Romeo and Juliet is a tale of two star-crossed lovers, a tale much to do about hate, but more to do about love. In a story of tragedy, violence and love the nurse provides comedy and relief from an otherwise solemn storyline.
The nurse is first introduced into the play in Act 3 scene 1; she is portrayed as a trusted family servant to Lord Capulet, sharing a close bond with Juliet that surpasses one of a girl and her servant. From a young age she weaned Juliet, ‘for I had then laid wormwood to my dug’. The nurse’s relationship with Juliet lasted for the entirety of Juliet’s life. The nurse lost her daughter, Susan, who was born on exactly the same day as Juliet, since her death, the nurse cared for Juliet and became more like a mother to her than lady Capulet. ‘What lamb’, the nurse refers to Juliet using terms of love and endearment, whereas when Juliet talks to her mother it is very formal, ‘madam, the difference in speech shows the extent of Juliet’s relationship with the nurse.
The nurse is invited to talk about Juliet’s possible wedding to Paris; she is very open with her opinions, advice and feelings, talking like a gossiping schoolgirl, ‘he’s a man of wax’. When speaking she is not portrayed as particularly intelligent, speaking for long periods of time. It is implied that because of this she has a tendency of irritating lady Capulet, if not people in general, ‘enough of this, I pray hold thy peace’. This is a clear sign of how the Nurse can incorporate humour in the way she acts. She is constantly chattering, making bawdy comment casting a light hearted and easy spirit, her speech is relieving which provides comedy through the plays otherwise tragic themes.
‘a sail, a sail’, when the nurse appears in the town square searching for Romeo requesting his answer to whether he will marry Juliet she becomes subject to sexual teasing. Mercutio seems intent on telling jokes at the nurse’s expense, ‘to hide her face, for her fan’s the fairer face’. ‘a bawd, a bawd, a bawd’, Mercutio is relentless, he implies that she is a prostitute, a brothel keeper and that she is the reason for Romeos sudden happiness. From this he continues, the insults becoming progressively worse, ‘but a hare that is a hoar, is too much for a score’, he implies that she is too ugly, too old to be paid for. The nurse is involved in perhaps the lightest scenes in term of comedy value; she is the perfect target for Mercutio’s sexual teasing and her replies only improve the comedy in the scene, and as a result provide relief, from what to that point had been very serious.
In act 2 scenes 5 the nurse continues to provide a degree of comedy, ‘why look’st thou sad’, recognising Juliet’s desperation for news the nurse pretends to be sad to imply that Romeo will not marry her. The nurse continues to tease Juliet,’ I am wary, give me leave a while’, aware of her need to hear Romeo’s answer, the nurse delays telling her, to the audience, who already know the outcome of the visit to Romeo this would be considered to be light humour. Juliet becomes increasingly frustrated by the Nurses irrelevant replies; similarly this would be considered as relief from the events previous and those to come. This scene also re-emphasises the strong relationship between the nurse and Juliet.
Another aspect of the nurses’ character is exposed in act 3 scene 3, ‘stand up and you be a man’, for one of the first times the nurses intelligence is shown, using sexual confrontation she effectively blackmails Romeo into achieving her goal. The commands him to be strong, for Juliet; this works and he goes to live in Mantua, and to beg for forgiveness.
In conclusion William Shakespeare uses the nurse’s antics to break up the play, to provide comedy and relief, an alternative to the prominence of violence, hatred and love. It provides a completely different dimension to the play.