Sexual politics is among the main influences on the characterisation of the Nurse in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, as the power relationships created by his era’s sexual politics influence the character’s construction, the dialogue, and her actions within the plot. Focussing on these power relationships, a study of the characterisation of the Nurse illustrates how her conduct is restricted and constructed by the patriarchal discourse of Shakespeare’s culture. Her actions are affected by her position as a servant of the Capulet family, by her roles as Juliet’s confidante and nurse, by her position as a woman and a widow within her society, and by her symbolic function within the text. All of these social constructs assist in understanding her motivations and actions, as sexual politics structure the Nurse’s behaviour within the play.
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was originally written as a popular text intended for a large audience (Cranny-Francis, 1994, page 26). Shakespeare had to take popular attitudes toward sex and gender into account when writing his plays, such as the patriarchal structure of rank in the Capulet household (Bevington, 2008, page 15 & Connell, 2002, page 5). This means all his character constructions were affected by the same influences as those affecting the Nurse, so all the characters in the play, and their actions, responses, and dialogue, are restricted by the Shakespeare’s understanding of and opinions upon sexual politics. The male characters must conform as stringently as the female characters to the hierarchy and rituals of a patriarchal society.
Capulet is ‘king’, for the political model of the household was of male domination and female submission in Shakespeare’s era (Greenblatt et al, 1997, page 9-10). Therefore the Nurse is powerless to go against the will of Capulet, which mirrors the reality of the situation for servants in a Shakespearian household (Shakespeare, Act 3, Scene 5, lines 168-177), where all the status and the power are in the hands of the patriarch (Bourdieu, 1998, pages 59-60). This basic lack of social and economic status underpins the characterisation of the Nurse.
There is the complicating issue of the Nurse not being a member of the Capulet family, even though the she is Juliet’s wet-nurse and confidante (Barash & Barash, 2005, page 139). Her own husband and daughter are dead (Shakespeare; Act 1, Scene 3, lines 27-28), and she has become emotionally attached to Juliet as well as economically attached to the Capulet family. The Nurse’s fate is linked Juliet’s, so there should be no surprises in the Nurse advising Juliet to accept the economic security and legal status as Paris’s wife (Greenblatt et al; 1997; page 9-10). As a childless widow, there are social, cultural, and economic pressures upon the Nurse to encourage Juliet to agree to her father’s choice of a husband.
The Nurse is subservient to Capulet not just because of her lower social rank and economic dependence, but due to her femininity as well. Katherine Rogers’s theory of Male Misogyny highlights the ideal of Patriarchal feeling: the wish to keep women subject to men (Moi, 1985, page 28), such as when Capulet silences and belittles of the Nurse to enforce her compliance to his will (Shakespeare, Act 3, Scene 5, Lines 168-177). Women who don’t conform are hysterical or their opposition is considered to reduce their femininity; they are excluded from arguments because in the underlying discourse it is the man’s word that is law and the dominant, legitimate viewpoint (Bourdieu, 1998, pages 59-60).
This silencing of women is symbolised in the patterns of dialogue in the play. Juliet may appear to speak as much as Romeo, but the male characters dominate the amount of dialogue in the Romeo and Juliet, with 68.9 percent of the lines spoken by men (Crystal & Crystal, 2005, page 145). The Nurse has only a small amount of dialogue by comparison, even though her role is pivotal in the play. Shakespeare appears to be supportive of the female viewpoint and voice, but the patriarchal discourse dominants the language on many levels, linguistically, thematically, as well as by the amount of dialogue. The patriarchal discourse dominates the characterisation of the Nurse as effectively as a scold’s bridle, for Shakespeare illustrates how she is silenced symbolically, figuratively and literally.
In Western Society, women have been constantly under the threat of domination, violence and abuse from men (Connell, 2002, page 137). Legal systems and social customs in Elizabethan era were on the side of the masculine abuser, and domestic violence could occur publically with no expectation of punishment (Maguire, 2004, pages 78). Abuse need not be physical; it can include emotional mistreatment (Maguire; 2004; pages 81), such as the Nurse being verbally crushed by Capulet (Shakespeare, Act 3, Scene 5, lines 168-177). Capulet does not confine his abuse to the Nurse, and in the same scene he verbally attacks his wife and daughter. The characters’ roles are defined by the Elizabethan era’s patriarchal bias in the realm of familial and social relationships.
