In act 2, scene 3 of Romeo and Juliet, what does Friar Laurence's speech mean?

In Romeo and Juliet, Friar Laurence's speech in act 2, scene 3 is a discussion of the duality of life, which is the idea that the potential for both good and evil exists in all things.

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As the friar collects flowers and herbs, he stops to reflect on the way both can heal and harm. Thus, he reasons, herbs and mankind are much the same—they both have capacity for good and evil.

This is a theme that has strong undercurrents throughout the play. Although Romeo tries to avoid murdering Tybalt, his attempts toward kindness unintentionally cause the death of his friend Mercutio. Although Romeo and Juliet find true love together, their love stands in opposition to their parents' wishes, putting them in grave danger. Lord Capulet claims to want the best for his daughter, yet when she attempts to deny his plans for marriage, he tells her that she will be dead to him unless she follows his wishes. In each of these instances, mankind proves the relationship between good and evil in Friar Laurence's speech:

Nor aught so good but, strained from that fair use
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied, (act 2, scene 3, lines 19–21)

Friar Laurence finds himself doing good which leads to evil. Trying to help the young couple, he agrees to marry them secretly and then agrees to providing Juliet with a potion that will make her appear to be dead. These actions set in motion the plot that will take Romeo and Juliet to their deaths. Although his intentions are good, Friar Laurence's actions show that there are "Two such opposèd kings encamp them still / In man as well as herbs—grace and rude will" (act 3, scene 2, lines 27–28). Though it isn't his plan, the friar's "grace" leads to the demise of the very couple he plans to assist.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on June 1, 2020
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After gathering herbs in his garden, Friar Laurence discusses the duality of all things:

O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In herbs, plants, stones, and their true qaulities:
For naught so vile that on the earth doth live,
But to the earth some special good doth give;
Nor aught so good, but, strain'd from that fair use,
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse:
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied;
And vice sometime by action dignified.

Just as an herb can be used to make medicine or poison, so too can situations have the potential for good or evil, bounty or disaster.

Such duality suffuses every situation and character in the play. There is, of course, the love between Romeo and Juliet itself. Their love is in many ways a good thing: the union between them could force the warring Montagues and Capulets to set aside their differences since they are now literally family, ending the strife in the streets of Verona. Even on a character level, this love is potentially transformative: Juliet grows a more proactive character through her love for Romeo, and Romeo's own poetry improves once he shifts his attentions to Juliet, which is Shakespeare's subtle way of suggesting this love is truer than anything Romeo felt for Rosaline. However, their love also makes both characters prone to rash decisions since they are both still so young and easily swayed by their emotions. Their love, combined with their bad situation and their own immaturity, thus becomes deadly.

Duality is also reflected in the play's themes. Death is horrible and tragic, but the deaths of Romeo and Juliet bring the two families to their senses, ending the feud between them. Love for Juliet makes Romeo willing to turn the other cheek when Tybalt insults him, but when Mercutio is killed, love for his friend throws Romeo into a rage, leading to his killing Tybalt in turn.

Ultimately, Friar Laurence's speech foreshadows the effects of the tragic events to come. Romeo and Juliet's love is both destructive and restorative: while tragic for the individuals involved, for the society of which they are a part, their deaths put an end to the violence plaguing Verona. Both good and evil come of their story.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on June 1, 2020
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In act 2, scene 3, Friar Lawrence is collecting herbs and flowers to make medicine. As he makes his selection, he talks about how everything that comes from the Earth has some special quality to it, and that no plant is inherently good or poisonous. More importantly, he says that these plants only turn poisonous when they are misused by people:

Nor aught so good but, strained from that fair use

Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.

We can apply this idea to the feud between the Montagues and Capulets. Just as a plant can be good or evil, depending on how we use it, the men involved in this feud can also be good or evil. In other words, the Montagues and the Capulets have the ability to make a choice. They can either act badly and continue this feud, or they can change their ways and make amends. It is up to them because nothing created by nature is inherently evil.

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Friar is basically saying that men are both inherently good and evil. It is just like the old saying "The path to Hell is paved in good intentions". Although one may MEAN well, sometimes it ends up not working out in a positive manner. When Romeo is so bent on revenging Mercutio's death by Tybalt, he is indeed doing something admirable. However, the killing of Tybalt sealed his and Juliet's fate in being separated and then their subsequent death.

His speech is a mere foreshadowing of what is to come. The romantic love story between two teenagers doing everything in their power to be together and accepted by their families and it all ends in a huge mess. Just like some of the most beautiful flowers can be deadly to the touch, people can try to do something beautiful and have it end in mere tragedy.

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