The Nurse in Romeo and Juliet: Character Analysis

Updated on January 29, 2020
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Jule Romans is a retired English teacher and college instructor. She has taught Shakespeare and advanced literature for over 25 years.

The Nurse, in Romeo and Juliet
The Nurse, in Romeo and Juliet | Source

Peace, I have done. God mark thee to his grace! Thou wast the prettiest babe that e'er I nursed: An I might live to see thee married once, I have my wish.

— The Nurse dotes on Juliet

Who is the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet?

The Nurse is a character who helps Juliet and also provides comic relief throughout the first half of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In the second half of the play, the Nurse is no longer Juliet's ally. All humorous parts of her character seem to be lacking after that point.

The Nurse In the Beginning of Romeo and Juliet

In the first two acts, The Nurse is loyal to Juliet, and supportive of her secret romance with Romeo. She helps to arrange the marriage of Romeo and Juliet

Prior to the romance, the Nurse has speeches and scenes that are clearly designed to provoke laughter. In the course of carrying messages and bringing the two young lovers together, the Nurse has many comedic scenes.

The Nurse in the End of Romeo and Juliet

In Act three, however, the Nurse changes her opinion and encourages Juliet to betray Romeo and deny their marriage. After that moment, all comic scenes are over, and the Nurse is no longer included in Juliet's clandestine plans.

The Nurse is left to mourn Juliet twice, along with all the other Capulets-- First when Juliet feigns her own death, and later when the two young lovers are discovered in the Capulet tomb.

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:..

Hie you to church; I must another way,

To fetch a ladder, by the which your love

Must climb a bird's nest soon when it is dark:

— The Nurse aids the secret plan
Juliet and her Nurse share a close relationship
Juliet and her Nurse share a close relationship | Source

Overview of the Nurse's Character

The Nurse is a bawdy, overly talkative,and humorous character in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. She teases, but is completely devoted to Juliet. She eventually betrays Juliet's wishes by giving her unkind advice. Even so, the Nurse is completely grief-stricken by Juliet's feigned death.

The Nurse is a Humorous Character

In Romeo and Juliet, the Nurse dominates an early scene with Juliet and Lady Capulet. She launches into endlessly long speeches, and makes dirty jokes while Lady Capulet attempts to have a serious discussion.

The Nurse uses no less than 45 lines to describe a simple incident from Juliet's childhood. All the while, Lady Capulet is waiting to talk to Juliet about an important marriage proposal for Juliet.

Lady Capulet becomes annoyed, and demands the Nurse stop talking. Not to be deterred, the Nurse continues her story and injects her thoughts throughout the conversation.

Throughout the play, the Nurse is a character full of humorous jokes. She is also the butt of some jokes made by others.

The Nurse is Juliet's Confidante

At first, the Nurse supports the romance between Romeo and Juliet. She acts as a messenger, encourages the secret marriage, and even helps Romeo secretly enter Juliet's bedchamber.

Later, however, the Nurse turns her position and encourages Juliet to abandon Romeo. At that point, Juliet stops confiding in her nurse.

The Nurse is Devoted to Juliet

When Juliet takes a sleeping potion, the Nurse believes, right along with everyone else, that Juliet is actually dead. She is devastated by the loss of her young charge. At that point, the Nurse is no longer comic. She is entirely serious and wracked with grief.

The Nurse is a Character with Many Facets

The Nurse has many facets to her personality. She is talkative, funny, annoying, and mischievous. She is also a bit unscrupulous, but completely devoted to Juliet. It is this devotion that leaves her saddened and grieving when she believes that Juliet is dead.

O woe! O woful, woful, woful day!

Most lamentable day, most woful day,

That ever, ever, I did yet behold!

O day! O day! O day! O hateful day!

Never was seen so black a day as this:

O woful day, O woful day!

— The Nurse, upon believing Juiet to be dead
The Nurse, being ridiculed by Mercutio
The Nurse, being ridiculed by Mercutio | Source

Nurse: My fan, Peter.

Mercutio: Good Peter, to hide her face; for her fan's the fairer face.

— Mercutio insults the Nurse

How Does the Nurse Provide Comic Relief in Romeo and Juliet?

In Romeo and Juliet, the Nurse is considered a comic relief character. She makes a number of jokes that relieve tension in scenes.

The Nurse Helps Break the Tension

For example, in an early scene, Lady Capulet is planning to talk to Juliet about the prospect of marriage.

