Crafting a Character: Friar Lawrence

Me as Friar Laurence. Ashland University, 2010.

I played this character back in 2010 as a college production and not to brag, but I want award both for my performance and also my role as dramaturg for that particular production, so I did a lot of research in into the character and I tried to bring my own spin on the part. So unlike my other Crafting a Character posts, I am going approach explaining the character as a series of questions instead of talking about it https://youtu.be/-ocOfP16tdw

Who Is Friar Lawrence?

Concept art for Friar Lawrence, including a photo of Pete Postelwhite in the 1996 movie

A friar is a monk who belongs to a local monestary. Francis belongs to the Franciscan orders created by Saint Francis of Assisi. It was known for its naturalist philosophy, and St Francis himself is often depicted in paintings as being friends with birds and rabbits and things like that. He was also a strict vegetarian and believed the spirit of God is in all creatures.

Francis’ work was a reaction to the other orders of Catholic monks who, the Franciscans believed, had gotten corrupt and lustful. So the Franciscans in reaction to that corruption, tried to embrace poverty, plain living, and duty to the poor.

The Franciscans were also famous for not wearing shoes; Shakespeare calls one of them “[our] barefoot brother.” Again, the Franciscans value humility before God, and because of that, they shaved off part of their heads, (known as a tonsure hairstyle); it was way of stating that they were not concerned with their appearance, (so yes, it’s supposed to look stupid).

Why does Romeo hang around him? Friar Lawrence is supposed to be Romeo’s tutor, but really he is in the play because Shakespeare needed a convenient way to get Romeo married to Juliet without his parents finding out. He is also a neutral party who can be sympathetic to both Romeo and Juliet, without being tangled in the politics of the Capulet/ Montegue fued.

Romeo persuades Friar Lawrence to help him marry Juliet in Act II, Scene iii.

Friar Lawrence also acts as a character foil to Romeo. While Romeo is rash, passionate, and impulsive, Friar Lawrence is calm, slow, and contemplative, (appropriate qualities for a monk). During my production of Romeo and Juliet, the director beautifully explained their relationship by having Romeo trip and fall when he is excited about his impending marriage. I as Friar Laurence turned around and said calmly: “Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast.”

My Interpretation Shakespeare makes references again and again to the character being old, yet the director and I made a conscious choice not to portray him as such. I portrayed him as just a few years older than Romeo, who is supposed to be a teenager. I played him as sort of about 25-26, the same age that I was when I played the part.

We did this because even though Friar Laurence acts as the voice of age and experience, he also seems very naive. He seriously believes that he can singlehandedly stop the feud between the Montegues and Capulets with one marriage. he never consults anybody else, and he leaves Friar John in charge of sending the all important letter to Romeo that Juliet is not dead, and never checks up with him on that.

Rather than being an old priest who is aged and experienced, I portrayed him as a young idealistic priest who doesn’t know better. In some ways, his love of God  has blinded him as much as Romeo’s love for Juliet. The Friar  thinks that being a peacemaker is something that God wants him to do. He thinks that bringing together souls is part of his heavenly mandate and he doesn’t think about the practical consequences of his religious fervour.

What is his role in the play?

Friar Laurence engineers the plots to get Romeo married to Juliet and hopefully settle the feud. When we first meet him, Romeo convinces Friar Lawrence to perform a secret wedding between Romeo and Juliet (Act II, Scene iii).

“Romeo shall thank thee daughter, for us both,” Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene v.

In Act II, Scene vi, Friar Lawrence secretly marries Romeo and Juliet, but first warns them to “Love moderately,” because he believes that an over abundance of passion can have disastrous consequences. He even compares Romeo and Juliet’s love to gunpowder.

In Act IV, Friar Lawrence has two scenes where he stops Romeo and then Juliet from killing themselves. First he stops Romeo, filled, with grief and remorse after murdering Tybalt, and being banished.

“What, rouse thee man, thy Juliet is alive!”
“Juliet, I already know thy grief…”
“Come you to make confession to this father?” Paris (Matt Bugay) meets Juliet (Alesia Lawson) outside of Friar Lawrence’s cell, Act IV, Scene 1.

In Act IV, Scene iii, Friar Lawrence concocts his plan to give Juliet a secret potion with which to fake her death. Juliet demands that he find a way to prevent her marriage to Paris or she will kill herself.

