Friday, November 20, 2009

Virtue Misapplied

After the balcony scene, Act 2 seems to pick up speed; the remaining four scenes are short, and the audience really feels Juliet's impatience as she counts the minutes until the Nurse returns with news of Romeo and their hastily-arranged teenage nuptials. While we're waiting for our hero and heroine to be reunited, we get to listen to a lot of pompous admonitions and dirty jokes, as Friar Laurence and Mercutio take center stage. These scenes are really the last gasp of comedy in the play:  in Act 3, events will take a turn for the tragic, and Mercutio, the man of words, will be consigned to dust.

For now, however, it's words and more words. Friar Laurence, a sententious male version of Juliet's Nurse, toddles onto the stage with his basket of herbs and a boatload of Polonius-like pithy sayings.  He's an old windbag, really, a man enamored of his own voice whose authority rests on smug self-assurance rather than genuine wisdom. When push comes to shove, he casts his lot with the old guard, and leaves the lovers to their tragic fate--a fate he helped bring about with his intellectual and spiritual arrogance.

Can you tell I don't like him? Never have, the old coot.

His first speech is a full thirty lines long, and serves mostly to remind us that, in addition to being full of hot air,  he's as lacking in self-awareness as everyone else of his generation. I'll say this for him--in a play obsessed with youth and age, he manages to make me feel really young.

We're back in a garden, which means we're in metaphor-land. Will loves gardens--they come ready-made, as I pointed out last time, with all kinds of religious and erotic symbolism, but they're also a site of struggle between "baleful weeds and precious juiced flowers." Friar Laurence proves to be an old weed--or maybe I'm just allergic to his particular brand of aphoristic blather masquerading as insight.

I could totally see him as a self-help guru these days. Another genre that makes my immune system go haywire.

His little sayings do have an interesting ironic twist, however, given what happens later, so they're worth looking at:

The earth, that's nature's mother, is her tomb
What is her burying grave, that's her womb.

What he means is that you have to "bury" a seed to get it to grow. A nuanced observation, for sure. For those of you who really love literary jargon, this is called a "chiasmus."  You can draw an X across these lines, because "mother" is conceptually related to "womb" (wow, that's a pun) and "tomb" to "grave." Stare at it for a minute and you'll see what I mean. So why point this out, other than to show that I know useless stuff you may not? Because chiasmus was one of those structures that was really popular in Greek and Latin poetry--it was thought to connote balance and harmony. Friar Laurence wants to encourage harmony--that's a good thing--but I think it's also a mark of vanity here. Although he berates Romeo for "doting, not loving" Rosaline and questions the speed with which he dumped her for Juliet, he also wants to be the guy who brings about reconciliation between the powerful Capulets and Montagues. You know, win the Verona Peace Prize:

In one respect I'll thy assistant be:
For this alliance may so happy prove
To turn your households' rancour to pure love.

He makes it clear that he's helping out for political reasons, not erotic ones. He's no pimp. At least not in the usual sense.

The "womb/tomb" rhyme is another of those birth/death dyads that Will just can't get enough of here. Friar Laurence is a master of unwitting irony (wait--is that redundant, like "mysteries of the unknown?" I think so). He's talking about plants, but his words are equally applicable to himself:

O mickle is the powerful grace that lies
In plants, herbs, stones, and their true qualities,
For naught so vile that on the earth doth live,
But to the earth some special good doth give;
For aught so good but, strained from that fair use,
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.
Virtue itself turns vice being misapplied,
And vice sometime's by action dignified.
Within the infant rind of this weak flower
Poison hath residence, and medicine power...

The difference between poison and medicine is one that medical science is still trying to work out. And no one knows better than an addict how something healthy in moderation can, when "strained from fair use/[revolt] from true birth/stumbling on abuse."  I think the word "stumbled" is a bit disingenuous here--one doesn't really "stumble" on abuse. One rather leaps right into it.  But the Friar's point is that things meant for good can easily be turned into their opposite: "virtue itself turns vice misapplied."  This is a perfect description of his own inept, hubristic interventions into the romance, and the dire consequences that ensue as a result.

When Friar Laurence castigates Romeo for his "wavering"--his fickleness, he only echoes what the audience is probably thinking, too. One wonders why Will had Romeo mooning over Rosaline at the beginning of the play--his sudden conversion to true love seems dubious at best. I think, personally, that Will was more concerned with making a point about poetry than he was with character consistency. Romeo had to wax all sonnety about Rosaline so Will could show the audience how much better his "Juliet poetry" is, relative to the old tired stuff that was popular at the time. As a result, Romeo comes off like some adolescent...Romeo.

I'll have more to say about the cultural debasement of the name "Romeo" in a later post.

At the end of the scene, Friar Laurence tries to urge Romeo to slow down, think things through a bit:

Romeo: O, let us hence! I stand on sudden haste.
Friar Laurence: Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast.

When we last see the good Friar, he's running away from the scene of Romeo's death, leaving Juliet to hers. The old hypocrite.

Next:  The last funny bits.


  1. I love the "wax all sonnety" coinage. I had forgotten that Romeo had an ex--talk about hormones. This is a great post, informative, funny and insightful.

  2. Thanks, BL. Neologisms are my specialty. I'm trying to free myself from pompous academic-speak.