Juliet's Nurse

by Lois Leveen

Reviewed by Margaret Tomlinson

In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Juliet's nurse has more lines than anyone but Romeo and Juliet. If she serves as bawdy comic relief, she remains an intriguing, warm and complex character. Four hundred years after Shakespeare, with numerous novels retelling Juliet's story, it's high time her nurse had a novel, too. Juliet's Nurse is narrated by a woman of the struggling working class in fifteenth-century Italy, a beekeeper's wife graced with a robust sense of humor that helps her survive the tragedies in her life. Angelica has already lost six children to the plague, so when her seventh baby, a late-in-life surprise, is lost, too, she grieves so acutely that her husband arranges a job for her as wet-nurse to the newborn Cappelletti daughter.

A novel has space for a larger, richer story than a play. This novel is about grief. The Cappelletti marriage is undermined because the husband, still mourning his first wife, can summon no love for his young second wife. Juliet's cousin Tybalt grows up motherless and essentially abandoned by a father who cannot bear Tybalt's resemblance to his dead mother. Verona is a city torn apart by a generations-old feud between the Cappelletti and Montecchi families; it began with a single death, now multiplied by the vengeance-killings of grieving, angry young men. Angelica channels her own grief into love for Juliet, a maternal feeling as passionate in its own way as Juliet's love for Romeo.

Earthy, witty, emotionally vibrant and all too human, Angelica makes Juliet's Nurse a compelling read, sometimes delightful, sometimes heart-wrenching. In the final chapters, where the climaxes of the novel and of Shakespeare's play merge, the psychological realism of the novel and the heightened dramatic artifice of the play don't mesh into quite as smoothly engrossing a tale as the rest of the novel. The compensation is an intellectually engaging commentary, in the form of fiction, on Shakespeare's play. No fan of Romeo and Juliet should miss this novel. (2014, 373 pages, including an Author's Note about the history behind the novel)

More about Juliet's Nurse at Powell's Books or Amazon.com

Other fiction in which Romeo and Juliet appear:

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (circa 1595), Shakespeare's play about the star-crossed lovers. More info

Juliet by Anne Fortier (2010), about two young women, one a modern American, the other her mysterious possible ancestor in fourteenth-century Italy who inspired Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. More info

Prince of Shadows by Rachel Caine (2014), a retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story. More info

The Master of Verona by David Blixt (2007), about Dante’s 17-year-old son and the Italian city of Verona in 1314, around the time of Romeo and Juliet. See review or more info at Powell's Books

Nonfiction about plague and culture:

Cultures of Plague: Medical Thinking at the End of the Renaissance by Samuel K. Cohn Jr. (2011). More info

The Black Death and the Transformation of the West by David Herlihy (1997). More info

In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made by Norman F. Cantor (2001). More info

At the Movies:

Romeo and Juliet, the 1967 film directed by Franco Zeffirelli, starring Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in a sumptuous Renaissance setting.

Romeo and Juliet, the 1996 film directed by Baz Luhrmann, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, reimagined in a contemporary Verona Beach setting.

Shakespeare In Love the Academy Award-winning 1997 film which imagines a young Shakespeare writing and producing Romeo and Juliet as he and his leading lady (disguised as a boy) fall in love; stars Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow, directed by John Madden.


Romeo and Juliet: The Case of the Naughty Nurse and the Underage Bride at James Cappio's "Shakesyear" blog

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