Shakespeare's Nurse in Romeo & Juliet

Topics: Plays

Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. It is set in Verona, Italy and Shakespeare set the play here because the Elizabethans believed it was a very wealthy and romantic city. The play contains a lot of strong passion and love which is violent, ecstatic, and has an overpowering force, along with hatred. Romeo and Juliet doesn’t give a stable moral between love, religion and family but it portrays the chaos and passion of actually being and falling in love.

It combines images of death leading to the plays tragic conclusion.The well known tragedy is heart wrenching and is centred on the story of two families; the Capulets-(Juliet) and Montagues-(Romeo.) When feuds break out in the street servants and fellow family members are killed. Still, through love at first sight, the star-crossed lovers fall passionately for each other, and all that’s wanted is to be together, no matter what! Denying the possible consequences Romeo and Juliet secretly marry, but when Juliet’s parents find her a man to marry-(Paris) she gets herself into a mess, and believes that poisoning herself is the only option open to her.

During the time Shakespeare wrote the play, the impact parents had on relationships and religion was very strong, it was a male dominated society and it was fathers who were able to make the decisions for their wives and children. Daughters belonged to their fathers, until they were given away in marriage. They would have arranged marriages, to make sure their child had a suitable husband or wife many matches were based on money and power.

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Religion was also included, as worshipping in different ways would cause conflict. When comparing this to the 21st century parents still want the best for their children, but certainly aren’t as strict about people falling in love and even marriage. Religion still can have a knock on effect on relationships and racism can occur.Juliet has a very close friend throughout the play: her nurse. This lady has bought her up since she was a baby-her wet nurse, a mother you may like to call her, and she is certainly a best friend. The nurse has been with her for fourteen years, all of Juliet’s life and she is maybe the only friend Juliet has. As soon as the nurse appears on the stage, she has a very dramatic impact on the story and the characters both emotionally and physically. We see herbeing funny but also the softer side of her,- she tells warming stories and life memories. Throughout the play she helps Juliet with decisions and certainly has her say in the whole situation, even though at the end betrayal occurs. This makes her integral to the whole play.Juliet’s Nurse is first introduced to the play in Act 1 scene 3. It is in this scene that we gather together her background information. She is very trusted by the Capulet family and is a servant to Lord Capulet; she maintains an active voice in their family affairs such as the proposal of Juliet marrying Paris. When it comes to the Nurses own personal life, we find out she had a daughter called Susan, born on the exactly the same day as Juliet. Susan sadly died and since then the nurse has become more of a mother to Juliet than Lady Capulet. This background information is one way in which Shakespeare begins to develop the nurses character. The nurse was a very lower class servant, who worked for a wealthy Elizabethan family; Elizabethans who were well off could afford wet nurses who would be a surrogate mother to their child. This is how Juliet and the nurse became very close. She was able to be good second mother to her. Dramatically this is very effective as we are able to compare the nurse to Lady Capulet and see that in many ways the nurse has a much closer and loving relationship with Juliet. Lady Capulet is happy for the nurse to talk to Juliet on her behalf.The nurse is central to moving the action of the play along. She brings comedy to the play, bringing lightness to darker scenes. She even often gets things wrong and acts silly, for example her lack of education “Ah, mocker that’s the dogs name,-R for the -no, I know it begins with some other letter”. These words echo the words of Juliet when she speaks of Romeo,”What’s in a name? that which we call a roseBy any other name would smell as sweet.”Deep down she mourns for her daughter and husband”And then my husband-God be with his soul, a’ was a merry man”, “Susan and she-god rest all Christian souls”.These quotes show her love for her dead daughter and husband. Yet she still delivers excitement and sexual jokes throughout. In this way Shakespeare makes her a realistic character.Because the nurse is of a lower class she therefore has lower morals in the Elizabethans eyes and she makes very rude sexual jokes in act 1 scene 3 of the play. Shakespeare has done this to keep up the comedy in the play and keep the characters personality. Act 1 scene 3 shows us the nurse’s physical view of love,”‘Yea,’ quoth he, ‘dost thou fall upon thy face? Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit!”The quote is a view of sex, making a double meaning of an innocent fall. It brings a more down to earth interpretation of what a young man can do to young women. Interestingly, she knows precisely how young, Juliet is but makes no effort to suggest that is a problem. However, womanhood was seen differently in Elizabethan times, as Paris tells us,”Many younger than she are made mothers.”Rude humour occurs as embarrassing jokes are made about Juliet’s childhood tumble,”A bump as big as a young cockerel’s stone,”saying she used to have a bump as big as a cockerels testicle! The people who would have watched the play would have been shocked at the language and jokes Shakespeare used, but would be hooked and kept interested. Shakespeare uses the nurse effectively in this way. Sixteenth century Italian comedies were especially high spirited. They enjoyed the fun of sexual and social intrigue, particularly in the sense of city life. We see how much she loves Juliet when she says,”Thou wast the prettiest babe I ever nursed. And I might live to see thee married once, I’d have my wish.”Again this a way Shakespeare develops her character and gives her depth by giving her such emotions.Later on the Nurse helps Juliet to marry and so makes her own wish come true.Act 2 scene 4 is the chance for the Montague’s to make a joke of the nurse. When she goes to speak seriously to Romeo about his intentions towards Juliet her entry on stage gives Mercutio a new opportunity to make personal comments, she is of course a member of the Capulet household and is a target for abuse,”Good Peter to hide her face for her fan’s the fairer face.”This is a joke at the nurses expense and her reply is to try and be noble, “God ye good morrow gentleman.” She tries hard here to be correct in her speech and Romeo kindly responds to her with,”Nurse commend me to thy lady and mistress.”She shows Romeo how much she thinks of Juliet when she threatens him and says,”Sir my lady is the sweetest mistress.”The nurse acts as a device for humour as she not only creates humour herself but enables other characters to be humorous too. Shakespeare uses her as a means to further the plot here as she is the go between in their secret relationship. She and Friar Lawrence help Romeo and Juliet to marry without their parents’ knowledge.In act 2 scene 5 the nurse can’t wait to deliver the good news from Romeo to Juliet. Straight answers just aren’t an option and she enjoys having power over Juliet which is illustrated by her teasing. Keeping humour around, she moans of aches and pains to create the delaying message,”I am aweary give me a while. Fie how my bones ache, what a jaunt have I?”A crude comment is slipped in about the wedding night to create humour and to contrast with Juliet’s notion of romantic love,”But you shall bear the burden soon at night”,she is unable to resist hinting at the sexual act. She makes fun of Juliet’s blushes with,”How comes the wanton blood up in your cheeks.”Juliet is forced to beg and plead for Romeo’s answer,”I’ faith I am sorry that thou art not well. Sweet, sweet, sweet nurse tell me what tis my love says.”Because she is uneducated she can get away with rude jokes, Shakespeare shows her simple uneducated humour. Again an Elizabethan audience would love this as they enjoyed bawdy humour. The servants who worked for the families would have been very different from the rich people as only the wealthy were educated. It is interesting to remember that in the original performances the Nurse would have been played by a man. In Elizabethan society women were not allowed to be a part of the acting profession and men would play all of the parts. It was not considered unusual for them to act out a woman’s part as this was what people were used to. The part of the nurse being played by a man would perhaps allow the character to get away with the bawdy jokes. Today in the 21st century this would be most unusual except for the comical pantomime dames.The nurse also shows her lack of education by the language she uses when she speaks not just by her rude jokes. Shakespeare’s lower classes speak in prose whilst the nobility speak in blank verse. Prose always gives way to blank verse when the more aristocratic members of the cast deliver their lines. Blank verse tries to capture the natural rhythms of speech, it mainly consists of unrhymed iambic pentameters; an example of this can be:”What says he of our marriage? What of that?”This