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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s