During my final semester at the College of William and Mary, I took a class that had a profound impact on how I thought about stories, Shakespeare, and the world. It was called “Comedy, Tragedy, and Religion,” after Professor John Morreall’s book of the same name. As part of this course, we looked at twenty either-or dichotomies that represented the differences between comedy and tragedy. Some were quite basic: does the story involve high-status or low-status characters? Do characters answer conflict with violence or not? Does the plot favor order or chaos? Spirit or body? Tradition or innovation? Obviously not every story is going to tick everything from column A or from column B, but examining a work of drama through this lens can help determine whether the overall energy of a plot or a character is comic or tragic. Considering how much Shakespeare loves to play with genre and to toy with audience expectations, I find it fascinating to apply these considerations to his plays.
Of the twenty dichotomies we discussed, the one that stuck with me the most was convergent vs divergent thinking. A convergent thinker is someone whose options are limited. They see the world in narrow parameters: every decision is a black-and-white either-or, and eventually, those narrow down so that they perceive only one single option as viable. Divergent thinkers, however, see possibility. Their choices open up at each juncture, and often characters end up taking an entirely unplanned course thanks to random chance, accidents, or collision with another plotline. This is why, broadly speaking, comedies spiral out of control before their resolution, with the subplots twisting and twining into each other in a careening and unpredictable chain of causes-and-effects, while tragedies winnow down both in available choices and in cast size until serial murder seems like the only logical solution to the main character’s problems (looking at you, Hamlet; you too, Othello).
And this brings me to why Friar Laurence is the most comedic-thinking character in Romeo and Juliet: he always has another option. There are hints of his ability to think divergently in his opening speech, seeing the multitude of possibilities in each flower and herb, but it probably shows best in 3.3, when he counsels Romeo out of his incapacitating gloom:
What, rouse thee, man; thy Juliet is alive,
For whose dear sake thou wast but lately dead;
There art thou happy: Tybalt would kill thee,
But thou slew’st Tybalt; there are thou happy too:
The law that threaten’d death becomes thy friend
And turns it to exile; there art thou happy.
A pack of blessings lights upon thy back;
Happiness courts thee in her best array;
But, like a misbehaved and sullen wench,
Thou pout’st upon thy fortune and thy love:
Take heed, take heed, for such die miserable.
But it isn’t only that Friar Laurence can see possibilities where Romeo sees nothing but the horror of banishment – Friar Laurence is also someone who can come up with a plan based on those possibilities.
Go, get thee to thy love, as was decreed,
Ascend her chamber, hence, and comfort her:
But look thou stay not till the watch be set,
For then thou canst not pass to Mantua,
Where thou shalt live, till we can find a time
To blaze your marriage, reconcile your friends,
Beg pardon of the prince, and call thee back
With twenty thousand times more joy
Than thou went’st forth in lamentation.
He has similar advice for Juliet when she comes to him in 4.1, concocting the plot to fake her death, send for Romeo, and send them off to wedded bliss somewhere less politically volatile than Verona. Even at the very end, after Romeo’s death, the Friar is still thinking of alternate possibilities to save Juliet: “Come, I’ll dispose of thee / Among a sisterhood of holy nuns.” More than any other character in the play, Friar Laurence thinks divergently, optimistically, and thus comically.
Unfortunately, our dear Friar is stuck in a play surrounded by tragic-thinking characters who relentlessly block or hack off alternative possibilities. Romeo and Juliet both fall into the trap of thinking that their only choices are Happy Ever After or Life-Ending Despair. There are so many points at which Romeo and Juliet could be a comedy — the first two acts are, and even the Friar’s desperate fake-death trick with Juliet is something that works for another man of the cloth and troubled heroine in Much Ado about Nothing. But the sheer weight of convergent thinking overpowers the Friar’s ability to influence events.