“The heavens do lour upon you for some ill.”
In Act V, Scene ii, Friar Lawrence learns from Friar John that his message that Juliet is alive, never reached Romeo.
“A greater power than we can prevent…” Friar Lawrence delivers the bad news that Romeo is dead, Act V, Scene iii.

Is Friar Lawrence To Blame For Romeo and Juliet’s Death?

A lot of scholars, teachers, and classrooms have pondered this question. In addition, even the Supreme Court of the United States put Friar Lawrence on trial in 2016 as part of a mock trial sponsored by the Shakespeare Theater in Washington DC. https://www.c-span.org/video/?419930-1/federal-judges-discuss-romeo-juliet

I am actually working on my own mock trial activity which I will share by the end of this month, but for right now I will summarize the major arguments:

The Defendant (Friar Lawrence) tried repeatedly to prevent Juliet and Romeo from committing suicide. In Act III, when Romeo tries to stab himself, Friar Lawrence stops him and convinces him to go to Mantua:

Romeo. O, tell me, friar, tell me,
In what vile part of this anatomy1985
Doth my name lodge? tell me, that I may sack
The hateful mansion.
[Drawing his sword]

Friar Laurence. Hold thy desperate hand:
Art thou a man? thy form cries out thou art:1990
Thy tears are womanish; thy wild acts denote
The unreasonable fury of a beast:
Thou hast amazed me: by my holy order,1995
I thought thy disposition better temper'd.
Hast thou slain Tybalt? wilt thou slay thyself?
And stay thy lady too that lives in thee,
By doing damned hate upon thyself?

Likewise in Act IV, Friar Lawrence stops Juliet from killing herself and gives her the vial of sleeping potion.

“Be not so long to speak, I long to die!” Juliet (Claire Danes), begs Friar Lawrence to divise a plan to prevent her marriage to Paris in the 1996 movie.

Throughout the play, Friar Lawrence attempted to keep Romeo and Juliet alive and together, but was thwarted by what could legally be interpreted as and ‘Act of God’:

Passage from Act V, Scene ii.
As this slide shows, the reason Friar John was unable to deliver the message to Romeo is that he was in quarantine. A literal “Plague on both your houses,” has indirectly killed Romeo and Juliet

What the prosecutor might say-

Friar Lawrence performed a marriage illegally, without consulting the parents of two minors. He also harbored a fugitive (Romeo), right after he was found guilty of murder. Finally, he tried to deceive Juliet’s parents by giving her a dangerous drug. On paper, though Friar Lawrence was certainly acting out of compassion for Romeo and Juliet, his actions were highly suspicious and could be considered criminal.

An English class can learn a lot putting Friar Lawrence on trial for his role in Romeo and Juliet’s deaths, as long as they are responsible in the way they portray teenage suicide.

Who Originally Played Friar Laurence?

I don’t have any substantial evidence to prove this but I do of have a theory: some of Shakespeare’s parts require a great amount of stage business; singing, dancing, swordfighting, improvising that kind of thing. Hamlet for example has to sing, dance, sword fight, and remember copious amounts of speeches and dialogue. Will Kempe had to dance and dance and sing. Robert Armin had to improvise and dance with the audience.

My theory is Shakespeare didn’t have time to learn extravagant stage business, since he was also writing the plays and helping with the company’s business dealings. With this in mind, he probably gave himself the parts that had long speeches. That’s why I think that Shakespeare himself might have played friar Laurence.

Plus Shakespeare had an edge playing the role over other actors. Since friars are supposed to shave their heads, and since we know that Shakespeare had thinning hair, he could have easily played the part himself.

So those of you who get cast as Friar Laurence and wish that you were cast is somebody young like Romeo or Tybalt, at least your consolation prize is that you might be playing the part that Shakespeare himself once played.

I hope you found this insightful and maybe helpful if you find yourself cast in Romeo and Juliet. I’ll be sure to post about the Friar Lawrence mock trial I’m currently working on. At the very least, I hope this information helps you see Friar Lawrence as more than an old guy who hangs around teenagers.

https://youtu.be/AMLRwqPm_gk snl

Into To Timon Of Athens

Happy Tax Day Everyone!

