In the early morning, Friar Lawrence enters, holding a basket. He fills the basket with various weeds, herbs, and flowers. While musing on the beneficence of the Earth, he demonstrates a deep knowledge of the properties of the plants he collects. Romeo enters and Friar Lawrence intuits that Romeo has not slept the night before. The friar fears that Romeo may have slept in sin with Rosaline. Romeo assures him that did not happen, and describes his new love for Juliet, his intent to marry her, and his desire that the friar consent to marry them that very day. Friar Lawrence is shocked at this sudden shift from Rosaline to Juliet. He comments on the fickleness of young love, Romeo’s in particular. Romeo defends himself, noting that Juliet returns his love while Rosaline did not. In response, the friar comments that Rosaline could see that Romeo’s love for her “did read by rote, that could not spell.” Remaining skeptical at Romeo’s sudden change of heart, Friar Lawrence nonetheless agrees to marry the couple. He expresses the hope that the marriage of Romeo and Juliet might end the feud ravaging the Montagues and Capulets.
Later that morning, just before nine, Mercutio and Benvolio wonder what happened to Romeo the previous night. Benvolio has learned from a Montague servant that Romeo did not return home; Mercutio spouts some unkind words about Rosaline. Benvolio also relates that Tybalt has sent a letter to Romeo challenging him to a duel. Mercutio responds that Romeo is already dead, struck by Cupid’s arrow; he wonders aloud whether Romeo is man enough to defeat Tybalt. When Benvolio comes to Romeo’s defense, Mercutio launches into an extended description of Tybalt. He describes Tybalt as a master swordsman, perfectly proper and composed in style. According to Mercutio, however, Tybalt is also a vain, affected “fashionmonger” (2.4.29). Mercutio disdains all that Tybalt stands for.
Romeo arrives. Mercutio immediately begins to ridicule him, claiming that Romeo has been made weak by love. As a way of mocking what he believes is Romeo’s overwrought love for Rosaline, Mercutio takes the part of Romeo and compares Rosaline to all the most famous beauties of antiquity, finding Rosaline far superior. Then Mercutio accuses Romeo of abandoning his friends the previous night. Romeo does not deny the charge, but claims his need was great, and so the offense is forgivable. From this proceeds intricate, witty, and wildly sexual verbal jousting.
The Nurse enters, trailed by the servant, Peter. The Nurse asks if any of the three young men know Romeo, and Romeo identifies himself. Mercutio teases the Nurse, insinuating that she is a harlot, thus infuriating her. Benvolio and Mercutio take their leave to have dinner at Montague’s house, and Romeo says he will follow shortly. The Nurse warns Romeo that he had better not attempt to “deal double” with Juliet, and Romeo assures her he is not. He asks the Nurse to tell Juliet to find some way to attend confession at Friar Lawrence’s cell that afternoon; there they will be married. The Nurse agrees to deliver the message. The Nurse also agrees to set up a cloth ladder so that Romeo might ascend to Juliet’s room on their wedding night.
In this scene, we are introduced to Friar Lawrence as he meditates on the duality of good and evil that exists in all things. Speaking of medicinal plants, the friar claims that, though everything in nature has a useful purpose, it can also lead to misfortune if used improperly:
For naught so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give,
Nor aught so good but strain’d from that fair use
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse:
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied;
And vice sometime’s by action dignified
At the end of this passage, the friar’s rumination turns toward a broader application; he speaks of how good may be perverted to evil and evil may be purified by good. The friar tries to put his theories to use when he agrees to marry Romeo and Juliet; he hopes that the good of their love will reverse the evil of the hatred between the feuding families. Unfortunately, he later causes the flipside of his theory to come into play: the plan involving a sleep-inducing potion, which he intends to preserve Romeo and Juliet’s marriage and love, results in both of their deaths.
The thematic role of the friar in
Friar Lawrence also returns the specter of Rosaline to the play. The friar cannot believe that Romeo’s love could turn so quickly from one person to another. Romeo’s response, that Juliet returns his love while Rosaline did not, hardly provides evidence that Romeo has matured. The question of Rosaline continues on into the next scene when Mercutio begins to ridicule Romeo’s lovelorn ways by mockingly comparing Rosaline to all the beauties of antiquity (it is interesting to note that one of these beauties, Thisbe, is found in a myth that very closely resembles the plot of
In addition to developing the plot by which Romeo and Juliet will wed, Act 2, scene 4 offers a glimpse of Romeo among his friends. Romeo shows himself to be as proficient and bawdy a punner as Mercutio. This punning Romeo is what Mercutio believes to be the “true” Romeo, suddenly freed from the ludicrous melancholy of love: “Why, is not this better than groaning for love? / Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo” (2.4.76-77). In the last scene, Juliet tried to battle the social world through the power of her private love; here Mercutio tries to assert the social language of male bravado and banter over the private introspection of love. Interestingly, both Juliet and Mercutio think they know the “real” Romeo. A conflict emerges; even friendship stands in opposition to Romeo’s love. Romeo must remain both the private lover and the public Montague and friend, and he must somehow find a way to navigate between the different claims that his two roles demand of him.