is a line with 10 syllables, five of which are stressed. When looking at the comical jokes and comments the nurse makes she is using very shocking words. She is a very bold and individual person who is outspoken; and we see this from the language and the way her speech is delivered. She naturally contrasts with Juliet who speaks in blank verse not prose. However, at one point the nurse does speak blank verse and this shows how her position is elevated as she takes responsibility for Romeo and Juliet’s situation. Juliet’s views of love are romantic and dreamy whereas the nurse brings love down to earth with her references to sex. Juliet is very innocent and pure in contrast to the nurse; she wants romance and marriage not sex. The nurse is very negative about men, she says,”No faith, no honesty in men, all perjured, all foresworn, all naught, all dissemblers.” This shows her realistic views but also adds an element of irony when you think that the actor is a man!Whereas Juliet believes in Romeo’s love for her and is prepared to kill herself for him.In Act 3 scene 2 we learn that Romeo will be banished because he has murdered Tybalt. Here the nurse’s behaviour is very dramatic and over the top. She uses exaggerated language and big gestures,”Pale, pale as ashes all bedaubed in blood. All in gore blood.”When later in the play she finds Juliet “dead” she reacts in the same way echoing this scene.The nurse easily changes her mind; at one time she is all for Romeo, then against him because of what he’s done, and then because of his love for Juliet she helps them spend their wedding night together. Also after Lord Capulet brings Juliet’s wedding to Paris forward she totally betrays Romeo because she doesn’t support Juliet in wanting to be with him, she says,”I think it best you married with The County. Oh he’s a lovely gentleman. Romeo’s a dishclout to him. An eagle, madam, hath not so green, so quick, so fair an eye as Paris hath.”Juliet cannot believe her, “Speakest from thy heart? Nurse –and from my very soul to, else beshrew them both.”She might be doing this because she feels it is best for Juliet and she loves her so much or perhaps she fails to see the true love between the two because she is concerned with physical love. Either way Juliet hates her for it and now feels totally alone,”Ancient damnation! Oh most wicked fiend!”Shakespeare uses the nurse here to move the plot along again as her lack of support pushes Juliet towards Friar Lawrence and her final decision. The Elizabethan audience would be torn between sympathy for Juliet’s situation and their belief that her father was right and she should obey him. Their mother daughter relationship is broken when Juliet lies to her,”Go in and tell my lady I am gone,Having displeased my father, to Lawrence’s cellTo make confession and be absolved.”Because of this betrayal of Juliet’s love for Romeo, Juliet feels trapped and this leads to the tragic death of both the lovers. She really does not understand how Juliet feels for Romeo and the depths of that love. As even now she makes inappropriate remarks, bringing romance down to sex and trying to lighten the situation with humour,”I warrant the County Paris hath set up his rest that you shall rest but little”.When the nurse finds Juliet “dead” again we see her exaggerated language,”Alack the day, she’s dead, deceased, she’s dead alack the day!”To conclude my views on the Nurse I believe that Shakespeare has made good use of her in various ways for different effects. We see that she is a caring second mother to Juliet, which just shows how close they are. On the other hand her humorous jokes and sexual views of love bring comedy to the play and lighten the mood. She is essential in keeping the plot moving along and at times she brings tension to the plot, for example when making Juliet wait for news of Romeo’s answer. Without the nurse’s help Romeo and Juliet would not be able to marry secretly and spend their wedding night together.She is Juliet’s protector and has the nerve to stand up to Capulet and support Juliet against him even though at the end she backs down. The nurse helps Friar Lawrence and could be said to push Juliet over the edge to contemplate suicide when at the end of the play she betrays their love for one another and encourages Juliet to marry Paris which adds another level to the plot. Shakespeare has made her a well developed character by giving her a complex role in which she has love for Juliet and is able to show different parts of her personality. She has an integral part in the play.

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Shakespeare's Nurse in Romeo & Juliet. (2019, Jun 20). Retrieved from

Shakespeare's Nurse in Romeo & Juliet
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