After only reading the first chapter of Juliet’s Nurse, I am already drawn into the fictional world that historical novelist Lois Leveen has created revolving around Romeo and Juliet’s “minor” character, the nurse. It is easy to see why Leveen has opted to create this beautifully, complex woman, who has a more intimate relationship with Juliet than Juliet has with her own mother. Consider the intimacy that comes when a woman gives her milk to keep alive a hungry infant, after her own daughter dies, unable to drink the nourishment her mother’s body naturally yearns to feed her.
Leveen, also a historian and former college professor, imagines the 14 years leading up to and beyond Shakespeare’s story of the star-crossed lovers. The story takes place in 14th century Verona, Italy (as did Shakespeare’s play). Her plot line comes from a seed Shakespeare planted more than 400 years ago in the first scene where Juliet and the Nurse appear together. The Nurse tells Juliet and Lady Capulet that her daughter Susan, 14 years before had died on Lammas Eve, a harvest celebration, the very night that Juliet was born. In the same scene, Shakespeare shows the intimacy the nurse has with Juliet when the nurse reveals that Juliet was the fairest babe she had ever nursed.
Leveen brings this tender love to her story. At once the infant Juliet belongs to the nurse and yet does not. The nurse arrives shortly after Juliet’s birth. Women (who have gathered around the young mother Lady Capulet) feast on capon, sweetmeats, sponge cake, marzipans and fine salts. The nurse, the book’s narrator, exhausted after losing her own daughter relishes the chance to have a baby to hold and love: “I care nothing for the lavish confinement gifts, nor for any of the room’s fine furnishings, except the heavy silver tub in which I wash Juliet, and the iron brazier over which I warm the swaddling bands to wrap her. To tend, to touch so little a living delight. I lean close to smell the delicate baby scent of her, and know it is my milk on her breath, my kiss on her downy hair.”
The nurse’s character is only referred to as Nurse in Shakespeare’s play, but Leveen names her Angelica because it is possible that this is the name Shakespeare gave her. Lord Capulet seems to address her as so in the play, but the line could have also been directed at Lady Capulet, so no one really knows for sure.
Leveen contends that the Nurse really isn’t a minor character in spite of not being given a name. She has the “largest number of lines after Romeo and Juliet… she was “bawdy, tragic, high, low, and puts herself in the middle of everything and she deserved to tell her own story,” says Leveen.
The book has been released by Simon & Schuster and is available on the web including Amazon.com and in several bookstores. Leveen also has a curriculum guide for high school and college classrooms and often Skypes with classrooms about her book. Here’s a link to her instructor lessons guide. Also of interest is TSS’s interview The Blotted Line.