FRIAR I am the greatest, able to do least,
Yet most suspected, as the time and place
Doth make against me, of this direful murder;
And here I stand both to impeach and purge
Myself condemnèd and myself excused.
PRINCE Then say at once what thou dost know in this. (5.3.223-228)
It’s pretty much all my fault, says the Friar, but not in the way that you think. His wordiness, his fondness for rhetorical play seems inescapable (and might be annoying) – but his pairs of opposites here (greatest/least, impeach/purge,condemnèd/excused) have been characteristic of the play – not quite oxymorons or paradoxes – but reminiscent of them. They’re opposites that should be irreconcilable, but here they’re not. Things brought together that should cancel each other out, but in fact make perfect sense. The Friar was – perhaps – the most to blame in what he did, as he acknowledges – but also, ultimately, the most powerless. He knows it looks bad, that he’s been found here (with his garden tools, too), and he acknowledges that this looks like direful murder. I’m going to accuse myself, condemn myself, but also exonerate and excuse myself. Purge is striking – it perhaps picks up the liquidity of the Prince’s image of the spring, the source, the origin of everything that’s happened – but it also suggests relief. The Friar has been carrying a terrible burden of knowledge, and now he’s about to pour it all out. Get on with it, says the Prince. One could be slightly mean, at the Friar’s expense, and say, Prince, are you sure you know what you’re letting yourself in for? this guy can talk. But again, the idea of purging is important. It’s unburdening and cleansing, but also part of the process of healing. Purges and purging (enemas and emetics, basically) were central to early modern medicine, as a way of rebalancing the body’s humours (like blood-letting – which in this play, has been so destructive to the body politic, rather than healing). So a more charitable reading of what the Prince says might be, you are in such distress, you must tell everything, immediately. Tell us the story.