The Second Time as Farce
Friar Laurence was wandering in penance through the forest, as he had done on most evenings since coming to Milan.
Prince Escalus had exiled him from Verona for his part in the late tragedy, permitted to stay only long enough to officiate at the tying-up in holy matrimony of Benvolio Montague and Rosaline Capulet. They were both sensible, dutiful young people who understood the symbolic and practical necessity of their marriage, even though neither of them had particularly wanted to be married to the other or, in Rosaline’s case, married at all. There was nothing of the passion and pain he remembered at the last marriage he’d conducted, and none of the secrecy. He accepted that Benvolio and Rosaline’s way of marrying was correct and proper, and that their dead cousins’ way had been wrong; his own part in it had also been wrong. He made his confession to the Bishop of Verona before the ceremony, and was absolved.
He now felt himself wholly qualified to counsel young people about the wages of disobedience, impetuousness, and excessive passion. To be sure, no opportunity had presented itself; the Archbishop of Milan had resolutely kept him away from any responsibilities where he might have to serve as teacher, confessor, or counselor to the young. Laurence felt that this was unfair, although he was secretly a little relieved that he would not have to deal with Mercutio’s younger brother Valentine, who had lately come to Milan to acquire a little court polish. He did not really believe – in spite of Prince Escalus’s severe judgment – that Mercutio’s death had been his fault, but it would have been awkward.
Still, it crossed his mind that if he had only been able to give his wages-of-passion lecture to Valentine, the young man might have learned to moderate his feelings for the Duke of Milan’s daughter, and avoided exile by the Duke. He listened, anxiously, for news of the young man, fearing a repetition of last summer’s tragedy; thus far, he had heard nothing.
“But who comes here?” Friar Laurence asked himself, catching the sound of voices in the forest. He took a step back and concealed himself among the trees.
“How far until we come to Mantua?” It was a woman who spoke; a woman wearing a mask, as ladies often did to protect their complexions from the sun, although it was already late in the evening.
“Some four and twenty leagues,” replied a male voice, “but there’s an inn not two leagues off where we may rest ourselves.”
Laurence crept out of the shadows long enough to ascertain that he did recognize the man. It was the last person he would have expected to take part in an elopement: Sir Eglamour, who had taken a vow of chastity after his young bride’s untimely death. Had he broken his pledge? Laurence shook his head at the wickedness of the world. But who was the lady?
“I pray my father will not –” The couple had moved on, and Laurence was unable to catch what the lady prayed her father would not do; but her voice struck him as familiar. He was almost willing to swear that she was Silvia, the Duke’s auburn-haired daughter and Valentine’s beloved. Friar Laurence realized the full seriousness of the situation, and hastened back to the city and the Duke. He was perspiring under his habit before he had gone half a league, and then he tripped over a tree root and went sprawling; but what mattered that? He had – at last – a chance to prove his own good faith, and to prevent a second tragedy.
Idly, he wondered why exiled lovers always struck out for Mantua.
* * *
Meeting the Duke by the way, Laurence stammered out his tale. The Duke swore and took horse, pausing only for a moment to take his leave of the young people of the court. Friar Laurence scrambled after him on foot, but quickly lost sight of him. Sir Thurio sped through the forest after the Duke, followed a few minutes later by Proteus and his young page Sebastian. They all seemed to be in an extraordinary hurry. When they had gone, Laurence was left alone once more.
He didn’t like being alone in the forest this late at night. Forests were chancy places. You never knew when you were going to run into a lion, or a bear, or fairies, or witches, or rock-throwing misanthropes, or…
He heard another bandit-yell, closer this time. HUUUAAAH!
Having no weapon, he brandished the cross he wore about his neck in the vague hope that the sight of it would cause the bandits to reform on the spot, or at least consider becoming less violent than they apparently intended to be.
“A prize, a prize!”
“Yield or die, sir!”
One of the bandits had a sword pointed at his throat. Friar Laurence raised his hands. “I yield. I would have you spare my life, for I am a man of the cloth. I am also a skilled herbalist, and can make medicines for any sickness you may have among your people.”
“We do not harm poor travelers,” the lead bandit assured him. “Except…” – he eyed Friar Laurence’s gold-and-pearl cloak-pin speculatively – “in cases where the travelers have taken a vow of poverty, we sometimes … assist them to keep it. ‘Tis a kind of good service we do, for the general benefit of their souls.”
Hands trembling, Friar Laurence removed his cloak-pin and handed it over. The bandits also pulled off his cloak, which was of the finest merino wool, without asking his leave.
“The cross, too,” said the bandit. It was an exceptionally fine one, studded with amethysts.
“Nay,” said Laurence, finding an unexpected vein of courage deep within him, “forbear to steal the holy cross, for that were an act of blasphemy.”
The bandits huddled together and began to whisper among themselves. From the few words he could catch, Friar Laurence assumed they were debating whether the cross should be considered in terms of its religious significance or its material value, and were unable to resolve the dispute among themselves. “Come with us,” said the lead bandit at last, jabbing something hard into the small of Friar Laurence’s back, “we will see what our king has to say.”
Friar Laurence thought that he could very happily have lived his entire life without ever meeting a bandit king.
