How is the character Friar Laurence used to heighten the tragedy in the play Romeo and Juliet?Please use citations in your response.

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Friar Laurence in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is a "scheme-hatcher"; he is also a character who, ironically since he is a priest, acts impetuously himself and shirks responsibility, thereby causing misfortune to both Romeo and Juliet.

Without following the proper procedures of the Church and without consulting the parents, Friar Laurence performs a marriage of Romeo and Juliet as a scheme to bring together the feuding families:

In one respect I'll thy assistant be;

For this alliance may so happy prove,

To turn your households' rancor to pure love. (2.3.  

However, since the priest does not get the opportunity to talk with the parents, this act causes tragic events: 

1.  After Romeo is married to Juliet,he secretly spends the night with her.  As he enters the streets of Verona the next day, he encounters Tybalt and Mercutio in a heated argument.  Then, Romeo tries to intervene and ameliorate matters by stating that he cannot hate Tybalt without explaining that he now is part of the Capulet family:

Tybalt, the reason that I have to love thee

Doth much excuse the appertaining rage

To such a greeting. (3.1.50

Tybalt is further angered by what he interprets as Romeo's insults, and reaches through Romeo's arm, stabbing Mercutio fatally.  Incensed by Tybalt's act, Romeo pulls his sword and kills Tybalt.  Afterwards, he bemoans his rage and irrationality on which he has heretofore prided himself.  He exclaims, "O I am fortune's fool!" (3.1.137) when he realizes that he must flee Verona.

2. This deception of the secret marriage by Friar Laurence also allows the engagement of Juliet to Paris to occur.  When Juliet refuses to be married to Paris, Lord Capulet misinterprets her behavior and becomes exceedingly angry, demanding that she marry Paris or be sent off to a nunnery.  Despairingly, Juliet runs to the Friar to help her; he devises the plan to have her seem dead. Friar Laurence tells Juliet,

Hold, get you gone, be strong and prosperous

In this resolve.  I'll send a friar with speed

To Mantua, with my letters to thy lord. (4.2.123-125)

With her funeral, etc., the Friar will buy time for Juliet, he hopes, and the Capulets will be so elated when Juliet "returns" to the living that they will forgive everyone.  As they enter the tomb, Friar Laurence deceptively tells the Capulets to follow Juliet's corpse, but he suggests to them to not tempt fate anymore: 

Sir, go you in, and, madam, go with him.

...To follow this fair corse into her grave

The Heavens do lour upon you for some ill;

Move them no more by crossing their high will. (4.5.97-98)

However, Friar Laurence's message to Romeo that Juliet is not dead, but is resting in the family catacombs does not reach Romeo in Mantua where he is banished, and Romeo rushes to Verona only to discover what he thinks is her corpse since a rumor came to him by his man servant.  He arrives at Juliet's tomb and takes poison so he can join her in eternity as he senses fate:

A dateless bargain to engrossing death...

Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on

The dashing rocks thy seasick weary bark (5.3.115-118)

Friar Laurence arrives too late at the catacombs, but Juliet begins to wake up.  Hearing the guard arriving outside, Friar Laurence becomes frightened and will not take Juliet with him, telling her "I can no longer stay."  After he leaves, Juliet discovers Romeo and then slays herself with a dagger that she finds.

The tragic events of Romeo and Juliet are precipated by two schemes of Friar Laurence: the marriage scheme and the scheme of dissembling Juliet's death.  Had he been forthright with the parents, perhaps the tragedy of the two "star-crossed lovers" would not have occurred.  Certainly, he should have been more responsible in his acts and have consulted with parents and authorities, as should have the Nurse, who also knew the truth behind Romeo and Juliet's actions.


muddy-mettled | Student

regarding the friar, mwestwood's answer  is very good.  on the other hand, "by my troth, the case may be amended"(4.4.125).  Might Laurence argue that the secret marriage was just practice, a rehearsal, a dry run?  Therefore, Romeo does not say to Tybalt:  Dude, I just married your cousin.  The nurse's counsel(3.5.212) and Juliet's"I will not marry yet; and when I do, I swear / It shall be Romeo"(3.5.121-2) suggest the thought.  The tragic ending is precipitated by a fiction.  As Isaac Asimov noted, the effects of the "distilling liquor" or rather recovery from them as described by the Friar(4.1.95-106)is impossible.   Therefore, Romeo drinks poison under circumstances that have never occurred.  One might argue, then, that Mercutio and Tybalt should have consulted the Friar.