Reading, particularly reading the text of plays (not to mention texts of uncertain reliability in terms of the author’s preferences), is an intense negotiation of the competing forces of interpretation of words, context and authorial intention in the melange of previous readings and performances and critical discussions.
Reading Romeo and Juliet this time around I’m seeing many things—almost too many things—in new ways. Some of it is being sparked by the conversations on the “Hack Shakespeare” Facebook group and the occasional #moocspeare Tweets. The rest comes from some change in the forces of negotiation between myself, my text and memory.
The nurse is a character I’m seeing in a very different light. I’ve always read her as a kind of Falstaffian character, similarly comedic but with significantly less depth. Now I’m seeing her as a significantly darker, even malevolent actor. Her role is clearly meant to be important (I’d be surprised if any characters other than Romeo and Juliet themselves get more time onstage). And in her role as caretaker and messenger, her words seem to not just predict but—Iago-like—provoke ill actions until she betrays Juliet, pushing her to marry Paris, a move that is either incredibly stupid or deeply malicious. “O most wicked fiend” indeed!
Or maybe I’m being too hard on the nurse. Perhaps she’s just being pragmatic, a trait whose contrast is so heightened in contrast with the feelings of pure love between Romeo and Juliet that her pragmatic approach—in which Paris and Romeo are interchangeable—feels hostile. She’s certainly intended to be the earthy counterpart to Juliet (a role Mercutio, with his ribaldry and vulgarity, is Romeo’s), providing the opposite pole in one of the intense dualities in the play, pure love vs earthly love.
Shakespeare is Shakespeare because of the depth he brings to the stories he adapted from other, simpler sources. The Nurse’s character—and her role—change. She’s never merely a comic foil, just as Falstaff is never merely a comic buffoon (which heightens the tragedy of Prince Hal’s rejection of him), but as the play progresses the balance shifts from mostly humor with a blunted blade beneath to a fully revealed cutting edge. “Women grow by men,” the nurse notes early…but Juliet is to learn they die by them too.