The Nurse and Juliet: Underappreciated Connections in “Romeo & Juliet”

In Ben Curns’ “Notes from the Director” program note on our 2016/17 Hungry Hearts touring production of Romeo and Juliet, he cited the enduring, universal divisions evident in Shakespeare’s Verona – families, genders, classes – as well as how they, now more than ever, strongly resound in today’s world the thematic (and universally-charged) importance of love over hate. The title characters, despite their families’ seemingly perpetual and reason-absent conflicts, unite and thrive together under the auspices of love. Though under entirely different auspices, the Nurse – employee to the Capulet family, servant, advisor, wet nurse, and, ultimately, mother figure and friend to Juliet – share love and loss in spite of the obvious distinction, and division, of class.

Employment as a household servant in early modern England was a major sector of the English economy (Spicksley, 678). For those of ages 15-24, as an inevitable step in the life cycle of early modern lives, service provided secure employment, board and lodgings in their employer’s household, and a small cash income for many adolescents before they embarked on marriage in their mid to late twenties (Woodward 141). Steeped in status, Juliet and the Nurse’s relationship in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet at first evidences one such the straightforward, easy-to-follow dynamic of status in early modern Europe, wherein lower status individuals are employed in service to those of higher status (nobility). Thus, their relationship is based in status and loyalty. Shakespeare demonstrates his acknowledgement and knowledge of such through the proliferation of this and a myriad of colorful, complex status-based relationships in his works (labourers, servants and otherwise).

When I refer to the term ‘status-based’, I relate to the definition I used in my MLitt (Master of Letters) thesis “Gal Being Pals: Status-Based Female Relationships in Shakespeare”. Coined as the “Bechtol Test” (after professor Doreen Bechtol of Mary Baldwin University’s Shakespeare & Performance graduate program), I provide the following qualifications:

  • Two women make up the relationship;
  • one woman is of higher status (mistress) than the other
    (servant/gentlewoman);
  • the woman of lower status does work/labor for the higher status woman in
    some definition/capacity;
  • the two women are not related by blood or marriage (“sisters”)
  • the two women must share at least one scene;
  • the two women must have some familiarity with each other (“alliances”)

As evidenced by their first scene shared of the play, Juliet and the Nurse beckons a recognizable status-based relationship: the Nurse readily recalls Juliet as “the prettiest babe that e’er I nursed” and demonstrates a close, tender relationship with her: “were not I thine only nurse, I would say thou hadst suck’d wisdom from thy teat” (1.3). Using the qualifiers above, we see the two women Juliet (acting as mistress) and the Nurse (acting as, well, nurse) make up a status-based relationship, are not related, share five scenes together, and are familiar enough to regularly joke around with each other (as evidenced in 2.5, when the Nurse makes Juliet impatient with the forbearance of her news from Romeo).

Despite the above evidence, in the case of Romeo & Juliet’s Nurse, author and Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom, in his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, would not consider her to be an example of a positive status-based relationship. In his research, he affirms his own belief that the Nurse, by abandoning Juliet in her time of need, places her own concerns above those of her mistress, thus displacing her devotion in favor of her employers, the Capulet family. With this logic in mind, Bloom is correct. The Nurse is concerned about her fate. What Bloom forgets, however, is how the Nurse’s unspoken fear of losing job thematically ties back to her concern for Juliet’s safety. Female servants had less job security than their male counterparts. As mentioned by author and fellow Shakespeare scholar Alan Bray in his book The Friend, women servants were not as freely employed. More importantly, the Nurse’s concern for Juliet effectively aligns with guidelines to those in service in early modern conduct manuals.

Dorothy Leigh, in her 1616 courtesy manual/early modern self-help book A Mother’s Blessing, concerns her readers with a child’s idleness and an aim to keep them from being such (58-9). Juliet does not stay idle (for long). The Nurse, following Juliet’s instruction, seeks Romeo about the prospect of marriage. With this action, the Nurse doubly acts as her messenger and her proxy. She also, however, keeps Juliet in suspense. The Nurse, after sending Juliet up and down a rollercoaster of frustration for her news, tells her to “hie [herself] to Friar Laurence’s cell” and get married to Romeo already, though it would be against her parents’ wishes (2.5). With this action, and the ones in the scene prior, the Nurse allies herself on Juliet’s side three-fold: proxy, messenger, and confidante.