Up to this point in the play, many scenes have been serious in nature. The audience has witnessed fighting in the town square and some serious words between Romeo and Benvolio.

The audience has also viewed the proposal from Count Paris for Juliet's hand in marriage. Now the scene is shifting to the Capulet household.

The Nurse Makes Bawdy Jokes

The Nurse breaks up the tension by making jokes. The scene (Act I sc.3) begins with the Nurse looking for Juliet so that Juliet and Lady Capulet can talk. Lady Capulet asks the Nurse to call Juliet to her.

The Nurse responds with:

Now, by my maidenhead, at twelve year old,
I bade her come. What, lamb! what, ladybird!
God forbid! Where's this girl? What, Juliet!

This is a somewhat bawdy reference, in that the nurse is saying:

Now, as sure as the fact that I was a virgin when I was twelve, I KNOW I called her already.

The use of the word "maidenhead" was a common reference to the hymen, and thus to virginity. The audience in Shakespeare's time was sure to respond to this with some laughter.

The Nurse Makes Jokes About Herself

Later in that same scene (Act I sc.3), she makes a joke while discussing Juliet's young age.

I'll lay fourteen of my teeth,—
And yet, to my teeth be it spoken, I have but four—
She is not fourteen.

She's saying:

I would bet 14 of my teeth-- but wait, speaking of my teeth, I only have four teeth left-- that Juliet is not yet 14 years old.

In case it's not obvious, the Nurse is making a joke against herself in this case. However, sometimes other characters make fun of her.

The Nurse Is the Butt of Mercutio's Jokes (Literally)

When the Nurse is looking for Romeo in the town square (Act 2, sc. 4), some of the boys tease her.

Nurse: My fan, Peter.

Mercutio: Good Peter, to hide her face; for her fan's the

fairer face.

-- Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 4

In this, Mercutio is calling the Nurse ugly by making a pun on the word fan. the nurse asks her assistant to hand her the fan, and Mercutio says

Yes, give her the fan so she can hide her face because her fan (fanny) is better looking than her face.

Mercutio is clearly saying that the Nurse's face is actually uglier than her "fanny," which is another word for her buttocks.

Put another way, Mercutio is cleverly calling the Nurse a buttface.

This provides comic relief because the tension between the Montague and Capulets in mounting, and the Nurse has entered forbidden Montague territory. The audience will sense the tension as the Montague boys surround the Nurse. This joke helps to break up that tension,

Juliet  begs the Nurse for answers
Juliet begs the Nurse for answers | Source

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.

— The Nurse urges Juliet to marry Count Paris and betray Romeo

How Does the Nurse Betray Juliet?

After their secret wedding, Romeo has becomes in a fight with the Capulets. Enraged with grief, Romeo kills Juliet's cousin Tybalt as revenge for Mercutio's death. As a result, Romeo is banished from Verona by Prince Escalus.

The Nurse Knows the Marriage of Romeo and Juliet

No one knows about the marriage of Juliet and Romeo except Friar Laurence and the Nurse. Lord Capulet, Juliet's father, has no idea that Juliet is already married to Romeo.

Lord Capulet Threatens that Juliet Must Marry Count Paris

For reasons that are still somewhat unclear, Lord Capulet decides that Juliet must be married to Count Paris right away. He makes plans for a wedding to take place the very next day.

This is a terrifying prospect for Juliet, and she tries to talk him out of it. But Lord Capulte is insistent. He says that Juliet must do as he says or he will abandon her completely

Juliet asks the Nurse for advice.

The Nurse Advises Juliet to Marry Paris Instead

The Nurse betrays Juliet by advising her to deny the marriage to Romeo and wed Count Paris instead. Her reasoning is that Romeo is banished, and cannot come back to object.

Since no one else knows of the marriage (except Friar Laurence), The Nurse suggests that Juliet should just proceed as though her marriage to Romeo never happened.

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.

In this case, "I think it best you married with the county" means "I think its best that you marry Count Paris." The Nurse uses the word "county" to refer to the "Count," meaning Count Paris.

This is a complete opposition to Juliet's wishes, and, to Juliet, a kind of betrayal.

Scenes for the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet

Act I
Scene 3
Scene 5
Act II
Scene 2
Scene 4
Scene 5
Act II
Scene 2
Scene 3
Scene 5
Act IV
Scene 2
Scene 4
Scene 5

© 2018 Jule Romans


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