FRIAR All this I know, and to the marriage
Her nurse is privy; and if aught in this
Miscarried by my fault, let my old life
Be sacrificed, some hour before his time,
Unto the rigour of severest law.
PRINCE We still have known thee for a holy man. (5.3.265-270)
The Friar is sure about all of this, he’s not going to speculate – but he’s also saying, this is all I know; I don’t know the final details of what’s happened here. A sensible corroborating detail: the Nurse also knew about the marriage. (Is the Nurse present? not according to the explicit but quite sketchy stage directions, but it would be entirely logical, and appropriate, for her to have come with the Capulets, who presumably have other servants too. In the current RSC production, she arrives at a run, utterly distraught at what has happened to her girl. It’s a brilliant, devastating touch, and there’s no obvious doubling-related reason why she couldn’t be present.) And then, having helplessly reached the end of his story, his confession, the Friar steels himself: I know I’m to blame for at least some of this, and if you think it’s fair, then I’m prepared to die. I’m old already, and I’m so grief-stricken and appalled by these events, that it wouldn’t make much difference to me. But the Prince is both formal and reassuring: I trust you, your reputation for probity and holiness means that I believe your story, his ‘royal plural’ both signaling that this is an official pronouncement and co-opting everyone else into the response. No one is going to quibble. But the Prince isn’t going to question, or ask for more information – or offer more comfort to the Friar. And the Friar has nothing else to say.
So what’s the function of this enormously long, quite stark, straightforward speech? it’s often trimmed (sorry Friar) on the entirely reasonable grounds that the audience knows all this already and the play is drawing to a close. But there are some interesting possibilities, which might point to some larger questions about how the play ends, and has ‘worked’ more generally. Telling the story, getting the narrative straight is as central to the therapeutic process as it is to the police procedural. There can be a proper sense of catharsis in the Friar’s unburdening himself, not just in terms of getting the facts off his chest, but in ordering them into a story, however stark, that makes sense. (And I’m using catharsis in a general sense, rather than a specifically Aristotelian one!) It gives us time, too; it orders the play, or most of it, into an almost complete story – like the Prologue – it makes it whole, and so starts to seal it off as a concluded, complete action. On the page, we might not think about this, but, where do we look? at the apparent bodies of the lovers? (and Paris, poor Paris?) At the parents, and perhaps the Nurse (and Benvolio) if they’re silently present? at the Prince? is everyone on the stage rapt and paying close attention, or are they grieving, distracted? There’s an interesting potential for a kind of disconnect here: if we too are feeling emotionally drained, teary, what quality of attention do we pay to the Friar? and what do we think we’re looking at, if our focus is on the bodies? (There is a much more extreme – much more! – version of this potential for a disconnect in Titus Andronicus – close in date – when Marcus makes a long, hugely elaborate speech in the presence of his mutilated, bloodied niece Lavinia.) More interestingly – and this is where I start to think about some of the qualities of the play as a whole, and how its final moments might be distinctive in that respect – the starkness of the Friar’s story, its insufficiency at the level of anything other than plot is striking. Does this bare narrative correspond in any sense to the emotional and lyrical and cognitive intensity of the play that we’ve been involved with? Is this the greatest love story ever told?!?