In the plays of Shakespeare’s era, the traditional role of the nurse character was as a bawd and as a go-between (Bevington, 2008, page 18), and Shakespeare’s Nurse retains aspects of both these roles. However, though the title of Juliet’s Nurse might explain her basic role within the text, the Nurse’s actual name, Angelica, hints at other symbolic functions (Shakespeare, Act 4 scene 4, line 5). The name Angelica means ‘messenger’ or ‘messenger of God’; she plays a crucial part in the unfolding Romeo’s and Juliet’s fates within the play. Names are a subset of the language, and Shakespeare uses names to give significance to his characters (Maguire, 2004, 22-23). Juliet’s soliloquy about Romeo and roses highlights the significance of names within the play (Shakespeare, Act 2, Scene 2). This layering of significance in the Nurse’s characterisation further alters the traditional aspects of her role. The complexity of her character construction means her conduct is realistic rather than ritualistic; her actions are not limited to those of a simple go-between, they are also reactions, particularly to the tensions of the underlying patriarchal discourse.
Shakespeare did not limit himself to subverting traditional stereotypes; his characterisations were based in the enduring qualities of Human Nature (Stewart, 1998, page 256). Capulet is as restricted by his role within his society just as much as the Nurse, as are all the other characters in the play. When Capulet attacks the nurse in Act 3, Scene 5, it is not because she is in opposition to the status quo of the patriarchal discourse, but because she is in opposition to his personal will. She capitulates because he is her lord and master, not because she recognises him as an emblem of the patriarchal hierarchy of her society. She capitulates because she has internalized those patriarchal attitudes, as theorised by Kate Millett on the power relations between the sexes (Moi, 1985, page 28).
The Nurse’s actions are typical of a woman restricted by her patriarchal society, while in contrast, Juliet covertly subverts those restrictions. Most of the female characters in the Shakespearian tragedies were strong, rebellious, and did not change their minds (Chedgzoy (Editor), 2001, pages 25-26), and so Juliet is a typical example of a Shakespearian female character. The Nurse is atypical of Shakespearian female characters because she is constrained by the restraints of a society so Draconian that even a complicit woman has difficulty in conforming absolutely. This contrast emphasises the uneven power relationships of the play’s sexual politics, as Juliet is ultimately as powerless as the Nurse to defy Capulet.
Though the character is based on a traditional stereotype, Shakespeare has altered the Nurse’s characterisation to conform to the gender policies of his era. Her conduct is dictated by her lack of status within a patriarchal society, she has no intrinsic power to disrupt or agitate against her low status without the repercussions ruining her life. She has to submit to Capulet’s will, and she believes that Juliet should do the same, or they both will suffer poverty or worse. The strictures of the patriarchal hierarchy apply to the construction of every character’s persona in the play. By having the Nurse conform to the rules dictated by Shakespeare’s era’s sexual politics, Shakespeare makes a harsh comment upon those politics.
Sexual politics structures the plot as well as the characters of Romeo and Juliet. The conflicts in the plot are all created the underlying patriarchal discourse (Connell, 2002, pages 137-138): the tragedy of the warring Families of Capulet and Montague. Though the play is considered a tragedy, it incorporates a lot of the politics of sexuality and gender from Shakespeare’s comedies (Bevington, 2008, page 42). Shakespeare uses these concepts to highlight inconsistencies in a patriarchal hierarchy, as well as using them to propel the plot. Without these conflicts, Romeo may have been seen as a suitable husband for Juliet, the Nurse would have no motivation to defy Capulet, and be pressured to conform to his will.
The Nurse was betrayed, just as much as Juliet. The Nurse’s conduct is ruled by her social position as a female servant and woman, and by the traditions of the role she has been given within the play. When in confronted by the misogynistic behaviour of Capulet, as enacted during Act 3, Scene 5 of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the Nurse has no choice but to be both betrayed and to be Juliet’s betrayer. She is betrayed by the sexual politics of Shakespeare’s era.
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