* * *
When they came to the bandits’ cave, everything was topsy-turvy. Lady Silvia was dancing with the bandit king – right in front of Sir Thurio, who seemed not to mind. Proteus, who had somehow come there before them, was kissing the boy Sebastian. The Duke was also there, and though his arms were tied behind him, he was beaming at them all with paternal approval. When the bandit king finished his dance and bowed to his partner, he had the face of young Valentine.
There could be only one possible explanation for this. Laurence had fallen asleep and was having one of those satirical dream-visions, where everything was the opposite of what it ought to be. (He’d never actually had a dream like that before, and had supposed them to be devices invented by poets and painters; he now understood that this had been a grave error.)
“Bring me a pen, ink, and paper,” he commanded, forgetting for the moment that he was a prisoner. If he was to make a name for himself as a poet, it would be necessary to record every detail of the scene before it vanished.
He had to say it three or four times before anyone heard, and at first the bandits laughed at him. Valentine – or the bandit-king, whichever he was – turned and frowned. “Let the good friar have what he would. We are men of honor, and we show our prisoners all due courtesy.”
“But you are bandits,” Friar Laurence objected, before he could stop himself.
“No longer,” said Valentine, “but exiles now restored to the Duke’s good graces, as men of their worth should be.”
This world was topsy-turvy indeed, Friar Laurence thought, and he would be able to write an excellent ballad about it and call it “Friar Laurence’s Dream.” He felt very satisfied until one of the bandits actually did bring him pen and paper, and he was just about to start writing, when he remembered something else about dreams. You were never actually able to do the things that you thought you were about to do in a dream, or if by some chance you did manage it, you woke up straightaway and it was as if none of it had happened at all. So if he wrote down his ballad in his dream, he would not be able to keep a copy with him when he woke.
There was only one thing to do: compose the whole thing orally and commit it to memory. Fortunately, he was good at spontaneous rhymes.
It was a friar of orders grey,
As forth he walked upon his way,
A lady fair he met i’th’ wood,
She was a Duke’s daughter, O, and she was good…
No, that wasn’t right; it was not good to run away at night in the company of a man, much less to dance with another man in a bandit’s cave. Besides, he would need to explain about Valentine and Silvia and Sir Thurio, and about Sir Eglamour, and about Proteus and Sebastian. He had better begin at the beginning.
In Verona, guilty of true love’s blood,
Where friendship ne’er was tarnished by falsehood,
Two youths their brotherly vows first plight,
The one Valéntine, the other Proteus hight –
That wasn’t quite right either, and Friar Laurence had an odd feeling that he’d read something like it before, but it didn’t matter because all of the young people had suddenly noticed he was reciting a poem about them.
“Just who art thou?” Silvia demanded.
“Why,” said Sebastian, “’tis Friar Laurence of Verona.” (This was puzzling, as he couldn’t recall ever having met Sebastian in Verona.)
“Good-den, Friar Laurence!” said Proteus. “How came you here?”
“He is a man of God,” Valentine explained to the Duke, “and a friend to all true lovers.”
Friar Laurence shook his head firmly and explained that he was not a friend to all true lovers, having learned wisdom and repentance after the late tragedy in Verona, and that he counseled them all to live chastely and make themselves heavenly comforts of philosophy, so that they might avoid the fate of Romeo and Juliet.
“Who?” said Silvia.
Friar Laurence explained, with a number of interjections from Valentine, Proteus, and Sebastian.
Silvia, when she finally understood, shook her head. “Methinks this is not a story about the dangers of love at all,” she said, “but rather, one about the ill consequences of quarreling and seeking vengeance. And the folly of drinking poison before one is certain one’s love is dead.”
“Also,” said Sebastian, “the folly of men.”
Silvia nodded emphatically. “Men ought not to be given charge over anything important,” she declared, “for they always find some way to do the most absurd thing possible.”
“But, love –” Valentine objected.
“Enough,” said Silvia, “or I shall remember that thou didst offer to exchange me for Proteus’s friendship, without so much as asking my leave.”
“I offered all that was mine in thee,” said Valentine. “Thou art thine own self and not mine, so I offered him nothing.”
Silvia snorted and looked at Sebastian. “Very like. Do you believe him, Julia?”
Julia? wondered Friar Laurence, and then realized that the boy did, indeed, bear a striking resemblance to young Julia, who had been Proteus’s love in Verona.
“Not at all,” said Julia / Sebastian, “but that doth not affect the wonderful beauty of his answer.”
Friar Laurence attempted to explain that the beauty of language was not important, that eloquence could deceive and beauty in general was untrustworthy. He was not sure he really believed any of it, and none of the young people seemed greatly inclined to listen – except Sir Thurio, who was much struck by the observation. “Indeed, good friar,” he said, “you speak like a philosopher. I am resolved to be wiser in such matters hereafter.”
“Tell me,” Laurence said to Sir Thurio, “have you ever thought of becoming a friar?”
“I have not,” said Sir Thurio, but he seemed to find the idea intriguing. “Tell me about being a friar. Is it a pleasant sort of life?”
“I have always found it so.”
He told Sir Thurio all about the religious life as they walked slowly back to Milan: Valentine and Silvia and Proteus and Julia, and the Duke of Milan and the whole tribe of bandits, and Sir Thurio and Friar Laurence. The mists of morning were beginning to rise, and the woods were filled with the chirping of birds, one of which hopped boldly up and perched on Friar Laurence’s shoulder. St. Francis, Laurence thought, had always loved the little birds; and though he did not presume to compare himself with St. Francis, it felt like absolution.