Throughout his 36 plays, Shakespeare gave voice to a plethora of unique characters: Hamlet ponders for 1476 lines whilst Macbeth soliloquises eloquently in the space of 690. But, perhaps one of the Bard’s most overlooked talents was his ability to inject a history and a personality into those characters not blessed with an eponymous status. This week’s reblogged post focuses on Lois Leveen as she discusses with The State of Shakespeare her decision to place one such marginalised character at the forefront of her novel, Juliet’s Nurse. To listen to the full interview on The State of Shakespeare, click the link at the bottom of the article.
In an animated interview with James Elliott and Gerritt Vandermeer, Leveen touches upon her adoration for the character of the Nurse who, despite her bawdy joke telling, is as much a tragic character as she is a comic one. It is fascinating to hear how Leveen’s return to the original play forced her to turn detective, unearthing personal stories hidden in the Nurse’s and other characters’ throw away lines. For example, Leveen found buried in the text the difficult circumstances surrounding Juliet’s birth, including a dreadful earthquake and the heart-breaking loss of the Nurse’s own daughter; that the Nurse and Tybalt were tight companions following her claims that the hot-tempered Capulet was the ‘best friend that I had’; and that Juliet was perhaps not born an only child, a fact Leveen deciphered from Lord Capulet’s assertion that ‘the earth has swallowed all my hopes but she’.
Whilst grateful for the titbits of information that Shakespeare could give her, Leveen is just as engaging as she talks of her excitement over the back stories that the playwright left out. Given the space for her imagination to run wild, Leveen found that the simple decision to make the Nurse’s late husband a bee-keeper led to a wonderfully poignant metaphor which went on to permeate the text and which resonated perfectly with the original story. She explains that bees are a super-organism who think about the function of the hive and not just themselves as individual beings. ‘It became a powerful metaphor in the book’ she says, ‘about how to survive loss and how to think about things beyond yourself.’
Released last year, the novel takes place fourteen years before the first meeting of the star-crossed lovers and envisions the Nurse’s life as she helps to raise another woman’s child. To hear how Leveen tackled the task of knitting her own story with that already established by Shakespeare, turned Tybalt from a brute into a best friend and brought a touch of tragedy to the bawdy baggage who threatened to interrupt, ‘Where for art thou Romeo,’ check out Lois Leveen’s interview with The State of Shakespeare.