Friar Laurence, alone on the grounds of his monastery, carries a basket as he combs the earth for herbs, weeds, and flowers in the faint light of dawn. Friar Laurence, who makes tinctures and potions from the plants he collects, knows that the earth is both nature’s tomb and its womb—one can reap “baleful,” poisonous roots just as one plucks flowers full of sweet nectar. Friar Laurence finds meaning and depth in nature’s lessons, seeing plants as a symbol of the duality of good and evil, virtue and vice. “In man as well as herbs,” poison and medicine exist side-by-side.
Friar Laurence’s thoughtful meditation on his work as a potion-maker shows that he takes seriously the existence of good and evil forces, and their roles in the fates of men. He understands that there are two sides to every story—and just as much potential for joy in each moment as there is potential for sorrow.
Romeo enters and greets Friar Laurence. The friar is surprised to see him, and remarks that something must have excited or troubled Romeo to bring him to the monastery so early in the morning. He asks if Romeo has even been to bed yet, and Romeo says that he’s spent the night doing something “sweeter” than resting. The scandalized friar asks if Romeo has been with Rosaline, but Romeo scoffs and says he’s forgotten Rosaline and all the “woe” she caused him. The friar again asks Romeo where he’s been, and Romeo replies that he has been “feasting with [his] enemy.” The friar, frustrated by Romeo’s refusal to answer his questions outright, urges Romeo to speak plain.
Romeo’s insistence on wordplay in this scene shows his hesitance to admit outright what’s going on between him and Juliet. He knows how potentially incendiary the news of their love is and is perhaps nervous to tell the friar about it—even as he longs for the man’s wise counsel.
Romeo explains that his “heart’s dear love is set on the fair daughter of rich Capulet.” Romeo says that the friar must marry the two of them right away—and in secret. Friar Laurence is shocked by Romeo’s swift change of heart—his “ancient ears,” he says, are still ringing with Romeo’s groans and laments about Rosaline. Romeo points out that the friar used to scold him for loving Rosaline, but the friar insists he only ever scolded Romeo for “doting”—in other words, obsessing.
Romeo has, apparently, been complaining for a long time to the friar about his unrequited love for Rosaline. It makes sense, then, that the friar is so shocked by Romeo’s sudden and intense change of heart. If Romeo was so devoted to one woman just a day ago, the friar perhaps wonders how Romeo’s love for another can be so real. The friar is wary of Romeo’s intense emotions, and nervous of what will happen if he continues acting on them.
Friar Laurence, in spite of his reservations, admits that perhaps the marriage of Romeo and Juliet could serve “to turn [their] households’ rancor to pure love.” Romeo begs the friar to help him hastily marry Juliet—the friar says he’ll help the two young lovers but warns Romeo that those who run too fast always stumble.
Even in spite of his hesitations, Friar Laurence realizes that a union between the houses of Montague and Capulet could actually be a good thing not just for the young lovers, but for all Verona—and might even be fate. He resolves to help, believing he has the chance to make a difference in his society.