Since today is a day where many Americans ponder the benefits and perils of capitalism, I thought it would make ‘cents’ to talk about one of Shakespeare’s most obscure plays about money, democracy, and the corrupting effect of money.

Here’s a link to my Play Of The Month Page, where you can read my analysis of the characters, themes, and plot:

Here’s a YouTube video summary of the play:

I also have a series of videos where actors and scholars discuss the plays theme and merits:

Scholar Margaret Atwood, Stratford Theater Festival:

And finally, here’s some artwork inspired by the play:

Is Shakespeare Being Canceled?

Thanks to WordPress’ new interface, it’s easier for me to read what other bloggers have to say about the topics I write about. One trend I’ve noticed is the question that’s been boiling underneath the surface of a lot of people in our culture: “Should Shakespeare be ‘cancelled’?” It’s an interesting question and definitely merits discussion.

It is also a question that has some basis reality: Shakespeare was taken off the list of required reading of of schools in New Zealand. In 2007, The American Council Of Trustees and Allumni published a report called “The Vanishing Shakespeare,” about the number of colleges who no longer require English majors to take Shakespeare courses. If you read my post on Romeo and Juliet, you will recall that one of the main reasons why we have Shakespeare as a requirement in American high schools is that he is required reading in many colleges. So this could be part of a trend that extends to primary as well as secondary schools as well.

Many academics, (myself included), are wondering about Shakespeare’s status in education, and whether or not he will continue to be a staple of all English language curricula. So what I want to do with this essay is to ask the question, “Should Shakespeare be cancelled,” as well as”Should he not be cancelled? and “What even is cancelling and how does apply to somebody who is already long long dead now?”

First off, cards on the table: I am a white man, (with a beard), who has been studying Shakespeare for 20 years. I have a very clear bias; I would never advocate for Shakespeare being taken out of any schools. That said, I see merits to parts of the argument, and I do not believe that these teachers who are reexamining Shakespeare’s place in education are inherently wrong. Nor do I believe if that there is no merit to changing the way educators teach Shakespeare in our schools, (more on that later). My point is to write a thoughtful reflection about the nature of Shakespeare as a writer, his status within our culture, his status within the educational establishment, and how changing that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Part One: the arguments for cancelling Shakespeare

When I read the article “Why I am rethinking Teaching Shakespeare In My English Classroom,” by teacher Christina Torres, I noticed a lot of her arguments centered around diversity quotas and simply not having the class time to devote to Shakespeare. This is entirely understandable. Shakespeare has been dead for 400 years, which means language has changed a lot since his heyday.

Shakespeare poses several unique challenges in education. He wrote in an obscure form of poetry that is no longer fashionable. You have to read footnotes. Although 95% of the words he used are still used today, they are used in a very unique syntax. Furthermore, I come to teaching Shakespeare from the perspective of somebody who studied theater, acting, Elizabethan history, and everything that that is required to teach Shakespeare, but many teachers do not. My point is I can understand why a teacher feels that he or she does not have the time, energy, or the learning required to give Shakespeare the space that he so clearly demands.

The question of Shakespeare’s status in our classrooms also raises subtle questions about diversity. Many curricula these days emphasize diverse writers and try to highlight the cultural contributions of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people, and as far as we know, Shakespeare fit into none of these groups.

This educational initiative is a part of the anti racist initiative and I as an educator I am fully on board with this. I love to be in a classroom where Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Lorraine Hansberry, Mary Shelley, and Truman Capote share the same shelf is William Shakespeare, but ever since the 18th century Shakespeare and cultural nationalism have been inexorably linked.

Almost since the beginning of Shakespearean scholarship, American and British critics have sought to venerate Shakespeare as the peak of British culture, and thus the peak of human culture as well. It’s not a coincidence that we celebrate National Poetry Month the same month as Shakespeare’s birth and death. Also, even though we don’t know for sure when Shakespeare was born, we celebrate it on April 23rd, St. George’s Day, thus forever linking England’s greatest poet, with its patron saint. George Bernard Shaw, (an Irishman), coined the term ‘bardolotry,’ to describe the treatment of Shakespeare by the English as if he were a god and the evidence is quite damning:

The infant Shakespeare attended by Nature and the Passions (Romney, c. 1791-1792)

Just look at this painting where Shakespeare is portrayed as in the same pose and with the same reverence as the baby Jesus. This reverence carried over to poetry, music, festivals, and of course, to the classroom. As I wrote in My Romeo and Juliet post, since the beginning of American public education, Shakespeare was an indispensable fixture in American schools, and thus, prompting American writers like Mark Twain to grumpily refer to Shakespeare and other classics as “Something everyone wants to have read, but nobody wants to read.”

