Romeo and Juliet: The Case of the Naughty Nurse–and the Underage Bride

[Edited 26 May 2011 to add a thought about maidenheads that got left out of the original draft]

Meanwhile, back at Capulet House, it’s time to break the news to Juliet that she has a suitor. In her first appearance she’ll be quiet and respectful and completely overshadowed by the play’s most vivid character, her Nurse:

Nurse, where’s my daughter? Call her forth to me.

Now by my maidenhead at twelve year old,
I bade her come.

You see right away why she’s one of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters: the very first words out of her mouth are a dirty joke. (Swearing on her maidenhead at twelve implies that she didn’t have one at thirteen; we think “That can’t be much of an oath,” as we recall Sampson and Gregory’s byplay about maidenheads. The joke is all the dirtier since, as we’ve already been told, Juliet is thirteen, and as the Nurse says, she “bade her come.” Yes, in this context that means what you think it means.) And she will go on and on like that—though perhaps nowhere more outrageously than in this scene. The subject turns to Juliet’s age—for no other reason, as far as I can see, than to emphasize it—and the Nurse goes to town:

Thou knowest my daughter’s of a pretty age.

Faith, I can tell her age unto an hour.

She’s not fourteen.

I’ll lay fourteen of my teeth–
And yet, to my teen be it spoken, I have but four–
She’s not fourteen. How long is it now
To Lammas-tide?

“Teen” is an archaic word for “sorrow,” so the Nurse’s oath about her four teeth is there just to introduce the terrible pun on “fourteen.”

A fortnight and odd days.

Even or odd, of all days in the year,
Come Lammas-eve at night shall she be fourteen.

Lammas is August 1, so we have an exceptionally precise indication both of Juliet’s age—born in the evening on July 31, she is about two weeks shy of fourteen—and of the time of the action—between, say, July 12 and July 18 (two weeks and “odd days” before August 1). But the Nurse has hardly gotten started. She knows Juliet’s age because there was an earthquake on the day she weaned her, Juliet’s third birthday. (There has been a huge amount of speculation that assumes Shakespeare is making a topical reference to a real earthquake that happened eleven years before the play’s premiere, allowing us to date that event. Unfortunately, there were too many earthquakes both in England and Verona to single one out.) And the day before that, something even more significant happened:

For then she could stand high-lone; nay, by th’ rood,
She could have run and waddled all about;
For even the day before she broke her brow:
And then my husband—God be with his soul,
A was a merry man—took up the child,
‘Yea,’ quoth he, ‘dost thou fall upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit,
Wilt thou not, Jule?’ And by my holidame,
The pretty wretch left crying and said ‘Ay’.
To see now how a jest shall come about.
I warrant, and I should live a thousand years
I never should forget it. ‘Wilt thou not, Jule?’ quoth he,
And, pretty fool, it stinted and said ‘Ay.’

Consider the impudence: the Nurse is telling a dirty joke about a little girl in that girl’s presence and that of her mother, the lady of the house. In fact, she has the gall to repeat it. Worse yet, after Lady Capulet complains “Enough of this, I pray thee, hold thy peace,” she—well, see for yourself:

Yes, madam, yet I cannot choose but laugh
To think it should leave crying and say ‘Ay’;
And yet I warrant it had upon it brow
A bump as big as a young cockerel’s stone,
A perilous knock, and it cried bitterly.
‘Yea,’ quoth my husband, ‘fall’st upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou comest to age,
Wilt thou not, Jule?’ It stinted, and said ‘Ay.’

Yes, she repeats the joke twice again, until Juliet asks her to stop: “And stint thou too, I pray thee, Nurse, say I.” (By the way, “stone” does mean “testicle,” just like you were thinking, and as for “cockerel”—do I really need to spell it out for you? Pretty much whenever you think Shakespeare may be making a dirty joke, he probably is, Beavis.)

This introduction to Juliet and the Nurse is important in two ways. Old Capulet had already said that Juliet isn’t yet fourteen, and here Shakespeare hammers the point home—though again, this is something we in the twenty-first century tend to gloss over. After all, she is only one year older than Dolores Haze, otherwise known as Lolita, and yet her name is not a synonym for “underage girl.” There are no JuliGoths strolling along the Harajuku. Shakespeare and his age plainly didn’t possess our modern sensibility in this matter. As both Capulet parents point out—although Old Capulet thinks it unwise—younger women have gotten married (Lady Capulet: “By my count/I was your mother much upon these years/That you are now a maid”—that is, she had Juliet when she was thirteen). The historian Philippe Ariès is famous for his thesis that the very concept of childhood didn’t come into being until early modern times, and perhaps that’s confirmed here. So we need to put our contemporary qualms aside. Juliet may be young to be married even by the standards of her time, but I think Shakespeare is more interested in underlining the extraordinary development she is going to undergo. In a couple of days this vulnerable, submissive child is going to blossom into the most mature adult in Verona.

More important is this introduction to the Nurse. Marjorie Garber rightly calls her one of the most beloved comic characters in literature, and I don’t need to belabor the why of it. Lusty in every sense of the word, she’s a dry run or smaller version of Falstaff; but as with Falstaff, Shakespeare is equivocal, presenting all sides of his characters. What is he trying to get across by having her repeat the story four times, apart from showing that her mind is irredeemably, reflexively filthy? First, though it looks as if she doesn’t know when to quit, she also knows just what she can get away with. Generally, when your employer tells you to stuff it, you stuff it (although it’s true that Lady Capulet could be saying “Stop it!” and meaning the opposite, as lovers do when they’re tickled; but could Juliet?). The Nurse keeps going until Juliet begs her to stop and it’s clear that she had better. Second, it’s firmly established that her mind is irredeemably filthy. And third, her zest for this anecdote in Juliet’s presence suggests that she doesn’t respect the family or love the girl quite as much as someone in her position should. Shakespeare’s dramatic economy amazes again; all this from one long dirty story? Yet—not to spoil it for you, the 1595 audience—we’ll see all these traits in her as the play proceeds.

Juliet’s last word in this scene is her longest speech yet, all of three lines. When her mother asks “Speak briefly, can you like of Paris’ love?” she replies:

I’ll look to like, if looking liking move,
But no more deep will I endart mine eye
Than your consent gives strength to make it fly.

More heavy lifting with just a few words; the tongue twister in the first line tells us that when she does talk, Juliet can make words dance with the best Verona has to offer, while the next two lines show her obedience.

So Romeo and Juliet are ready for the party. Both are going there to meet other people. But life is full of surprises.

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