Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, when
we first meet Friar Lawrence, he is outdoors, carrying an ‘osier’ – a basket –
and picking flowers and herbs for his medical practice. He describes his early-morning
task of picking ‘baleful weeds and precious-juicèd flowers.’ Everything in
nature, he says, has some special property and every plant is different. Nothing
grows on earth that does not have a useful purpose:
Oh, mickle is the powerful grace that lies In herbs, plants, stones, and their true qualities. For naught so vile that on the earth doth live But to the earth some special good doth give.— Romeo and Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2
In his musings, Friar Lawrence is expressing some of the ideas about medicine and medical practice prevalent at the time. It is a mix of medical theories derived from Galen and Paracelsus. Claudius Galen (about AD 129 - 210) was a Roman physician and it is from him we get the theory of the humours. This is the idea that the human body is made up of four fluids and if there is an imbalance in the mix of those fluids within us then we become ill. Romeo, for example, with his excess of blood, has a sanguine temperament which, while making him passionate, also means he is impulsive and reckless. Friar Lawrence’s description of all plants having special properties to meet different needs is an expression of Galenic medical practice. It was important that balance was maintained and so the task of the medical expert was to supply materials that would redress that balance.
In the same speech, Friar Lawrence also expresses beliefs about the curative powers of plants which are derived from Philippus Paracelsus (1493-1541). He was a Swiss physician and there was some opposition to his ideas, mainly because his adherence to more esoteric practices such as alchemy and astrology led to his insistence on the importance of the spiritual aspect of effecting a cure, rather than just relying on medication, however efficacious the herbal compounds were. Friar Lawrence expresses the idea of spiritual and well as physical healing inherent in the herbs he picks: ‘the powerful grace that lies / In herbs, plants, stones’; but Paracelsus was a pioneer of what we would recognise as modern medical practice. He theorised that illness could come from a separate entity and by its invading the body caused a sickness. He believed that targeting the illness specifically, from its cure the whole well-being of the body would be restored.
When Friar Lawrence tries to heal the rift between the Montagues and the Capulets by effecting Romeo and Juliet’s escape, he does it via a mix of Galenic and Paracelsian principles. He gives Juliet a specific ‘remedy’ for her situation, a ‘vial’ filled with the liquid he has distilled from a plant that makes it appear that she has died, so that she does not have to marry Paris and can elope with Romeo. By healing the split between Romeo and Juliet, the Friar hopes that he might rid the city of the ‘canker’ of their feud and restore balance to the whole society by a reconciliation of the warring families.
Lawrence I., et al. 1995. The Western
Medical Tradition 800 BC to AD 1800 Cambridge:
William. Romeo and Juliet. Ed. by
Jill L. Leverson. 2000. Oxford Worlds Classics. Oxford: OUP. [Reading Room
A. W., 1996. English Medicine in the
Seventeenth Century. Durham: Durham Academic Press. [97.8/]