Telling Mercutio’s story straight through meant that we had to skip the scene (Act II, Scene v) where the Nurse conveys Romeo’s instruction to Juliet to meet him at Friar Laurence’s to get married. It’s entertaining; it contains one of the funniest exchanges between Juliet and the Nurse. And it’s important; we’ll see how it plays off later scenes, and how it acts as the launching pad for Juliet’s emotional development, which I think is the real focus of the second half of the play and one of Shakespeare’s most extraordinary, yet unheralded, accomplishments. So let’s correct that omission now.
The scene opens with Juliet out of all patience waiting for the Nurse:
The clock struck nine when I did send the Nurse,
In half an hour she promis’d to return.
. . .
Now is the sun upon the highmost hill
Of this day’s journey, and from nine till twelve
Is three long hours, yet she is not come.
Notice how cleverly Shakespeare sneaks in a time indication. This is one of those little touches only a theatre professional would even know to make. A feckless courtier wouldn’t even realize that the audience has no other way to mark the passage of dramatic time, especially just after a change of scene. In addition, there’s no reason to doubt Juliet’s word that the Nurse has indeed been gone three hours, but we also saw the Nurse proceeding as fast as she could, so Shakespeare is playing Juliet’s subjective time off objective time, vividly conveying just how anxious she is.
The passage I elided is worth noting because Juliet will use similar imagery a little later:
O, she is lame. Love’s heralds should be thoughts
Which ten times faster glides than the sun’s beams,
Driving back shadows over lowering hills.
Therefore do nimble-pinion’d doves draw Love,
And therefore hath the wind-swift Cupid wings.
“She,” of course, is that slowpoke Nurse, whom Juliet diagnoses acerbically:
Had she affections and warm youthful blood
She would be as swift in motion as a ball:
My words would bandy her to my sweet love,
And his to me.
But old folks, many feign as they were dead—
Unwieldy, slow, heavy, and pale as lead.
Aren’t those last two lines in particular just wonderful? I doubt that young people today would choose quite those words but they’ve all had exactly the same thought. I know I did.
But finally the Nurse arrives and we shift from impatient lyricism to comedy:
I would thou hadst my bones, and I thy news.
Nay, come, I pray thee, speak: good, good Nurse, speak.
Jesu, what haste. Can you not stay awhile?
Do you not see that I am out of breath?
How art thou out of breath when thou hast breath
To say to me that thou art out of breath?
The excuse that thou dost make in this delay
Is longer than the tale thou dost excuse.
Is thy news good or bad? Answer to that,
Say either, and I’ll stay the circumstance.
Let me be satisfied: is’t good or bad?
It’s hard to quarrel with the logic of Juliet’s question, and that makes it funny. But is the Nurse out of breath? Here’s one of those many instances, showing conclusively that Shakespeare was a theatre professional, in which the actor’s choice makes all the difference. Juliet, caught up in her own subjective time, naturally thinks the Nurse has been malingering, and her question implies it. But the Nurse could really have been hurrying, in objective time. The actor can play it either way—and the brilliance of it is that it can work either way. The exchange will still be funny.
In any case, it’s pretty clear that the Nurse is playing with Juliet at some point. Her response to Juliet’s last question is sheer obfuscation:
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.
Here the Nurse gets into comic oppositions, as if playing on Romeo’s praise of Rosaline. Juliet isn’t deterred:
. . . But all this did I know before.
What says he of our marriage? What of that?
And the Nurse—I hope she’s enjoying this—twists the knife by changing the subject:
Lord, how my head aches! What a head have I:
It beats as it would fall in twenty pieces.
My back o’ t’ other side—ah, my back, my back!
Beshrew your heart for sending me about
To catch my death with jauncing up and down!
Juliet changes tack and plays along with the Nurse:
I’ faith, I am sorry that thou art not well.
Sweet, sweet, sweet Nurse, tell me, what says my love?
Juliet probably even means it when she says she’s sorry, but it doesn’t help:
Your love says, like an honest gentleman,
And a courteous, and a kind, and a handsome,
And I warrant a virtuous—Where is your mother?
Look. You think Shakespeare is boring? Have you ever seen The Colbert Report‘s occasional feature, “Cheating Death with Dr, Stephen T. Colbert, D.F.A.”? In the stinger, Colbert, wearing doctor’s white coat and stethoscope, is playing chess with Death, in homage to the famous scene in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Apparently about to lose, Colbert points to the sky, distracting Death long enough for him to switch the pieces around. As Death puzzles over the board, Colbert turns to us, gurning. This is the Nurse pointing to the sky.
And she still isn’t finished. Juliet must want to strangle her by now:
Where is my mother!? Why, she is within.
Where should she be? How oddly thou repliest.
‘Your love says, like an honest gentleman,
“Where is your mother?”’
It may be a little harder to see on the page, but imagine Juliet speaking this line and see if you recognize the first stirrings of the deadpan tradition in British comedy. But she nearly has her answer:
O God’s lady dear,
Are you so hot? Marry, come up, I trow.
Is this the poultice for my aching bones?
Henceforward do your messages yourself.
Here’s such a coil. Come, what says Romeo?
Have you got leave to go to shrift to-day?
Then hie you hence to Friar Laurence’ cell;
There stays a husband to make you a wife.
Finally! But the Nurse can’t resist getting in one final dig, which concludes:
I am the drudge, and toil in your delight,
But you shall bear the burden soon at night.
That is, so far the Nurse has done all the work of courtship, but soon Juliet will have to bear the burden of being married and of having a man on top of her.
So, one marvelous thing about this scene is how much it leaves to the actors. When you go through it, try reading it aloud; imagine the different ways in which you could act either Juliet or the Nurse and see how your choices affect the tone of the scene. In that way, let’s savor it. It marks the end of Juliet’s innocence, her girlhood. Correlatively, it shows the end of her easy familiarity with the Nurse. The next, very brief scene (only 37 lines, of which Juliet has only 6) is the wedding (dominated by Friar Laurence, hardly a promising start). After that, Juliet grows up very fast. Next time we see her, she’s very much all woman.