was dead, resulting in her killing herself. With Friar Lawrence fleeing, he could not save Juliet’s life and his failure to inform the reckless Romeo caused his suicide.
Throughout the entire play, it can be seen that Friar Lawrence makes a large contribution to the dramatic events within the play. From his initial agreement to marry Romeo and Juliet in private under the blessing of God would be the key error that led to their eventual downfall. His failure to control Romeo’s reckless behaviour and to inform him of the plan led to Romeo’s suicide, and the consequence of this event coupled with him fleeing the scene enabled Juliet to take her own life as well. However, throughout the play, it can also be assumed that fate was the controlling factor throughout and that Friar Lawrence’s role was not simply to cause the events, but to hint to audience all along that the events could not be stopped. With this in mind, along with the contrasting language he uses shows the difficulty in changing events and to stop fate. The fact that he is a man of God also shows that God’s will was inevitable in order to stop the bloodthirsty feuding of the Capulet’s and the Montague’s; in order for a new life to begin, the death’s of Romeo and Juliet, the “star-crossed” lovers, were unavoidable.

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