Since my last post (read here!) was on Julius Caesar, one of the less accessible plays, I thought I would do a little reversal and take a new look on potentially the most accessible Shakespeare play of all the folios: Romeo and Juliet. It’s so well-known and generally well-loved that it almost feels too cliché to talk about, and to be frank, the play has been reworked and recast and redone so many different times in so many different ways that coming up with something new is very daunting. Romeo and Juliet themselves have been made interracial and queer in a number of ways; the “Mercutio and Benvolio were lovers” theory is a fan favorite, and one that I hold so dearly that it feels too obvious to approach (not that I won’t approach it later, mind you). But an oft-overlooked character gave me inspiration into a new approach: Friar Laurence.
The argument is often made that Mercutio is Romeo’s foil, contrasting Romeo’s tenderness with Mercutio’s brazenness, a cavalier attitude with a sensitive one. But I would argue that Friar Laurence is even more of a foil for Romeo; he is for the most part calm and rational, not at all like Romeo, and on top of that, represents a different social class and age group. The struggle between ages is well represented in the play in the sense of tradition vs. rebellion: the lovers versus their parents’ beliefs, the generations-old feud. However, Friar Laurence’s interactions with Romeo (and later, with Juliet) highlight the age vs. youth dynamic in the sense of wisdom and patience vs. irrationality and passion. Friar Laurence has such a different perspective on the lovers’ struggles that it then makes sense to add another differentiating factor: social class. This is where some analysis outside the text comes into play.
Within the text, we know that the friar is older than Romeo, and often the inference is made that he is in fact older than most of the characters of the play. I have no problem accepting this. The alteration I would make isn’t quite clearly touched upon anyway. The friar is never described as poor or of a humble rank, and in fact probably held some respect in Verona, but he is markedly apart from the wealthy families. That combination of factors reminded me of a certain trope: the farmer. It fits, doesn’t it? Extensive knowledge of plants, living dedicated to his work, serving the community, an example of experience and sagacity. Most of all, a contrast to wealth—in this case, a contrast to the warring families of Verona.
I was thrilled when I came up with this idea and excitedly told it to a friend. She blinked at me and then said, “So you’re setting Romeo and Juliet in the Baptist South?” At which point I became even more thrilled. It’s painful to extricate Romeo and Juliet from its Catholic influences, but the Baptist South makes perfect sense for the play. Blood feuds that go back generations aren’t unheard of in the south (I live here, I should know), and the sweltering presence of religion is unavoidable. Additionally, the juxtaposition of old money (Montagues, Capulets) with farmers and moral figures (Friar Laurence) happens all the time. And with the religious traditions of the south, there’s nothing really stopping Friar Laurence from being a leader of the church, so his religious role in the play is still fulfilled. You can also argue the parallel that when farmers’ crops fail, their communities suffer, and when Friar Laurence fails to make the best decision for Romeo and Juliet, they suffer in the worst way. Responsibility is a huge factor of Friar Laurence’s character, and it would come through even more if he was costumed and presented as a farmer.
With my woman of color Cassius, I felt the casting would make the character more compelling and accessible. I don’t necessarily believe that of Farmer Laurence—the play is fairly accessible as is. But I do think making the choice to make him a farmer would highlight his role as a foil to Romeo, and Romeo and Juliet in the south would be a joy to watch. It may not be as politically ripe as some other interpretations, but it’s an idea, at the least, to emphasize one of the more subtle themes of the play.