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Shakespeare's Characters: The Nurse (Romeo and Juliet)

From Romeo and Juliet. Ed. K. Deighton. London: Macmillan.

In Brooke's poem Juliet is called the "nurse-child," and it is to the fact that the old woman has been her foster-mother that she owes what influence she possesses. From their mutual relations it results that Juliet fails to see that the fondness of which she is the object is more the fondness of one conscious that her hold over her "lady -bird" lies in compliance with each whim and petty fancy, than any genuine love and care.

The old woman is no doubt proud of her charge, and in the garrulity of old age, largely spiced with individual coarseness, she dilates upon her services with a complacent feeling of satisfaction that whatever is good in the girl had its origin in her nurture. She rejoices that Juliet should be sought by Paris, not because she knows anything of that suitor's fitness, but because it is a fine thing for a maiden to have a lover. She is equally rejoiced that Juliet should have fallen in love with Romeo. She will help in the secret marriage, because it is easier to do so than to refuse.

When Juliet pours forth her maledictions upon Romeo for the slaughter of Tybalt, their echo is ready from the Nurse's tongue. When Juliet's mood changes, the Nurse veers round with an offer to fetch Romeo. When the marriage with Paris is decided upon by the parents it is plain to her that, power and authority being on their side, all thought of resistance is out of the question. The sin of taking a second husband while the first is still alive does not seem so much as to pass before her mind. Romeo and Juliet cannot come together, therefore it is well that Paris and Juliet should:
"I think you are happy in this second match,
For it excells your first: or if it did not,
Your first is dead, or 'twere as good he were
As living here and you no use to him."
Believing from her behaviour on returning from the Friar's cell that Juliet has seen her mistake and now wisely acquiesces in the inevitable, the Nurse makes no more ado about the matter, but is up early in the morning to deck the bride, when to her horror she finds, as she supposes, that death has forbidden the banns of a union that to her had seemed so satisfactory a solution of all difficulties, and her optimism receives a shock that even she cannot misunderstand.

Hitherto the world has to her been the best of all possible worlds. A trusted member of a high-born household, she fancies her behaviour to be modelled on their example, plumes herself on decorum, in her walks abroad must be attended by her own servant, like her betters must be careful of the proprieties of the fan, with due self-respect must bridle at the familiarities of that "saucy merchant," Mercutio, "so full of his ropery," and let it be known to all men that she is "none of his flirt-gills."

She could stay all night to listen to the good counsel of the Friar, and rapturously exclaims, "O, what learning is!" for the good counsel and learning chime in with the demands of the moment; to her the fact that Romeo will not dare to claim Juliet is an all-sufficient excuse for casting him off; her supreme law is expediency; she recognizes no dictates higher than those of personal contentment; of loyalty, love, purity, self-sacrifice, she is utterly ignorant, while believing all the time that her rule of life is squared with every requirement of rectitude.

From The Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. 8. Ed. Evangeline Maria O'Connor. J.D. Morris and Co.

The Nurse is in some respects another edition of Mrs. Quickly, though in a different binding. The character has a tone of reality that almost startles us on a first acquaintance. She gives the impression of a literal transcript from actual life; which is doubtless owing in part to the predominance of memory in her mind, causing her to think and speak of things just as they occurred; as in her account of Juliet's age, where she cannot go on without bringing in all the accidents and impertinences which stand associated with the subject. And she has a way of repeating the same thing in the same words, so that it strikes us as a fact cleaving to her thoughts, and exercising a sort of fascination over them: it seems scarce possible that any but a real person should be so enslaved to actual events.

This general passiveness to what is going on about her naturally makes her whole character "smell of the shop." And she has a certain vulgarized air of rank and refinement, as if, priding herself on the confidence of her superiors, she had caught and assimilated their manners to her own vulgar nature. In this mixture of refinement and vulgarity, both elements are made the worse for being together; for, like all those who ape their betters, she exaggerates whatever she copies; or, borrowing the proprieties of those above her, she turns them into their opposite, because she has no sense of propriety. Without a particle of truth, or honour, or delicacy; one to whom life has no sacredness, virtue no beauty, love no holiness; a woman, in short, without womanhood; she abounds, however, in serviceable qualities; has just that low servile prudence which at once fits her to be an instrument, and makes her proud to be used as such. Yet she acts not so much from a positive disregard of right as from a lethargy of conscience; or as if her soul had run itself into a sort of moral dry-rot through a leak at the mouth.

Accordingly, in her basest acts she never dreams but that she is a pattern of virtue. And because she is thus unconscious and, as it were, innocent of her own vices, therefore Juliet thinks her free from them, and suspects not but that beneath her petulant vulgar loquacity she has a vein of womanly honour and sensibility. For she has, in her way, a real affection for Juliet; whatsoever would give pleasure to herself, that she will do anything to compass for her young mistress; and, until love and marriage become the question, there has never been anything to disclose the essential oppugnancy of their natures. When, however, in her noble agony, Juliet appeals to the Nurse for counsel, and is met with the advice to marry Paris, she sees at once what her soul is made of; that her former praises of Romeo were but the offspring of a sensual pruriency easing itself with talk; that in her long life she has gained only that sort of experience which works the debasement of its possessor; and that she knows less than nothing of love and marriage, because she has worn their prerogatives without any feeling of their sacredness.
Quoting Hudson: The Works of Shakespeare.


For much more on the character of the Nurse, please see the Romeo and Juliet explanatory notes for 1.3.


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