In act 2, scene 3 of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, what does Friar Lawrence mean when he says, "Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied, / And vice sometime by action dignified"?

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Friar Lawrence is essentially saying, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." His line subtly alludes to one of the major themes in Romeo and Juliet, and to his own role in the play's tragedy. Friar Lawrence is one of the only characters to know of ...

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Friar Lawrence is essentially saying, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." His line subtly alludes to one of the major themes in Romeo and Juliet, and to his own role in the play's tragedy. Friar Lawrence is one of the only characters to know of Romeo and Juliet's secret love, which he believes can mend the civil strife between the Capulets and the Montagues. He believes marrying them in secret is the best way for them to be together and to also end the feud between their families, but this only further complicates the plot when Romeo kills Tybalt.

To make matters worse, instead of coming forward and telling the truth about Romeo and Juliet, Friar Lawrence gives Juliet a potion to make her appear dead so that he can reunite the two. He wants nothing but the health and happiness of the two lovers and peace in Verona, but his actions lead directly to their deaths.

Similarly, the Nurse only wants Juliet to be happy, and so helps her communicate with Romeo and marry him. After Romeo is banished and Lord Capulet pushes Juliet's wedding to Paris, the Nurse counsels Juliet to marry Paris anyway because she believes it is the best thing for Juliet to do. However, her counsel only makes Juliet feel that much more isolated, so she does not tell the Nurse when she takes the potion to appear dead.

The Friar and the Nurse both had the best intentions, but good intentions only go so far.

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These lines from Friar Lawrence are basically a metaphor for the whole moral lesson of the play. In this section Friar Lawrence is collecting weeds as the sun is coming up and is talking about the natural power of the earth to produce life and take it away. 

In lines 21-22, he says, "Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied,/ And vice sometime by action dignified." What he means is that what starts out good or virtuous can accidentally become evil over time. On the contrary, what seems evil can sometimes create goodness if it is used properly. 

These lines foreshadow the idea that it is nature's course for Romeo and Juliet to meet, fall in love and die, in order to fix the feud between their families. It is nature's way of turning "virtue to vice" or hatred back to love, since the families go from hating each other to loving each other in at the end. Romeo and Juliet's deaths seem so horrible and tragic, but they end up healing the hatred between the Montagues and Capulets. 

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