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

2 thoughts on “Crafting a Character: Friar Lawrence

  1. Fascinating article! Very interesting theory about Shakespeare playing Friar Lawrence himself and fitting that you should have also played the part.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s