Come on, Judi! Time for the Nurse!

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I’ve been detailed to write about the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet so I’ve turned off my phone and won’t do a single tweet till I’ve done so. Who is she? Well, she started life some time around 1595 as a product of Shakespeare’s imagination sparked off by a long poem called The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet which had been published over thirty years previously, in 1562. Its author was an unfortunate young man called Arthur Brooke who was drowned on a ship called The Greyhound while on his way to serve the Queen in France. (He seems to have been a member of the family of the Lords Cobham, one of whom Shakespeare was accused of pillorying as Falstaff in Henry IV Part One, only a year or two after he wrote Romeo and Juliet. I’ve never seen this link noticed before, so count it as research.)

As Shakespeare plotted his play Juliet’s nurse grew in his imagination in a way that has made her one of the most vivid of his characters. We call her a character but of course in one sense she’s actually just a few hundred words on a page distributed over 90 speeches in 11 scenes. Mostly these speeches are written in verse, but it’s exceptionally free verse, to such an extent that when the play was first printed, in 1597, all her speeches in the first Act appeared as prose. The effect of this irregularity is to create a sense that she is speaking in a very improvisatory, spontaneous way. We get the impression of a mind that works by free association, undisciplined, flitting rapidly from one subject to another as the mood takes her. So she talks to Lady Capulet about Juliet’s age:

But, as I said,
On Lammas Eve at night shall she be fourteen,
That shall, she, marry, I remember it well.
‘Tis since the earthquake now eleven years,
And she was weaned – I never shall forget it –
Of all the days of the year upon that day,
For I had then laid wormwood to my dug,
Sitting in the sun under the dovehouse wall.
My lord and you were then at Mantua …

And so she rambles garrulously on. It’s wonderfully theatrical writing, using the blank verse medium with a freedom that creates a sense of a highly idiosyncratic person behind the words. It’s also very original. I can’t think of anything like it before Shakespeare’s time except perhaps Dr Faustus’s last soliloquy in Marlowe’s play. And it’s a method that Shakespeare was to go on developing, in for example the character of Hotspur in Henry the Fourth Part One and, most notably, in Hamlet’s soliloquies. It adds to our sense of the rich diversity of the characters within a single play.

We know precisely how old Juliet is at the start of the play – thirteen, about to be fourteen. This is exceptional in Shakespeare. Very frequently he leaves the age of his characters open to interpretation. I sometimes think that the question ‘How old is Lady Macbeth’ is much more important that ‘How Many Children had Lady Macbeth?’ Similarly with the Nurse. We know that she’s a widow, that someone who was close to her – presumably her daughter – was born around the same time as Juliet but is now dead, but beyond this her age is very much open to the casting director to decide. As a result she’s been played virtually any age from say 40 to 80 or more. Her role gives great opportunities to character actresses, and is a boon to women who find Shakespeare parts harder to find as they get older. I’ve seen an enormous range from Edith Evans onwards. But so far I’ve only heard Judi Dench, in an audio recording, not seen her. The role would be a gift for her. Come on, Judi! Time for the Nurse!

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website

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