Many of Shakespeare?s tragedies incorporate some character who is amusing, delightful, and downright comic, injecting into the somberness of the plot line a note of levity. In Romeo and Juliet, this is the character of Juliet?s nurse. We do not have a name for her, and yet we know much about her, for she is only too happy to tell us everything we?d like to know — sometimes two or three times. Garrulous, simple, and common, she is none-the-less endearing because of her good heart and her deep love for Juliet — and even more important, she is essential to the development of the story itself.
When we first meet her, she and Lady Capulet are looking for Juliet. Lady Capulet wants to talk to her daughter in private, but her nurse doesn?t get the hint; a chance remark about Juliet being thirteen years old launches her into a rambling remembrance of Juliet?s babyhood, which she can date precisely because Juliet would be the same age as her own Susan, who died. She manages to toss into this conversation an earthquake, the Capulets? trip to Mantua eleven years before, and the details of weaning children off the breast. She manages, however, to throw in one bit of foreshadowing. She tells Lady Capulet that one day, as the toddler Juliet was playing, the child fell flat on her face. The Nurse?s husband picked her up and teased her, telling her that when she got older, she would ?fall backward when [she has] more wit?, and the child stopped crying and said ?Ay.? (I, iii, 41, 47). What she means by this remark is that when girl-children are small, they scamper and trip and fall forward, but when they are older, they find themselves thrown backwards in bed. Since the crisis of Juliet?s life will stem from love — from being thrown backwards in bed, as it were — this is a significant prophecy. Just as significantly, the toddler Juliet agrees to it, just as she is a willing participant in the events that lead to her death.
The Nurse is entranced when Juliet is to be betrothed to Paris; she calls him ?a man of wax . . . a flower, in faith, a very flower? (I, 76-78). But she is not so loyal to Paris that she does not see the attributes of Romeo as well. More to the point, she is as caught up in the excitement of forbidden love as Juliet is, and she?s thrilled to be part of Juliet?s plans for sending messages to her secret lover. When she dresses up to take the message to Romeo, she apparently looks ridiculous; Mercutio calls her cloak ?a sail? and herself ?a bawd?, causing her to become ?so vexed that every part about me quivers!? (II, iv, 108, 136, 171). Romeo tells her to commend himself to Juliet, which so excites her, that she can hardly stay to hear the rest; he protests that he hasn?t given her the message yet. Before they part, she makes another prescient comment: that ?rosemary and Romeo begin with [the same] letter? (II, iv, 220). Romeo asks what of it, and the Nurse has no logical reply because it was simply another of her passing fancies; but the very incongruity of the remark will cause audiences and readers to remember it. Rosemary is the flower symbolizing the remembrance of the dead.
It is important to note the way the Nurse gives her mouth free rein, and also the extent to which she is driven by her emotions. We can argue that she is an old woman, but she cannot be too old, for she nursed Juliet only eleven years before. In all likelihood the reason the Capulets tolerate her behavior is that the child Juliet has been devoted to her, and she has obviously been a servant of long standing in the household. But occasionally the Nurse?s passion for squeezing the very last drop of excitement or emotion out of every situation becomes cruel. For example, when she returns from speaking with Romeo, the Nurse procrastinates a long time before giving Juliet the news of her beloved. Her excuse is that she is too tired to talk, and her bones ache; to which Juliet replies, ?I would thou hadst my bones, and I thy news!? (V, i, 27). Finally the Nurse switches her focus of complaints onto Romeo. ?Well, you have made a simple choice; you know not how to choose a man; Romeo! No, not he; though his face be better than any man?s, yet his leg excels all men?s; and for a hand, and a foot, and a body, though they be not to be talked on, yet they are past compare; he is not the flower of courtesy, but, I?ll warrant him, as gentle as a lamb. Go thy ways, wench; serve God. What, have you dined at home?? (V, i, 37-46).
What has she said here? Juliet does not have good taste in men; the man she picked is gorgeous; what he lacks in manners he makes up in sweetness. That doesn?t sound like such a bad choice! And yet again, in this passage?s incongruity, we who know the story?s ending pick up something sinister in ?you know not how to choose a man.? For had Juliet made the safer choice — Paris, the count her parents wanted her to marry — Juliet would have lived, and in all likelihood so would Romeo. Had she ?served God? in the sense of obeying her parents (Shakespeare always comes down on the side of the status quo), tragedy would not have resulted.
Even more strange is the way the Nurse announces to Juliet that the girl?s cousin Tybalt is dead by Romeo?s hand. Actually, the Nurse says nothing about Tybalt for some thirty lines; she enters the room, wailing and moaning that ?he?s dead, he?s dead, he?s dead!/ We are undone, lady, we are undone!/ Alack the day! he?s gone, he?s killed, he?s dead!? (III, ii, 36-38). The last person mentioned before this outburst was Romeo, so the logical assumption on Juliet?s part is that it?s Romeo who is dead. She of course becomes hysterically upset; her only question is whether Romeo has been murdered or has killed himself. It is only after some twenty more lines that the Nurse mentions anything about Tybalt — calling him ?the best friend I had?, which of course he wasn?t. She is simply being overly dramatic again, unthinkingly at Juliet?s expense.
To the Nurse?s credit, however, she recognizes Juliet?s very real pain by the end of the scene, and arranges a way for the lovers to come together in Juliet?s bed, for the first and only time. Throughout the play we have been treated to the Nurse?s bawdy jokes about sex, and so it is fitting that she should be the one to recognize how important this meeting will be to them. When she goes to Romeo at Friar Laurence?s cell, her histrionics are gone; Romeo asks how Juliet is doing, and she describes Juliet?s mood and behavior accurately, doesn?t ramble, and gives Romeo the ring Juliet sent for him. In the morning, after Juliet and Romeo have spent the night together, it is the Nurse who awakens them so Romeo can escape before the rest of the family finds he has been there.
But just as we were beginning to see a staunch ally in the Nurse, she shows that the depth of her love and loyalty will never be as strong as her pragmatism. The tete-a-tete between Romeo and Juliet was fun while it lasted. But now there seems little way for Juliet to get out of marrying Paris, and the Nurse encourages her to go along with her parents? wishes. Romeo is, of course, banished; this means he is as good as dead — and anyway, Romeo was ?a dishclout? to Paris (III, v, 221). Juliet does not argue, undoubtedly feeling that arguing displays more intensity of feeling than it is safe to show someone you no longer trust. But after the Nurse leaves, we realize that Juliet is now simply resolved to go her course without her.
It is tragic, and yet fitting, that the one to find the ?dead? body of Juliet is the Nurse. For Juliet?s condition now is a powerful metaphor for her relationship to the ultimately loving but unfaithful and uncomprehending Nurse. Juliet is dead to the world, and she is also dead to the Nurse. She will have one more brief moment of consciousness to us, the audience, her new confidantes; but the Nurse will never see her alive again.
The characterization of the Nurse, in short, is not introduced into Romeo and Juliet purely for comic relief (although it provides plenty of that). The offhand remarks made by the Nurse often prove oddly prophetic, foreshadowing tragic events that transpire later in the play. But most importantly, her earthy pragmatism makes Juliet?s ethereal romanticism seem all the more heartbreakingly youthful and poignant, and the play?s end all the more tragic.