"…here I stand, both to impeach and purge
Myself condemned, and myself excused."
Romeo and Juliet, V.3
The other day, during a post-show Q&A for one of our student preview audiences I was asked what, if anything, the character of Friar Laurence was meant to tell us about Shakespeare's attitude toward religion: an excellent question.
I replied along the lines that, given the list of questionable actions the Friar commits in his disastrous (though ultimately successful) attempt to reconcile the Capulets and the Montagues, while recognizing what an admirably, naively altruistic leap of faith he takes in making the attempt, I could only surmise that if Shakespeare intended to comment on religious or "holy" (as Friar Laurence is described throughout the play) people, the comment can be interpreted as, at best, ambivalence.
Since then, I've been thinking about it quite a bit, and thinking more deeply about the Friar as a person and about what really motivates his actions and reactions throughout the play. The most useful and encompassing conclusion that I've been able to make is that, upon his first entrance in the play, Friar Laurence is impressively and dangerously disconnected from his own humanity, and from the normal passions and desires which go along with being human.
This is most likely a result (obviously) of his dedication to monastic life, and a strange (for a religious man) devotion to logic and reason. Throughout the entire play, he is quite literally shocked by the fact that everyone with whom he comes in contact has some kind of emotional reaction to their experiences.
Romeo (a teenager) falls in and out of love: "Holy Saint Francis!"
Romeo kills Tybalt out of rage, and threatens to kill himself out of despair: "Thy wild acts denote the unreasonable fury of a beast!"
Capulet, Lady Capulet, Nurse & Paris demonstrably mourn what they think is Juliet's death: "For shame… for though fond nature bids us all lament, yet nature's tears are reasons merriment."
Juliet discovers her dead husband: "Stay not to question, for the watch is coming."
It's that last one that seems to give most people the most difficulty when trying to comprehend Friar Laurence's actions in the play. Why, if his goal is to take Juliet away with him, does he pause to tell her that Romeo is dead? The best that I can come up with is that, in his limited experience with her, the Friar has tragically overestimated Juliet's capacity to overcome her passion with reason, and he therefore assumes that, seeing that there is nothing more to be done for her poor husband, Juliet will leave with the Friar to be disposed "among a sisterhood of nuns". The Friar can't know what Romeo (and the audience) know: that Juliet's capacity for reason and logic is matched only by the capacity of her passion and her imagination, and her ability to apply logic to her passion and her imagination, all of which combine to create a will to action that cannot be denied or assuaged.
I think that, when Friar Laurence explains that "a noise did scare me from the tomb", it is because he would rather appear a coward to the world than confess what it was that really sent him fleeing in terror from that vault. When Juliet tells Friar Laurence "Go, get thee hence for I will not away" (and he knows instantly that she will kill them both if he stays), he has come face to face with either one or the other of his two worst fears: the wrath and punishment of a vengeful god, or the knowledge that, if there is a god, he has forsaken them.
Of course the final irony (or, if you prefer, final lesson) for the Friar occurs when Capulet and Montague do indeed reconcile, there in the tomb, over the bodies of their dead children. If Shakespeare is trying to tell us (and Friar Laurence) something about the nature of god (or, if you prefer, fate) it is a difficult, troubling lesson to contemplate.
Personally, I prefer to believe that Shakespeare is, as he always is, trying to tell us something about he nature of our selves. It's far easier information to put to practical use.