Countless textbooks refer to Shakespeare as the greatest writer in the English language, and possibly the greatest writer ever. Ralph Waldo Emerson once preached that Shakespeare was: “Inconceivably wise.” The god-like aura around Shakespeare has made him nearly impervious to criticism and English speakers on both sides of the Atlantic have claimed Shakespeare as their gospel. Being an English speaker means having the God-Shakespeare on your side, and if you have God on your side historically speaking, you can justify anything.

“A Discovery Of the Bermudas,” 1610. Thought by many scholars to be Shakespeare’s inspiration for “The Tempest”

The British were keen to elevate Shakespeare to this godlike status partially because it showed that their culture was superior to others. Let’s not forget that Shakespeare’s last play The Tempest is about a man with book learning who goes off and colonizes an island whose inhabitants seem savage and uneducated. If our goal as educators with adding anti racist education is to show that all voices are valid, to highlight the contributions of every ethnic group, and to refute the notion that white culture is in any way superior to any other, then to a certain degree, we must knock Shakespeare off his literary pedestal.

Caliban, Prospero’s slave from “The Tempest”

We also should not a take a blind eye to the anti-POC and mysoginist language in some of Shakespeare’s plays. For instance one line I deeply despise in Romeo and Juliet is the line where Romeo refers to Juliet by saying she “Hangs upon the cheek of night like a rich jewel in Ethiop’s ear” (A black woman wearing an earring).

1583/5 – ANNIBALE CARRACCI, PORTRAIT OF A WOMAN HOLDING A CLOCK

This statement contrast beauty, specifically the beauty of white skin, with the “ugliness” of a black woman’s ear. Shakespeare uses this metaphor several times in several plays, establishing white as beauty and black as the aberration.

I bring this up not to say that Shakespeare should be cancelled and hated because of this racially insensitive language, because he’s not the only one who does it. All you have to do is Google “Who’s the fairest one of all?” to realize that for centuries, fair skin, beautiful skin, and white skin meant the same thing. As Dr. Grady says in the video above, having an honest discussion of Shakespeare’s language and his culture’s attitude towards race is an opportunity to teach critical race theory in the classroom, and to teach students to recognize and deplore dehumanizing language, which though poetic to white Elizabethans, is hurtful and dehumanizing to people of color. In short, banning or condemning Shakespeare is counter productive, but examining his language, culture, and politics with a critical eye is a very useful and important exercise.

Part 2 why Shakespeare doesn’t deserve to be cancelled

I’ve established that Shakespeare has connections with some very dark moments in a European history and he should not be celebrated merely because of he was white or because he was British. I believe that Shakespeare’s contributions to the English language as well as drama and the arts still makes him worthy of study by students. As this video from the New York Times shows, students need at least a basic understanding of Shakespeare to understand western culture:

There’s No Escaping Shakespeare: New York Times, 2016.

I believe that, as long as we educators don’t indulge our bardolotrous tendancies, and keep Shakespeare in the context of the period in which he lived, we can still teach him in a way that will benefit our students.

One small way to put Shakespeare in context is very simple: STOP USING THE TERM “RENAISSANCE.” Most scholars now refer to Shakespeare’s time period as the Early Modern Period, not The Renaissance, which was an honorific term that people used during Shakespeare’s time period. The term RENAISSANCE, meaning the rebirth of classical learning and by extention the rebirth of sophisticated European culture, can give the impression that it was only a period of study and artistic achievement, leaving out colonization and racial and political tension. I find Early Modern Period a very useful descriptor because like it or not, Shakespeare’s culture influenced ours, therefore an understanding of him is very much understanding of where we came from. Learning from Shakespeare is like learning from history- we cannot shy away from the mistakes of the past, nor should we flat out reject its benefits.

it should be noted that a lot of the good scholarship in the last to the last 50 or 60 years has been tasked with putting Shakespeare back into his historical context and trying to reclaim his staus as a man of his time. Dr. Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard University helped coin the term ‘new historicism’ which emphasizes learning about the culture of a writer’s time period. To New Historicists (such as myself), Shakespeare is no longer considered a great man of history, but a man shaped by the culture of his time, which is to say a man who had good parts and bad parts much like history itself. This is the approach that I think should be taught in American schools highlighting how Elizabethan culture shaped Shakespeare, and how he shaped our culture in turn.