In direct contrast to these loyalty-immured actions, things take a turn for the worse in Act Three, Scene Four. In the wake of Tybalt’s death, proverbial excrement hits the proverbial fan: Juliet reveals to her parents that she wishes not to marry Paris, and that she would rather marry Romeo. Naturally, her parents do not take this well. After Lord and Lady Capulet threaten to disown her, the Nurse does not rush to defend her. She then proceeds to tell Juliet to follow her parents’ orders, to marry Paris.

I think it best you married with the county….
Romeo’s a dishclout to him: an eagle, madam,
Hath not so green, so quick, so fair an eye
As Paris hath. Beshrew my very heart…
Your first is dead; or ’twere as good he were,
As living here and you no use of him.

Following this exclamation, Juliet can only reply:

JULIET
Speakest thou from thy heart?
NURSE
And from my soul too;
Or else beshrew them both (3.5. 217-227)

The repetition of beshrew and heart between them both is worth of note, if only for the last lines’ finality, mutual use of rhetoric (which showcases the Nurse’s intellect), and the ensuing vibrato. The finality of such also reminds both Juliet and the Nurse about their roles, which reflect their statuses within their “within”. Juliet remains the daughter of a noble (upper-class) family, and the Nurse as a lower-class, wage-earning servant of same. Both parties are expected to follow orders, and to act as the parts indubitably embedded into their lives. In the context of the Nurse’s “divided” duty to Juliet and to her employers, Shakespeare here daylights an internal, insoluble problem of class-based friendships, and a significant one at that. The Nurse, as seen in the exchanges above, has so far acted as ally and proxy to Juliet, following in these steps her love and devotion to her mistress. Within and after Act 3, Scene Three, however, she chooses to weigh, and ultimately follows, the will of her employers Lord and Lady Capulet against the will of her young mistress. It is evident that she still loves Juliet; in spite of this, the Nurse must serve the Capulet family above all else, and, ultimately, above the wiles of a teenage girl. Juliet is a member of the Capulet family; however, she is not the Nurse’s employer. By putting her job above her loyalties, the Nurse bestrews her own heart; to Juliet, though, she swears by it and her soul.

Ultimately, the Nurse, out of love for Juliet, tells her charge to follow her parents’ wishes, and, as a result, creates again a chasm-wide gulf between class and camaraderie. Out of love, the Nurse tells Juliet to stick to the status quo. Out of love, the Nurse follows her needs of her employers over her own. Out of love, so many events in Romeo & Juliet occur: Romeo and Juliet meeting and falling for each other; the Montagues and the Capulets holding fast to their families; their families’ eventual, hard-won reconciliation and, thus, the creation of community through shared loss. Though these divisions exist within both the world of Verona and our own, love, its different kinds (romantic, platonic, familial), and its ability to burn through hate was palpable in early modern England, and remains so today.

*Passages of this blog post have been repurposed from Buttitta’s MLitt thesis.


Sources:

Bray, Alan. The Friend. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2003. Print.

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead, 1998. Print.

Buttitta, Madeleine Alyssa. Gals Being Pals: Status-Based Female Relationships in Shakespeare. MA Thesis. Mary Baldwin University, 2017 (TBD).

Curns, Ben. ” ‘Here’s Much To Do With Hate But More With Love.’ ” Notes from the Director: Romeo and Juliet. American Shakespeare Center, 2016. Web. 07 June 2017.

Kussmaul, Ann S. “Servants in Husbandry in Early Modern England.” The Journal of Economic History, vol. 39, no. 1, 1979, pp. 329–331. JSTOR.

Leigh, Dorothy. The mothers blessing. Or, The godly counsell of a gentle-woman, not long since deceased, left behinde her for her children. Containing many good exhortations, and good admonitions profitable for all parents to leaue as a legacy to their children. London: John Budge, 1616. Early English Books Online.

Shakespeare, William, et al. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd ed. ed., New York, W.W. Norton, 2008.

