PTS 12/074: Carry on, Nurse (and Mercutio) …

BH carry on nurse
I see Queen Mab has been with you …

PTS read-through:  Romeo and Juliet: Act 1, scenes iii and iv

Why is R&J funnier than Love’s Labour’s Lost, or the Comedy of Errors?

Whilst Jonathan Bate tells us that Shakespeare:

borrowed certain techniques of dramatic cross-dressing and comic overhearing from John Lyly [a]

the spine of the comedy here is firmly character-driven, by Juliet’s Nurse and Mercutio. That’s why …

Let’s start with the Nurse in scene iii.

Firstly, the question of her age.  It’s so tempting to envisage her as some kind of batty old nymphomaniac – I picture her as the gloriously bonkers Miriam Margolyes.  Trouble is, what we know about the ages girls married at (from Brinda Charry and others), suggests that she wouldn’t be more than about 40.  And don’t forget she is a nurse simply because she was nursing (ie breastfeeding) ‘poor Susan’ at about the time Juliet was born.  Let’s assume she was pregnant at about 25, rather than Lady Capulet at 13.  Perhaps I should picture the Nurse as a younger Margolyes, then: more like Blackadder‘s Spanish Enfanta, bulging eyes brimming with insanity and voracious sexuality …

I love her nostalgic trip: the coarseness of it, the over-familiarity and lack of decorum, her tedious repetition until (notably) Juliet intervenes.  I love the image it conjures of her marriage, of the couple’s fondness for their charge (whilst Juliet’s mum was living it up in Mantua, by the way), and it makes the Nurse’s ‘betrayal’ of Juliet later that bit more piquant.  Interestingly, René Weis glosses the ‘earthquake’ eleven years previously as ‘a tantalizing passage of Shakespeare’s invention, and commonly used to justify different dates for the play’; her ‘Introduction’ to my Arden third recalls historical earthquakes in 1580, and the personal earthquake of Shakespeare’s son dying in 1596.[b]  Personally, I prefer to imagine the Nurse simply hyperbolising, for comic effect, the enormous shudder that must have ran through Juliet:

‘when it did taste the wormwood on the nipple

Of my dug and felt it bitter, pretty fool.’ (I.iii.30-31)

What parent hasn’t seen their toddler do this and laughed?

BH baby sour face

But we can’t forget Mercutio in scene iv.

Mercutio’s an excellent foil to the Nurse.  He may not be son-in-law material either, strictly speaking, but he’s wonderful.   John Dryden saw what I see, I think: a character almost larger than life, like Falstaff.

‘Shakespear show’d the best of his skill in his Mercutio, and he said himself, that he was forc’d to kill him in the third Act, to prevent being kill’d by him.’ [b]

Much like Falstaff having to be ‘killed’ before he ruined Hal’s triumph at Agincourt.  We NEED, I think, to feel strongly for Mercutio – otherwise the play becomes a little less three-dimensional, lacking the kind of collateral damage that the tragedies normally bring.  If he’s not truly missed in the second half of the play, the mood change doesn’t work as well.  We are left to mourn, with Juliet and her family, the unlikeable Tybalt – that’s more tricky if we aren’t already grieving for Romeo’s best friend.  So the interpretations where Mercutio is toned down lose something, I believe …

My first choice would have been David Tennant, and he does a reasonably manic job in the Arkangel Audio version of the play, but it’s restrained and lacks pace.  I’d love to see what Andrew Scott would bring to the role in terms of edginess, assuming a director would give him full rein.

In the meantime, the best Mercutio I’ve seen was in the 2012 University of Chester production I photographed.  I’m 100+ miles away from my original images, so all I can remember at the moment is that the lad’s name was ‘Billy’. [If I can find his name when I get home I’ll substitute it here] He gave the ‘Queen Mab’ speech the treatment it deserves: prowling the stage, interacting with his fellow roisters as he teased Romeo, owning the words, and utterly magnetic in his demented description of the Queen’s nocturnal activities.  It’s a brilliant set-piece, made for performance, not bland recitation.  One of the standouts in my journey through Shakespeare so far, I think.

So, by the time our lovers meet, we’re enjoying the play – no-one’s been hurt over that silly feud, and the intimacies between friends, the bawdiness, the youthful joie-de-vivre of the whole outing is captivating.  THAT’s what makes the ending so painful …


[a]  Jonathan Bate, The Genius of Shakespeare (Picador:  London, 1997)

[b] William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (ed. René Weis, Arden third edition), (Methuen Drama:  London, 2012).  Any further references to the play text are to this edition

[c] John Dryden, in William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (ed. René Weis, Arden third edition), (Methuen Drama:  London, 2012)

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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