Content warning: This piece contains mentions of emotional/psychological manipulation, trauma, and suicide
Ahh Romeo and Juliet. One of the most famous romantic couplings way too may people idealize right up there with Joker and Harley Quinn (for the record I am team Harley/Ivy all the way). It is a story of love, rushed romances, tragic endings, and hormones galore!
But this is not about them but rather Friar Lawrence, the kindly friar who helps Romeo and Juliet in their romance and hopefully end the long-standing feud between the Capulets and Montagues. A pillar of support and guidance for our lovers. He is the moral centre of the play even to go so far as to help orchestrate their escape later which would end in their suicide. But this theory states the Friar is not a witness to the tragic suicide of Romeo and Juliet or even an unwilling participant but a willing orchestrator of the event itself.
But first let’s get a little background here. Now it is important to note that since theatre especially Shakespeare is so versatile in the way it is performed and the different messages that can be taken from each performance, this theory is just going to use three texts as the basis for this theory and additional historical research and legends. The original Romeo and Juliet text plus two other texts said to the inspirations behind the play. First the prose poem Palace of Pleasure and the original poem The Tragicall history of Romeus and Juliet.
Now in Fair Verona where we lay our scene where ancient grudge breaks to new mutiny. You got yourselves the Capulets and the Montagues. Two families locked in a bitter feud. Feuds like this especially in Italy were famous throughout Europe where they were known as blood feuds or vendettas. So much so that funerals were strictly held during the daytime to lessen the risk of violence from rival families. Feuds could range from personal matters to in some cases political differences.
In Romeo and Juliet, their respective families have been publicly feuding for some time. As the Prince of Verona says,
Prince: Three Civil Brawls, bred of an airy word. By thee, old Capulet, and Montague, Have thrice disturb’d the quiet of our streets; (Act 1 Scene 1)
Who then threatens them with a punishment if violence should occur again….foreshadowing.
Prince: If ever you disturb our streets again, Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace. (Act 1 Scene 1)
So now we have our families now we need our lovers.
Romeo is part of the Montague family and at the start of the play is in love with a woman named Rosalind who rejects him because she is planning to live chaste. It’s important to note here that in Romeo’s lines about Rosalind he pretty much just goes on about how hot she is…like there are other aspects to a person Romeo….
Anyway, Benvolio his cousin takes him to the Capulet Ball in disguise with their friend Mercutio who is related to the Prince of Verona and the only one who can get them into the party. The boys attempt to get Romeo’s mind off Rosalind and on to other ladies of Verona. Well mission successful because he meets lovely Juliet…who happens to be the daughter of Capulet. Yup the very family his own kin just brawled in the streets with.
Romeo and Juliet fall head over hormones in love with each other at the party and after that famous balcony scene that same night, they decide to get married.
Juliet: Thy purpose marriage, send me word to-morrow, by one that I’ll procure to come to thee. Where and what time thou wilt perform the rite; (Act 2 scene 2)
Ahh young love. Romeo now knows someone who can help him and Juliet get married, enter our kindly Friar Lawrence. Now Friar Lawrence is aware of Romeo’s reckless behaviour in love and flaky nature. Something that is rather common across all three texts with Romeo and the gentleman equivalent in Palace of Pleasure.
In Romeus and Juliet the Friar says,
Perhaps he shall be bet advised within a week or twain.
Advice is banished quite from those that follow love (Romeus and Juliet)
In Palace of Pleasure the character equivalent decides to run off to another country after getting married….charming.
In Romeo and Juliet the Friar has this exchange with Romeo in Act 2 scene 3,
Friar: Holy Saint Francis! What a change is here! Is Rosaline, that thou didst love so dear, So soon forsaken? Young men’s love, then lies not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes…..
Romeo: Thou chidd’st me oft for loving Rosaline.
Friar: For doting, not for loving, pupil mine
Nonetheless he agrees to marry the two because he believes it will end the feud between the Capulets and Montagues.
Friar Lawrence: For this alliance may so happy prove, To turn your households’ rancour to pure love. (Act 2 scene 3)
So far so good…but all that changes with the death of Tybalt.
You see Tybalt a loyal member of the Capulet family is deeply offended after seeing Romeo at the party and searches him out for revenge. He first finds Benvolio and Mercutio and goads Mercutio but before it can go any further Romeo appears and Tybalt challenges him to a duel. Romeo refuses but Tybalt is insistent. Mercutio steps in and in Romeo’s efforts to separate them, Mercutio is killed by Tybalt who is then killed by Romeo in revenge. Romeo is banished from Verona and Juliet who is due to marry Paris (the man her father arranged for her) concocts a plan with the Friar to escape with Romeo.