Spicksley, Judith M. “The Economic History Review.” The Economic History Review, vol. 64, no. 2, 2011, pp. 678–679. JSTOR.

Woodward, Donald. “Early Modern Servants in Husbandry Revisited.” The Agricultural History Review, vol. 48, no. 2, 2000, pp. 141–150. JSTOR.

Much Ado about MUCH ADO

 

The 2017 Summer/Fall Season at the Blackfriars Playhouse kicks off this weekend with performances of Peter and the Starcatcher and Much Ado about Nothing.  Today, we’re catching up with Much Ado‘s director, Jenny Bennett, to get some thoughts on the show’s opening.

much_ado_about_nothing

Left: Allison Glenzer and David Anthony Lewis in Much Ado about Nothing.  Photo by Michael Bailey.  Right:  Jenny Bennett.  Photo by Lindsey Walters.

This is your third time directing at the Blackfriars Playhouse.  What do you most look forward to about directing here that is different from other venues?  What is similar? 

I love getting to play in Shakespeare’s staging conditions, especially the #SharedLight.  (Wait- is that a real hashtag?  If not, it should be: #SharedLight #ftw.)  There’s no distance between the actors and the audience here: they see us, we see them, we see each other seeing them and each other.  In the shared candlelight of the Blackfriars, we are all right here, right now, making this story together on the great words of these great plays.  It’s some ultimate theatremaking, in my opinion.

I’m a big fan of making theatre that makes the most of the medium, that uses artistic elements that can only happen/that happen best on a stage full of powerful actors inventing a story with the audience right exactly now.  As an audience member, I love it when a production trusts me to imagine along with it—“Oh – that actor I recognize who was just the delighted ingénue in the last scene now has on pants, stuffed her hair in a hat, and is a whole new person called Boy?  And I’m to believe that just because she and the other actors say so?  On the power of their word?  Yes, please.  Awesome!  We will imagine right into that, thanks; we will absolutely join in making this play.

We are so game out here in the audience – we’re hungry to participate in something big and smart and beautiful.  In this Playhouse, we get to unite for a few hours, bound together by a great play spoken by great actors who we imagine along with in #SharedLight (look, I did it again).  It doesn’t matter who we were when we walked into the Playhouse;  by the time we’ve walked out of it after the show, we’ve helped make a play out of nothing.  Well, nothing but words spoken and listened.  Shakespeare might relate ‘words’ to ‘wind’, though, and wind is air, and air is airy…nothing.  Far from diminishing the value of the word, what I take from him is that all human possibilities come from the word.  We exist in language, in a theater or not.  We exist, because we say so.

What about Much Ado about Nothing is different from the two other plays that you’ve directed here (The Winter’s Tale and King Lear)? What are you most looking forward to about this play?

You know, it’s interesting that all three of these plays I’ve gotten to direct here have featured moments of the idea of ‘nothing’ (just a few examples – Leontes’ big WT speech beginning 1.2.284 ‘Is whispering nothing?’; KL sequence beginning with Cordelia’s reply to her father’s request for public love 1.1.87 ‘Nothing.  Nothing?  Nothing, my Lord.  Nothing will come of nothing, speak again.”; Much Ado….about Nothing.)

‘Nothing’ is an idea Shakespeare was very interested in, if you measure interest by the frequency the word and its puns show up in the canon.  I could be projecting, for sure: I’m definitely interested in this idea.  No – thing.  Absence of something.  Infinity.  Possibility.  A moment of creation from which tales can be spun toward harmony or chaos, depending on the spinner (and the listener).

When you add in the accent of English spoken by Shakespeare’s actors at the time, of course, you get all these homophone puns on ‘noting’, too – what we ‘note’, what we pay attention to, or not.  It’s explicit in this play on multiple occasions – Balthasar’s song intro in 2.3, ‘noting’ the daughter of Leonato in 1.1, the Friar’s ‘noting of the lady’ in 4.1.

Much Ado about Noting.  Much Ado about Nothing.  Which is it, do you think?  I think it’s both.  How great is that?  Thanks, Will.

Directing in the Blackfriars is a collaborative process.  What is it like to work with actors who have been on our stage for so many years? 

