Monday, November 2, 2009

Childhood's End

Everyone likes the Nurse. She's funny, she's bawdy, she speaks in blank verse. She seems "real," particularly compared to Juliet's biological parents, who are stuffy, distant, obsessed with formality and appearance. The Nurse is the literary descendant of Chaucer's Wife of Bath, another garrulous widow with an earthy turn of phrase. Like the Wife of Bath, Juliet's nurse was married at twelve. And also like the Wife, she doesn't know when to stop talking--especially about sex and, in this scene, breastfeeding.

I'm going to make another plug for Blackadder II here--the Queen's "Nursie" was obviously modeled on Juliet's nurse. She's rather dim, and enjoys dressing up as a cow with numerous udders hanging off her chest. Unfortunately, whenever I read Act 1, scene 3 I can't help thinking about Nursie and her overabundance of mammary glands. That's the problem with visual media--it takes root in your imagination and no amount of literary imagery will make it go away.

Anyway, in this scene, Juliet's Nurse and her mother are urging her to leave childhood behind and assume the duties of a wife. This is the only time we see Juliet prior to her meeting with Romeo; she's obedient and demure, almost to a fault. This passivity will seem odd in retrospect--just a few scenes later she appears on the balcony as a sexually aware woman, completely in command of her own desire and the means to its fulfillment. Here, however, she says very little. Her mother praises her suitor, Paris, as a coverless book (see "Dangerous Digressions 2" for a reading of this speech); in response, Juliet promises to check him out at the masque that evening:

I'll look to like, if looking liking move;
But no more deep will I endart mine eye
That your consent gives strength to make it fly.

Pretty alliteration--look/like/looking/liking. She'll try to like him, at least superficially, but not too much. She is, above all, a dutiful daughter. The metaphor of the eye as an arrow is not new: Chaucer used it to great effect in Troilus and Criseyde, the narrative poem that was Will's source for Troilus and Cressida. The eye "pierces" its object, but the "arrow" then turns back on the spectator so that he or she is the one wounded by love's dart. This is one of those moments of "ironic prolepsis"--a "flash forward" into a future that will retroactively give something meaning.

Okay, that was unnecessarily lit-crit-ish. What I mean is, Juliet doesn't realize when she says this that she will be the one "endarted" before the evening's over. The reason I'm dwelling on it, however, is because it's the only moment when we have even a hint that this shy, girlish Juliet will become the sexually assertive woman of the balcony scene. There's a sense of force restrained here, of desire or courage held back by decorum and obedience. In other words, she's got some powerful erotic weaponry she's not using.

So, the Nurse. Throughout literary history there have been lots of these "surrogate parent" figures for men: Merlin, Falstaff, Fagan (Oliver Twist), Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Gandalf are cast in this archetypal mold. These pedagogical/paternal relationships are the foundation of the hero's education--for better or worse. Women play only static roles in many of these stories--as either unattainable goddesses or dangerous temptresses. And that's pretty much it. They exist only to teach the hero something about himself--they're merely allegorical, and therefore two-dimensional.

I think Will was conscious of this tradition when he created (or rather re-created) Juliet. She is, as far as I know, the first fictional girl-child to grow up. Granted, we only have one scene in which she's a child, but still--this is groundbreaking stuff. She actually develops as a character! Amazing. In keeping with tradition, however, she needs a mentor/confidante. Her own mother is obviously disqualified--she represents the claustrophobic social world the lovers will eventually reject. What Juliet needs is a Merlin, an Obi-Wan, or, failing that, a Falstaff. And that's pretty much what she gets in the nurse--a female Falstaff.

Falstaff had his feminine side, too--I could totally see the Nurse as Falstaff in drag. Of course, since she was played by a man (for some reason I see her as a man pitching his voice higher, not a boy), it's conceivable an actor could have played both parts. Interesting idea.

Because a woman can't be a hero like Henry V, Juliet's "education" is pretty much limited to the erotic sphere. The Nurse is, admittedly, less a teacher than a panderer (a sexual go-between, and--at least potentially--a pimp). Still, we shouldn't let this fact blind us to the magnitude of Will's innovation. Without Juliet, there would be no Elizabeth Bennet, no Jane Eyre. She's the literary "mother" of all those heroines we admired as (bookish) young women.