Comparing Shakespeare to history, especially American history, is very useful in American schools. Like the founding fathers Shakespeare reached towards an ideal. He wrote plays about ideal kingship, even though kingship is a cruel and autocratic system of government. He wrote romances about young lovers who follow the wonderful idea of love at first sight, even though in reality that concept is somewhat rare, and very often fraught with peril. And like Shakespeare, people often ignore the flaws and human failings of the founding fathers too. Look at this mural painting of The Apotheosis of Washington, which still looks down on mortals from the US capital building in Washington DC.

Deifying the First President in 'The Apotheosis of Washington' – Brewminate
The Apotheosis of Washington  Constantino Brumidi, 1865 .

Much like the founding fathers’ document that declares that all men are created equal, we can appreciate Shakespeare’s plays but also be aware of their flaws. Both documents were written by a flawed human being with a very narrow understanding of the wider culture and world in which he lived, but one who did his best to try and write works that would benefit all of mankind. As educators we can teach students to be inspired by this work, and seek to have a greater understanding of “The Great Globe Itself,” with the benefit of hindsight, so they may become enlightened citizens of the world, true Renaissance Men, Women, themselves.

So if I truly believe, (and I do), that Shakespeare is still relevant and has something to say to people regardless of their culture or cultural and racial backgrounds regardless of what time period they were born in and regardless of gender, how then can we teach him in classrooms in responsible and nuanced way?

What to do?

[  ]Give a cultural context to the play you study. A culture that is the direct ancestor of our own, but one that was frought with Colonialism, Casual racism, (especially in language), Sexism, Patriarchy, and Homosexual oppression. Not to toot my own horn, but this is what I tried to do with my Romeo and Juliet Website: https://sites.google.com/d/1iLSGjbllxU-ZwyrUya_xHtjojSCg9pd6/p/12GhgKdJr63wmTcm6TTvkZ-ROmUnALKQi/edit

-Give students the chance to rewrite or reword the more problematic elements, such as Romeo’s creepy stalking of Juliet,

-Highlight Shakespeare calling attention to patriarchial issues: Capulet in Act III, v, Friar Lawrence comparing love to gunpowder. Juliet raging against arranged marriage, etc.

  • Celebrate Shakespeare’s positive contributions to race relations: Othello was the first black hero on the London stage and the role helped generations of black actors get their start in theatre. There’s your modern bardolotry, Shakespeare not as “Inconceivably wise,” Inconceivably woke! You can also look at the proud tradition of color blind casting in Shakespeare’s performance history, such as Orson Wells’ “Voodoo Macbeth.”
  • Do some research on modern productions that translate the themes into a modern concept.
BOOKS : THE LOVERS, AFGHANISTAN'S ROMEO AND JULIET — Home | Afghan Culture  Unveiled
Book cover for “The Lovers,” the real-life story of Ali and Zakia, teenagers from Afghanastan, who fell in love in spite of their parent’s religious hatreds.

To sum up- cancelling Shakespeare doesn’t mean vilifying him. It means re-examining his role in our culture, and teaching students to appreciate the benefits, and try to correct the damages that his culture has brought to our own. We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it. As for Shakespeare himself, no amount of legitimate criticism will keep people like me from enjoying his plays. If anything, I appreciate even more the breadth and depth of his writing the more I learn about the culture in which he lived. I like to think that, if Shakespeare knew people would be talking about him in school, he’d echo the way Othello said he wanted to be remembered, to “Speak of me as I am, Nothing extenuate.” And that we heed the words of Ben Johnson in the dedication to the First Folio, when we think of treating Shakespeare as an icon.

Dedication by Ben Johnson in Shakespeare’s First Folio, 1623.