Bryant, James C. "The Problematic Friar in Romeo and Juliet."
English Studies 55 (1974): 340-350. Rptd. in Romeo and Juliet: Critical Essays. Ed. John F. Andrews. New York: Garland, 1993. 321-336.

Thesis: Bryant raises questions about the traditional view of Friar Laurence as "the voice of wisdom and moderation" (321) and as a "sympathetic man with good intentions" (323). Bryant says that "it should be recalled that Shakespeare's England was particularly hostile to friars and other representatives of Roman Catholicism," and adds that "an audience of 1594 would also have been aware of the literary convention which often used friars and other ecclesiastics as the butt of ribald humor" (322). Bryant also says Shakespeare's Friar Laurence is a less admirable character than the Friar Laurence who appears in Shakespeare's source, Arthur Brooke's Romeus and Juliet. Bryant then proceeds to level a number of charges against Shakespeare's Friar: he advises Romeo to love moderately only after agreeing to marry him to Juliet; he "agrees to marry the lovers . . . without parental knowledge or consent and apparently in defiance of canon law forbidding clandestine marriage" (329); he encourages Juliet to lie to her parents; and -- the most serious charge -- he plays the part of a coward when he runs from Juliet's tomb. Bryant's general conclusion is that Friar Laurence "is real enough and sympathetically treated to a point, but he is seemingly deprived of those qualities one expects either in an admirable man or a dedicated clergyman" (333).

Evaluation: Bryant's thesis is carefully argued, but sometimes he doesn't pay enough attention to context. For instance, his most serious charge against Friar Laurence is that he exhibits cowardice in running away from Juliet's tomb, but in that passage the Friar's cowardice or courage is not the issue. The issue is Juliet's reaction to Romeo's death. For the dramatic effects Shakespeare wants, the Friar has to be there so that Juliet can refuse his urging to leave the body of Romeo, and the Friar has to be gone when Juliet says her farewell to Romeo and joins him in death. In this context we care about Juliet, not the Friar, or his lack of courage.

Bottom Line: OK.