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The character Friar Laurence in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is a Franciscan monk who agrees to marry the young lovers Romeo and Juliet. The first step in understanding his character has to do with thinking about how the original audience of the the play would have responded to him. St. Francis founded the Franciscan order partly in protest against what he saw as the worldliness of other monastic orders, insisting on the principle of poverty and renunciation of worldly goods. Friar Laurence, unlike some of the corrupt priests who populate Renaissance drama, appears true to the principles of his order, and generally a well-meaning character. He wants to heal the rift between the two warring families and also wants to help Romeo. Although wise about plants, he is somewhat naive about human nature and lacking strength of will.
As a Roman Catholic priest, he considers suicide a mortal sin, and thus it becomes his duty to save Romeo and Juliet from this sin, even if it requires acting imprudently. He emphasizes this concern about suicide in Act 3 Scene 3, saying:
Hold thy desperate hand:
Art thou a man?...
Thou hast amazed me: by my holy order,
I thought thy disposition better temper'd.
Hast thou slain Tybalt? wilt thou slay thyself?
And slay thy lady too that lives in thee, ...
Friar Laurence is somewhat ambivalent about helping Romeo. On the one hand, he is Romeo's mentor, and wants to help him. He also wants to end the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets. On the other hand, he sees Romeo's actions, and his infatuation with Juliet, as rash and impulsive. A deciding factor in his actions is his wish to save the immortal souls of the two young lovers from the mortal sin of suicide. The quoted passage shows the way Friar Laurence thinks through all sides of the issue and eventually makes a decision based on his religious beliefs.
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