I love these rockstar nerds.  (And I mean ‘rockstar’ both literally and figuratively: the ASC troupe of actors is my favorite band.  ‘Nerds’ I mean literally, my highest praise.)  Acting in these staging conditions attracts the brave.  It fosters that courage to be present and spontaneous over a five-month run with a few hundred people looking you right in the eye.  The confidence in being, the trust in an audience that comes from long experience on this stage is a precious gift.  The staging conditions are very much about the actor and the text – just the way I like it!

Directing is always a collaborative process wherever it happens — the Theatre itself is a collaborative medium full of actors, designers, directors, stage managers, producers, and a variety of staff, and a play doesn’t happen without all of these contributions.  The whole ASC team and the artistic community they make together is a delight to get to be a part of as a guest.  I’m so excited to see the ASC bringing playwrights into the mix with the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries project, too!  They’re gonna have a blast, writing for the possibilities of this troupe, where the words have power and the actors are game.

Do you have a favorite scene or line from this play?  Have any become your favorite through the directing process? 

My favorite line and scene is all of them.  That’s what usually happens to me through the directing process, alas!  But here’s a list of dozen delights that leapt to mind at your question.  I’ll let readers listen for who says them in the show, or let readers guess the speaker, if they’re a lovely supernerd who likes a Shakespeare line quiz:

“Adam’s sons are my brethren, and truly, I hold it a sin to match in my kindred.”

“One doth not know how much an ill word may empoison liking.”

“Happy are they that hear their detractions and can put them to mending.”

“Let me be that I am, and seek not to alter me.”

“For it so falls out / That what we have we prize not to the worth / Whiles we enjoy it“

“Silence is the perfectest herald of joy; I were but little happy if I could say how much.”

“If her breath were as terrible as her terminations there were no living near her: she would infect to the North Star.”

“He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it.”

“Out on thee, seeming! I will write against it.”

“O villain! Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this.”

“I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?”

What scene or characters should audiences specifically look for? 

Audiences want to look out for the wittiest couple that ever sparred in Benedick and Beatrice.  Throughout the whole play, in fact, every character has some kind of Euphuistic wordplay.  The topic setup, volley, volley, volley, SPIKE of puns, twists, and other feats of wit in this play have tickled audiences into high hilarity for four centuries!

Another thing that I love about this play is the notion that since we’re all invented out of nothing, we can reinvent ourselves out of nothing, too.  Several people in this play are confronted with a rebuke of who they are, or how they’ve been behaving – they overhear people talking about them or are directly told they’ve made a terrible error.  The real mettle of a person is revealed by what they choose to do with that information.  Grace is available to those who take action to repair what’s broken, to be available to Love, to be ‘good men, and true.’  Along these lines, I’m quite fond of our 5.3 Tomb scene.  Chris Johnston, Music Director, wrote the most beautiful song.  I won’t spoil it here, but I hope you love it as much as I do.

You’re ending this play with a big song and dance number.  What inspired that choice? 

Benedick did.  He says ‘Play music!’ and so I said, okay.  We’re fair giddy at that point (that’s his conclusion, anyway), so we went ahead and danced, then, too.  It’s a couple of lines earlier than the Folio’s [Dance] instruction, but we start dancing again there, as well.  Though for the other two songs in the play we chose to keep the text and write the tunes (Tim Sailer composed the delightful ‘Sigh no more, ladies’ that he sings as Balthasar;  Chris Johnston composed the gorgeous Tomb Song), the ASC often takes on musical moments in the plays as they would have been taken on in Shakespeare’s original staging –contemporary, known to the audience—something I’ve always loved as an audience member here.  That guide felt like what was wanted in this exuberant moment, so I looked for a contemporary song.  The one we picked I came upon while on the treadmill (which I stumbled off of, happily thinking this might be it).  I wrote Chris Johnston and said ‘this?’ and he said ‘YES, PLEASE!’  Gotta come to the show to see what it is, though.

Anything else our audiences should know? 

“We are the only love gods.”

“And if a merry meeting may be wished, God prohibit it!”

Much Ado about Nothing is on stage at the Blackfriars Playhouse through November.  More at –> amshakes.center/MuchAdo