The Worst Blow: The Nurse
Can you imagine the despair Juliet must be feeling, plunged from ecstasy to mortal peril in the space of a minute or two? Where can she turn in this moment of greatest need? Not to her mother—but you could have told her that:
Is there no pity sitting in the clouds
That sees into the bottom of my grief?
O sweet my mother, cast me not away,
. . .
Talk not to me, for I’ll not speak a word.
Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee.
Cast off by both parents, her husband impotent in his exile, Juliet has only one hope: the woman who has truly been a mother to her. The next exchange, then, is the most shocking in the play, the point from which it cannot get any lower:
O God, O Nurse, how shall this be prevented?
My husband is on earth, my faith in heaven.
. . .
What sayst thou? Hast thou not a word of joy?
Some comfort, Nurse.
Faith, here it is.
Romeo is banish’d, and all the world to nothing
That he dares ne’er come back to challenge you.
Or if he do, it needs must be by stealth.
Then, since the case so stands as now it doth,
I think it best you married with the County.
O, he’s a lovely gentleman.
Romeo’s a dishclout to him. An eagle, madam,
Hath not so green, so quick, so fair an eye
As Paris hath. Beshrew my very heart,
I think you are happy in this second match,
For it excels your first; or, if it did not,
Your first is dead, or ’twere as good he were
As living here and you no use of him.
With this ultimate, unexpected betrayal Juliet is completely alone.
The first time we experience this scene, on page or stage, we are surely as thunderstruck as Juliet is. Paris is fresher than an eagle? The Nurse has no more even seen him than Juliet has. Romeo is a dishrag compared to him? These words are coming out of the go-between’s mouth? How? How dare she?
In retrospect we could have seen it coming; seen, in fact, how Shakespeare prepared us for it, how he showed us that the Nurse, for all her jollity and intimacy with Juliet, is a pragmatist, well capable of calculating her own interest and acting on it. Looking back just a little, we would also now be struck by the passage n Old Capulet’s tirade where the Nurse sticks her nose in it:
God in heaven bless her.
You are to blame, my lord, to rate her so.
And why, my Lady Wisdom? Hold your tongue,
Good Prudence! Smatter with your gossips, go.
. . .
May not one speak?
Peace, you mumbling fool!
Utter your gravity o’er a gossip’s bowl,
For here we need it not.
Old Capulet is not so carried away by his rage that he can’t put the Nurse firmly in her place; “with your gossips, go.” She’s a menial who belongs with the other old ladies, not a “Lady Wisdom” or “Good Prudence” whose place is to dare criticize her lord, but a “mumbling fool.” Old Capulet’s mocking epithets remind the Nurse that her place is with the family, not this renegade.
Looked at this way, the Nurse’s betrayal is something we could have seen coming. Why didn’t we? Essentially because we liked her. Until now she had been earthy and funny; if she were an American politician we could have had a beer with her. As with a politician, we were taken in; but I think there is a deeper level. When it comes down to it, the Nurse turns out to be a coward and, in her earlier praise of Romeo here so casually thrown aside, a hypocrite. Given our emotional investment in her, these are the two things we least wanted her to be. She doesn’t just betray Juliet; she betrays us—and that is what we can’t forgive.
Neither can Juliet, once she makes her former protector squirm a bit:
Speakest thou from thy heart?
And from my soul too, else beshrew them both.
Again with that irony meant for us, that goes over the listener’s head. But once the Nurse leaves, Juliet is brutally straightforward:
Ancient damnation! O most wicked fiend,
Is it more sin to wish me thus forsworn,
Or to dispraise my lord with that same tongue
Which she hath prais’d him with above compare
So many thousand times? Go, counsellor.
Thou and my bosom henceforth shall be twain.
I’ll to the Friar to know his remedy.
If all else fail, myself have power to die.
I’ve maintained throughout that Friar Laurence is the worst possible adviser to the lovers. Now we’ll see why.