Sunday, January 21, 2007

Romeo and Juliet - Fatherly Advice

Quiet Colleagues,

"Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?"
"I do bite my thumb, sir."
"Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?"
[sound of crickets chirping ...]

I don't know how enlightening this will be, but I want to accept Ernst's challenge on behalf of Friar Lawrence. In a play dominated by youthful passion, rash acts, and pyrotechnical literary flare, I find Friar Lawrence to be a soothing antidote (how appropriate) -- he is wise, he is hip, he is measured (until the final act), and he is modern. He is also, since we rarely see Lord Montague, Romeo's actual father.

I'll look at wisdom in Act 2, scene 4, where Fr. Lawrence is introduced: When Romeo comes blasting into Friar Lawrence's begging "I pray, that thou consent to marry us today," Fr. Lawrence has some pieces of advice for him.

First, "Be plain, good son, and homely in thy drift. / Riddling confession finds but riddling shrift" (2.3.59-60). This is not only advice against youthful over-exuberance, but against too much cleverness. And while I love Romeo's cleverness, at times you just want him to talk straight. It seems to me that Romeo runs into the same problem with Tybalt, when he tells him: "The reason that I have to love thee / Doth much excuse the appertaining rage / To such a greeting" (3.1.63-65). If Romeo had simply said, "Gosh, Tybalt, I've just married your cousin; / Let us bury the hatchet and be friends," perhaps the tragedy is avoided.

Second, Fr. Lawrence asks Romeo "Is Rosaline, that thou didst love so dear, / So soon forsaken?" and concludes "Young men's love then lies / Not truly in their hearts but in their eyes" (2.3.70-72). Marriage proposal or not, Romeo is vulnerable to this criticism. And as a young man who grew up smitten with Farrah Fawcett Majors whom I knew from a cheesecake poster rather than from any human interaction, I doubt Romeo can offer much argument. (In fact, he lamely counters "Thou chid'st me oft for loving Rosaline." Ha!)

Third, after pointing out that Romeo has made a lot of noise and shed a lot of tears for Rosaline, Fr. Lawrence warns him "Women may fall when there's no strength in men." Literature and life will bear out the truth of this consistently in the coming centuries: Moll Flanders, Hester Prynne, Tess D'Urberville, ... Monica Lewinsky, Lacie Peterson. (Although if we consider Dido in The Aeneid, women may fall when there IS strength in men. Maybe women are better off if they don't have anything to do with men.) Fr. Lawrence aks Romeo, "Art thou changed?" This is a tough question. According to Benvolio, Mercutio, and his parents, Romeo was changed when he was moping over Rosaline. Now, under the spell of Juliet, Mercutio senses the difference and proclaims, "Now art thou Romeo; now art thou what thou art" (2.4.91-92). While one may argue that Juliet is good for Romeo because she allows him to be himself AND in love with her, I think that Fr. Lawrence's observations teach us that Romeo is changeable (as many young men are), and this is his weakness. It takes only the death of Mercutio to change him again from centered peace-maker to veangeful spirit.

Finally, Fr. Lawrence is given the final word in Act 2, scene 4: "They stumble that run fast." This has the quality of an Aesop moral. One can almost see the poor hare, sprawling ungainly on the road, as the tortoise trudges past to the finish line. But Fr. Lawrence's words, especially framed in third person voice, stand as a check on the rash impetuousity that drives so much of the play's characterizations.

Romeo heeds none of this wisdom, and, just prior to Fr. Lawrence's final aphorism in this scene, has insisted that the Friar marry him "on sudden haste." That doesn't even sound good.

So. Speak plainly. Love with your heart, not your eyes. Be strong so that others don't suffer from your impetuousness. And go "wisely and slow." That strikes me as pretty good advice. I wonder what Polonius would think.


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