The plan involves Juliet taking a potion to make it seem like she is dead but is not and for Romeo to meet her at the Capulet crypt and run away together. Sadly, Romeo does not receive the message detailing the plan and upon hearing of Juliet’s “death” thinks she is real dead goes to her tomb (where he kills Paris because let’s be honest what else is Paris gonna be good for at this point?) sees her body, drinks poison he bought earlier and dies. Juliet awakes shortly after and kills herself in grief. The families meet at the tomb and upon seeing their children dead by suicide and hearing the Friar’s recounting of the love between Romeo and Juliet, make peace with each other. In all it seems like a case of a late message gone horribly wrong…or is it?
I said earlier how the death of Tybalt changes everything. It is my belief that his death and Romeo’s subsequent banishment also changes the Friar’s objectives from uniting the two families with love but rather with death. To understand that motivation we need to understand the nature of Vendettas.
The word vendetta comes from the Italian word for vengeance or personal revenge but is tied into the phrase blood feud. A blood feud is a cycle of violence perpetuated by those or the relatives of one who has been the victim of violence or dishonor and targets those who caused the pain or their relatives. These feuds were quite popular during the middle ages where powerful families held power in their communities. The rise of regular law enforcement however put an end to this tradition.
These feuds were family based and the responsibility of revenge would fall to the oldest male relative (though other family members could also be drawn in). These feuds were a prime example of eye for an eye mentality and given the deeply personal and cyclical nature of the feuds, there was really no way of peacefully ending them or saying ok we have an even amount of kills on both sides let’s call it a day. In the case of Romeo and Juliet the scoreboard is not even.
We know that Romeo killed Tybalt who is a Capulet by birth after Tybalt kills Mercutio who is a friend of Romeo. However, Mercutio is not a Montague merely a friend of Romeo and Benvolio. Even Paris who is killed by Romeo is not a Capulet by marriage yet. Therefore, the scoreboard is
This is not something the Capulets would let stand. Especially Lady Capulet. Even if Romeo and Juliet had gotten away, the feud would not have been settled. Tybalt is still dead, and the Capulets could always get another Montague in retaliation and the cycle continues. Romeo would not have been able to come back to Verona because of his banishment and that would leave vengeance between the two families unsatisfied.
Even if say Romeo was to come back to Verona it is highly unlikely the Capulet family could ever forgive him for killing Tybalt or even forgive Juliet for willingly marrying the guy who killed a beloved member of the Capulet family. I mean can you imagine that dinner with the in laws?
Romeo: This pie is incredible Lady Capulet
Lady Capulet: Yes, Tybalt always did love this pie.
(Silence followed by the Kill Bill alarm sound)
This isn’t even considering if Romeo’s parents would be ok with this. Sadly we don’t get to see a lot of them in the play but either way Tybalt did kill a friend of their son and with the long history of violence between the two families I can’t imagine they greet Juliet with open arms either and make peace with the Capulets.
So how does the Friar fit in all this? We know that he only agrees to marry Romeo and Juliet because he believes it will end the feud. We also know that from the beginning of the play in the prologue,
“the continuance of their parents’ rage, Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove.”
Now we know that this is just a piece of foreshadowing that gets fulfilled by the mistaken message that leads both characters to their suicide. But what if that mistaken message was purposefully created by Friar Lawrence? What could possibly motivate the Friar to do this. Well it’s because grief is a powerful force for uniting people.
Grief itself is a tricky thing because it’s a complex combination of emotions and it’s really more of a journey that people go on with clearly defined stages. When left uncared for, can cause great emotional harm. In the aftermath of the Vietnam war, America itself was in a state of grieving but had no way of addressing it. As such the Vietnam Veterans Memorial first brought up by one veteran (Jan Scruggs) slowly but surely began to become a reality and a place for those who lost loved ones and friends during the war to come together to grieve. During the AIDS crisis which political leaders refused to acknowledge, the AIDS quilt came together because there was a need to grieve together on a national level. And this ended up accomplishing a higher rise in funding for the AIDS epidemic. Grief in both these cases was a way for people to not just bond through their common sorrow but also push forward together towards better futures.
In a more recent example. In the Clapton Common area of London England, a plywood wall was painted with the words WE GRIEVE in remembrance of those who have died from the COVID-19 pandemic. It has become a place for civic grief and for people grieving to know they are not alone.
Friar Lawrence knows this and at this point uniting the warring families through a joyous occasion like the love between their kids, is not gonna cut it anymore. After the death of Tybalt there is too much anger and pain for even love to patch up the rift. He must unite them through grief.
THE PLOT AND COVER UP
So how does he do it then? Well it’s quite simple. You see before the actual suicide both Romeo and Juliet both threaten or even attempt suicide at least once in the play. Romeo pulls out his sword with the intention of using it on himself during the scene when he finds out he is being banished.
Romeo: O, tell me, friar, tell me, in what vile part of this anatomy Doth my name lodge? Tell me, that I may sack the hateful mansion (draws sword)
Friar: Hold thy desperate hand: (Act 3 Scene 3)
After he leaves Verona, Juliet comes to the Friar distraught over her upcoming marriage to Paris and expresses a strong desire to die rather than be married to Paris and lose Romeo forever.