Similarly, until the Nurse, there really weren't any comparable "guides" for fictional girls on the verge of womanhood. That's still true today: heroines tend to have peers as advisors--think Anita in West Side Story, a familiar analogue of this play. Scarlett O'Hara's Mammy comes to mind, although obviously she's more of a moral gatekeeper than erotic enabler. While Mammy tried unsuccessfully to make Scarlett behave, however, Juliet's Nurse is more or less pushing her charge out of the nest. In a sort of ass-backwards way.

The Nurse is the TMI Queen--pretty much everything she says gives you way Too Much Information. Even her first line tells us more than we needed to know:

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

Right off the bat, she tells us how old she was when she lost her virginity. Then she trips over her tongue and calls Juliet a "ladybird" which could be an endearment for "ladybug," ( I think in the UK they still say "ladybird" instead of "ladybug") or could mean a loose woman. When Lady Capulet reminds her of Juliet's age ("she's not fourteen") the Nurse goes into a long, rambling story about the death of her own daughter, Susan, at the time of Juliet's birth (often aristocratic girls were nursed by lower-class women who had lost their own babies) and how she weaned Juliet during an earthquake:

'Tis since the earthquake now eleven years,
And she was weaned--I never shall forget it--
Of all the days of the year upon that day,
For I had then laid wormwood to my dug,
Sitting in the sun under the dovehouse wall.
My lord and you were then at Mantua.
Nay, I do bear a brain! But, as I said,
When it did taste the wormwood on the nipple
Of my dug and felt it bitter, pretty fool,
To see it tetchy and fall out wi' th' dug!
"Shake," quoth the dove-house! 'Twas no need, I trow,
To bid me trudge...

The Nurse's stream-of-consciousness here would do James Joyce proud: there was an earthquake, I'd just put something bitter on my breast to make it distasteful to the baby, the Lord and Lady were out of town, wait, I'm not stupid, I remember! It was funny to see the baby cry when it tasted the bitter stuff, and then the dovehouse shook, and no one had to ask me to get the hell out of the way....

As a mom myself, I can only imagine what the La Leche League (breastfeeding ideologues) would say about this weaning method. Kids grew up tougher then, for sure. The other thing I had forgotten was that children were called "it." Now partly this is a vestige of Old English, when the language still had grammatical gender. In German, it's still das Kind. But I also imagine it helped, in an era with so much infant mortality, to keep children at a distance until you were sure they were going to make it. Hence, "it" instead of "she."

The Nurse then tells a somewhat awkward story detailing her late husband's off-color joke about Juliet's fall as a toddler. The child, he remarked, will eventually learn to "fall backward" instead of forward--which is to say, lie on her back. This kind of thing reminds me once again of how much our notions of childhood have changed. Can you imagine anyone sexualizing a toddler, even as a joke, these days? Regardless of class, it just wouldn't happen. And if it did, you can be sure the police would be on that guy's doorstep the next morning.

Although the Nurse intends to affirm that Juliet has, indeed, grown up, the whole speech has the effect of reminding us she was a baby not too long ago--hence, still a child. In Will's source, a long, rather tedious English poem by Arthur Brooke called The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, Juliet is sixteen. In an earlier Italian version, she was eighteen. The point of this scene seems to be to emphasize her age, and remind us that she is just out of the nursery. We also learn, in passing, that Lady Capulet was herself married very young:

...By my count
I was your mother much upon these years
That you are now a maid.

Now, I have to say, that's just odd. Either Will forgot that he'd made Juliet's dad an old man, or Lady Capulet is several decades his junior. It certainly wasn't out of the question that a young woman would marry a much older man back then, but it does seem strange--because by my count, Lady Capulet should be about twenty-six, maybe twenty-seven at most.

Okay, over-reading alert.

Next: The Thunderbolt, and the man with the quicksilver tongue.

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