Describe the character of the Nurse and her role in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
Described as one of "four exuberantly realized characters," the Nurse plays significant roles in Romeo and Juliet: She is a substitute mother, a go-between, a comic figure, a bawd, a servant, and the harbinger of tragedy.
- Probably the most fickle character in Shakespeare's play, in Act I, Scene 3, the servant Nurse knows little of social etiquette as she boasts of being the one to have nursed Juliet as a babe, and she interrupts Lady Capulet's discourse with Juliet about marrying Count Paris in her bawdy recall of how Juliet innocently answered "yes" to a sexual joke of "falling backward." So, while she seems to have no interest in Juliet's possible marriage to Paris in her propulsive speech; ironically, later in Act IV she strangely urges Juliet to marry him, offering as the reason that Paris "excels your first," Romeo, whom she first has advised that he would get the "chinks" [cash] if he should marry Juliet, and for whom she carries messages from Juliet and fetches a ladder so that he can be with Juliet on their wedding night.
- Along with Mercutio, the Nurse provides comic relief with her prolix ramblings such as in Act I and in Act II, Scene 4, in her banter with Mercutio. Further, in Act II, Scene 5, she teases Juliet, who has been anxiously waiting her return, by garrulously complaining of her feet, being out of breath, and other ailments instead of relaying Romeo's message. She embodies romantic comedy, and it all ends with her exit.
- The Nurse lacks moral principles, for in Act IV she argues that Juliet should marry Paris since Romeo has been banished,
I think you are [would be] happy in this second match,
For it excels your first, or if it did not,
Your first is dead, or 'twere as good as he were
As living here and you no use of him. (4.5.222-225)
Juliet's reaction to this unscrupulous argument for convenience is one of overwhelming rejection of the Nurse: "Ancient damnation! O most wicked fiend" (4.5.236). Thus, the tragedy begins and the Nurse has been its harbinger. Juliet then goes to Friar Laurence and "dies" her first death, ushering in the element of tragedy to the drama.
The Nurse is a trusted member of the Capulet household, having worked in it for the entirety of Juliet's life. In fact, she nursed Juliet, and, in keeping with the intimacy created by breastfeeding, enjoys a close bond, one that far surpasses the role of lady-in-waiting. With Lady Capulet Juliet converses in a formal, even stiff manner, addressing her as 'Madam'. The Nurse, however, she treats as a kind of mother figure, a friend, confidant, and finally, co-conspirator in her affaire de coeur with Romeo. In this, especially as she arranges Juliet's last night and nuptials with Romeo, the Nurse is even willing to betray her employer for the sake of the girl's happiness. It is only after Romeo's exile from Verona that the Nurse blunders, counselling Juliet to renounce her marital bond with Romeo to marry Paris. Thereafter, Juliet no longer confides in her. At the end of the play we are left with a parody of the once genial and humorous nurse nonsensically speaking about sex as she tries to waken the drugged Juliet.