Juliet: Twixt my extremes and me this bloody knife shall play the empire; arbitrating that which the commission of thy years and art could to no issue of true honour bring. Be not so long to speak; I long to die, (Act 4 Scene 1)
Both are stopped by the Friar who then orchestrates the Juliet fakes dies and is then picked up by Romeo in the tomb plot so they can run away together.
We know this plot fails because a letter from Lawrence that gives Romeo the plan was not delivered by Lawrence’s colleague Friar John. Friar John claims that visiting a friend of his they were caught by town law enforcement who suspected they were in a house that had the plague and as such was placed under quarantine.
Friar John: Going to find a barefoot brother out, One of our order, to associate me, Here in this city visiting the sick, and finding him, the searchers of the town, Suspecting that we both were in a house where the infectious pestilence did reign, seal’d up the doors, and would not let us forth; so that my speed to Mantua there was stay’d (Act 5 Scene 2)
It is then Friar Lawrence reveals how urgent the letter was and then he goes off to the tomb where Juliet is laid. Of course, he is too late, and Romeo has already killed himself and Paris is already dead by Romeo’s hand.
At this moment we should have a moment of silence for Paris not only does he die in this play but his role in other stage productions is often cut or heavily reduced for times sake. Like he dies both in the play and on the production table.
Juliet awakes and after Friar Lawrence explains that Romeo is dead, she asks him to leave and then she commits suicide.
From ACT 5 Scene 3
Friar: I hear some noise- Lady, come from that nest of Death, contagion and unnatural sleep: A great power than we can contradict hath thwarted our intents:-come, I’ll dispose of thee Among a sisterhood of holy nuns: Stay not to question, for the watching is coming. Come, go, good Juliet,-I dare no longer stay.
Juliet: Go, get thee hence, for I will not away,-
So, after reading these scenes I had 2 questions that I think throw should throw some suspicion on Friar Lawrence.
- If the letter was so important why didn’t Friar Lawrence just tell Friar John so and urge him to leave right away? Or better yet get someone else who wouldn’t have the same duties as Friar John and as such more time to run this important errand?
- At this point he knows how emotionally distraught and vulnerable Juliet and Romeo are. Why would he leave Juliet alone after she threatened to commit suicide than not be with Romeo and just experienced a traumatic sight of seeing her love dead? What’s more if the city watch is on their way and he also heard a noise in the tomb that frightens him, why does he give up so easily and departs right away when Juliet asks him to go? It’s too convenient.
I believe Friar Lawrence purposely let the letter not be delivered on time to Romeo. Knowing how vulnerable to suicide both Romeo and Juliet are. He simply let’s them jump to their respective conclusions without having all the information and their emotional distress does the rest.
But Alex! I hear you type furiously when holding your Ardens close. If Romeo and Juliet’s suicide was the end goal, why didn’t the Friar just let them do it in his cell when they both threatened it.
Well quite simply, it wouldn’t have delivered the same effect as both together. In addition, they would have been doing it in the Friar’s cell which was on religious ground and therefore a big no no. Friar Lawrence would surely get blamed and punished for not stopping them in his own place when he was right in front of them. No, he needed to orchestra a scenario where they would die at the same time in the same place and in a way that he could have deniability in not being able to stop it.
When the families arrive at the crypt with the Prince and see the body, it is Friar Lawrence who delivers the story because he now has enough deniability for why he didn’t stop it from happening. He wasn’t there to stop her because the noise frightened him away. But wait there’s an inconstancy in his story!
Friar: I entreated her come forth and bear this work of heaven with patience: But then a noise did scare me from the tomb. (Act 5 Scene 3)
Ok hold up for a second. In his interaction with Juliet he says they gotta go because of the noise AND the watch is coming. Why did he leave out the watch when he is talking to the Prince and families? Because if he confesses he ran because the watch was coming that is suspicious for him because why would he not want to be caught by the watch unless he did something wrong? A noise in a tomb scaring him away does make sense because this is still a time when there was more superstition surrounding ghosts and spirits.
Omitting the watch from history Friar is also banking on the fact that the parents seeing their children dead and learning from him that it was all for love would be enough for them to forget about the Friar and instead focus on their own grief. A grief that does unite them. Friar Lawrence succeeded but he did so in a way that emotionally manipulated two kids who fell in love. In the Friar’s quest for peace between the two families he orchestrated events to take away their children and give them a shared loss that could unite them.
So what is the real lesson behind Romeo and Juliet? It’s a tragedy yes but like a lot of Shakespeare’s tragedies, it’s a preventable one. It requires tough conversations and breaking of patterns of violence. It takes listening to your kids and really trying to get to the root of their pain and grievances rather than just brushing it outside or straight up denying it in favor of your own ambitions. It takes stepping back, looking at the big picture, acknowledging the toxic behaviours that have fed years of pain and learning how to break the cycle.