This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with working Shakespeareans and their interests. Today, I am speaking with novelist Lois Leveen, who has degrees in history and literature from Harvard, UCLA, and the University of Southern California. She is the author of the novel Juliet’s Nurse.
How did you get into Shakespeare?
I’m an “accidental Shakespearean,” having earned my Ph.D. in English at UCLA with a specialty in African American literature. I did take one graduate seminar on Race and the Renaissance, taught by Arthur Little, although at the time I thought I was more there for race than for Shakespeare. But after teaching multicultural U.S. literature for three years at Reed College, I ended up turning a footnote from my dissertation into a novel. The Secrets of Mary Bowser, published by HarperCollins/William Morrow 2012, is based on the true story of a former slave who became a Union spy during the Civil War.
And in a weird and unexpected way, that is what led to me becoming a Shakespearean. I was trying to land on an idea for a new novel, and I kept thinking it would be another footnote from American history. Until one day when the title Juliet’s Nurse suddenly came to me. It seemed like such a great idea, I immediately checked to see if there was already a novel or a film with that title, that subject. There wasn’t, so I pulled my Riverside edition off the shelf, re-read Romeo and Juliet, and off I went.
Tell us more about Juliet’s Nurse.
Juliet’s Nurse, which is just out from Simon & Schuster, imagines the 14 years leading up to the events in Romeo and Juliet, told from the perspective of that amazingly bawdy/comic/tragic scene-stealer, the nurse. Shakespeare gave the nurse the third largest number of lines in the play, as well as a tantalizing backstory. In the very first scene in which she (and Juliet) appears, the nurse tells us that her own daughter was the same age as Juliet but died. Her entire relationship to Juliet must be shaped by that loss. She tells us about her husband, a “merry man” who is also deceased. She even recalls the day that Juliet was weaned, which coincided with an earthquake. These were great seeds from which I could grow a full story.
But what was most compelling to me as a writer were the things that didn’t quite make sense within the play. The nurse refers to Tybalt as “the best friend I had,” a strange claim given the differences in age, gender, and class – and the fact that they do not appear in a single scene of the play together. So what might their relationship have been like? We think of the nurse as the go-between in the clandestine romance, even ensuring that Romeo can enter the Capulet household to consummate the secret marriage. Just after the consummation, at the end of Act III, she comes onstage to warn the young lovers that Lady Capulet is approaching. But then she leaves the stage, only to return later in the same scene when, left alone with Juliet, she tells Juliet to forget Romeo and marry Paris. So that’s another mystery: what happens while she is offstage to cause this dramatic change of heart? And of course the biggest enigma is that Juliet has been weaned for 11 years, so why is her wet-nurse still part of the household at all?
It was a hoot to imagine how the nurse herself might answer these questions. Throughout the novel, I incorporate plot, characters, and even some of the dialogue from Romeo and Juliet, while telling a very distinct story, one that not only starts long before the events in the play, it extends beyond the final act (alas, Shakespeare had the nerve not to put the nurse into his final scene, but I make up for that).
How has coming from “outside” Shakespeare studies shaped the book?
My training in literary criticism shapes my fiction writing immensely, because the process of close reading, analysis, and asking questions of the text drives my creative work. And I’d say those literary criticism skills are fairly transferable across different literary eras and nations.
What I think benefits me as an outsider is that I’m not immersed in Shakespeare’s immediate context. I don’t know particularly much about late sixteenth-century England, or Shakespeare’s full oeuvre, and for a project like this, I don’t really want to. What I wanted was to imagine the life of this particular woman, living in 14th-century Italy. Although knowing Romeo and Juliet was crucial, as a novelist writing Juliet’s Nurse, it was more important that I read the play against The Merchant of Prato than The Merchant of Venice.
The Merchant of Prato, for the Shakespeareans who might know it, is a wonderful book by Iris Origo recounting the life of Francesco DiMarco Datini. Drawing on Datini’s voluminous letters, it’s a great source on daily life in Italy in this period. For example, at one point Datini wants to hire a wet-nurse for the child of a business associate, and his wife writes him saying she’s found a woman whose own infant is sick and as soon as it dies, she’ll be available. That seems incredibly callous, yet it reflects how common my nurse’s situation was in 14th-century Italy. That’s just one example of the research I did for the novel, to achieve the level of historical specificity that infuses Juliet’s Nurse.
How does your use of historical sources compare to Shakespeare’s use of historical sources?
It’s no secret that Shakespeare drew on historical material for his plays, but ultimately, he’s not interested in history, he’s interested in story. Of course, as a novelist, so am I. But I have a Ph.D., and I love the historical research. I think of my novels as a way to teach history to a broad audience, which means I hold myself to certain standards in terms of avoiding anything that would be historically impossible, or even implausible, for the era.
Shakespeare was not as bothered by anachronisms. When we read his plays, we can identify all sorts of historical inaccuracies. For instance, we can roughly assume Romeo and Juliet is set in the late 14th century, because of the mention of plague (which came to Italy in 1348) and because Verona is still ruled by its own prince (the Scaligeri family – Shakespeare changes the name to Escalus – lost control of the city in 1387, and by 1405 Verona was subject to Venetian rule). Yet Shakespeare has the young men of Verona fighting with rapiers, weapons that were first created in the 16th century.
Today, when theater companies produce Shakespeare’s plays (or films are made of them) the anachronisms can be compounded, sometimes intentionally (recasting a play in a different period’s costumes), sometimes unintentionally, and sometimes as a matter of expedience (theater companies working with what they have may well fudge, for example, the weapons used in a particular staging of Romeo and Juliet).
The question of historical accuracy may be muddled even further by the public’s generally hazy ideas regarding specific eras of history. As audiences take in Shakespeare – whether reading or watching the plays – many of them may not have a good way to distinguish what’s accurate historically from what’s invented. Should they assume they can learn history through Romeo and Juliet, or even the history plays? What can we do to make these experiences more historically rich for general audiences?
Does being an interloper in the field make you a bad Shakespearean? Or a good one?
Recently, I’ve given talks at the Shakespeare 450 conference in Paris, at the Turku Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies in Finland, and at the International Congress of Medievalists in Kalamazoo, so I guess I must be legit! These presentations focus on combining Shakespeare’s play with research in medieval and Italian history to craft Juliet’s Nurse. The conversations I have among Shakespeare scholars and aficionados are especially rich, because of how well they know his ouevre – which deepens what they can see in my novel.
I certainly love the idea of people teaching Juliet’s Nurse alongside Romeo and Juliet, which can open up discussions about literary concepts (genre, point-of-view, irony, foreshadowing) as well as history. But my goal is also to make this story work for readers who may remember nothing about the play. If I can hook them, then hopefully they’ll go back to Shakespeare, even without it being assigned.
Perhaps some people will think it requires a lot of chutzpah to take on Shakespeare the way I have. But performing Shakespeare, and perhaps any theater piece, is always about interpretation. In that sense, I’m part of a long history of engaging with his work. What could be more Shakespearean than that?
As always, if you have something odd or unfamiliar to share or promote, drop me, Jeffrey Kahan, a line at Vortiger@hotmail.com, subject line: The Blotted Line.