The incompetent Friar John (5.2.1-12)

[5.2] Enter FRIAR JOHN.

FRIAR JOHN               Holy Franciscan Friar, brother, ho!

                                    Enter [FRIAR] LAWRENCE.

FRIAR LAWRENCE     This same should be the voice of Friar John.

                                    Welcome from Mantua. What says Romeo?

                                    Or if his mind be writ, give me his letter.

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,

                                    Sealed up the doors, and would not let us forth,

                                    So that my speed to Mantua was stayed. (5.2.1-12)

At least Paris will shortly die with the consolation that his is not quite the suckiest role in the play. Thanks, Friar John, you’ve just become the most unpopular character, through sheer incompetence and lack of initiative. (Although I do quite like the idea that Holy Franciscan Friar is a Batman-and-Robin-type oath. The jokes are, of course, a distraction from impending doom…) What’s happened (and Friar John is also incapable of straightforward syntax) is that Franciscans (barefoot brothers) were meant to travel in pairs, as a precaution against bad behaviour (Shakespeare would have picked this up from Brooke); the friar that Friar John wants to go with him has been visiting the sick and, even as they meet up to get on the road to Mantua, the searchers in Verona – in effect, public health officials – think that both of them have been in a house (which could be a monastery or a private house) where there is plague. So they quarantine them for 24 hours or so and don’t let them out of the house, where they are only visiting, in case they spread the infection further. (This was a common strategy in times of plague, and it would ring true for an audience in 1590s London.) Friar John hasn’t even been able to leave Verona, or get a message to Friar Lawrence, let alone see that the letter is delivered to Romeo in Mantua…

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