"Speak'st thou from thy heart?": Performing the Mother-Nurse and Clown-Servant in Romeo and Juliet
Mothers are notoriously rare in Shakespeare. Juliet has a living, onstage mother, but the most important older woman and mother-figure in her life is the Nurse. Unlike any other Nurse in Shakespeare’s plays, such as the Nurse in Titus Andronicus, or, for that matter, any other Nurse character in early modern English plays, Juliet’s Nurse is a fully developed and emotionally complicated character. She has her own backstory, including the death of her own named child. She is given a remarkable idiolect along with a fully developed sexuality and corporeality. She is Juliet’s alternative mother, and as central to the plot and the emotional arc of Romeo and Juliet as Bottom is to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And yet, she stands alone among Shakespeare’s servant-class characters, providing comic relief, dramatic interest and tension, and a deep and loving connection to the family she serves and the Italian community of which she is an integral part. This essay situates the character within widespread, normative medieval and early modern practices of wet-nursing and surrogate motherhood. It examines the uniqueness of Juliet’s Nurse in the context of other early modern ‘nurse’ characters and the long history of remarkable theatrical and cinematic interpretations of the role. It also specifically connects the Nurse to her companion servant in the Capulet household, Peter, played in the first performances by the great English clown, Will Kemp.
Keywords: nurse; surrogate motherhood; Romeo and Juliet; clown; Shakespeare
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