When we read a play, all that we can know about the characters is contained in their lines of dialogue. Sometimes, the playwright will include detailed notes regarding setting, characters’ moods and humours when speaking their lines, and blocking. But in truth, a written play is a skeletal thing. Many of us require a director to flesh out what is going on, and the individual actors and actresses to give us insight into their characters. A play is a cooperative venture in storytelling.
Over the years, when reading famous plays, especially those plays whose authors have long since passed, and so can no longer give us their own vision for their work, we tend to accept what the more popular versions of such productions tell us. Often, it is the more traditional versions we remember. And then, as youngsters, being forced to read such plays, with little background in the history, politics, social order, philosophies and religions, or the geographical locations of these works, we become easily and quickly bored. The plays do not “live” for us.
And then, we have the occasional moments of genius like Sir Ian McKellen’s adaptation of Richard III, in which Shakespeare’s history is transposed to a 1930s fascist monarchy, and the very setting helps to enhance the politics being portrayed. Or, Michael Hoffman’s adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which the comedy set in ancient Athens, is transposed to a 19th century Italian village, Monte Atena, adding visions of country life in Tuscany, and new technologies, like bicycles and phonographs. All of these help bring the play closer to us in understanding and allow us to appreciate the Bard’s skills.
A novel, in contrast to a play, is not mere skeleton, but also muscle and sinew, and fat and viscera. It is rich and deep and immediately accessible to the reader in ways a play is not. And this is not to denigrate plays in general, or Shakespeare in particular (the Muses forbid!); but rather to point up the differences between a story that one can enjoy alone, as opposed to a story that must be enjoyed as the collaborative effort of a community.
All this said by way of preface, if you have any appreciation for The Bard at all, and if you have enjoyed, in text, or in production, the play Romeo and Juliet, then I most strongly urge you to purchase and read Juliet’s Nurse, by Lois Leveen.
Juliet’s Nurse is a retelling of Shakespeare’s most beloved tragedy through the eyes of Angelica, noted in the play simply as “Nurse.” It spans the days from Angelica’s engagement with House Cappeletti as wet nurse to their newborn child Juliet. We learn of the Nurse’s background, her husband, with whom she was very much in love, and who loved her just as fiercely. We learn of her six boys, the eldest fifteen, and the youngest nine, by the time the plague took them all.
Leveen’s book is full of marvelous historical details, and describes the daily life of early Renaissance Verona with as much colour and clarity as any of Michelangelo’s frescoes. And everything that happens is from the point of view of this poor, workaday woman, who has had joy in her marriage, and pain in the loss of her children, and is in so many ways as “average” a person of that day and age as any.
The book opens with Angelica struggling in labour to be delivered of a child. She and her husband are by now in their thirties (roughly), and Angelica had thought herself beyond bearing at this point. Alas, the woman bears a girl, stillborn, and is heartbroken; but is almost immediately engaged as a wet nurse for a girl that was born on the same day to Lord and Lady Cappeletto.
From that point, we see Angelica raising Juliet, and coming to love her as deeply as if she were her own child. We see, with Angelica, Juliet grow from swaddled baby, to toddler, to child, to young woman. And we see Tybalt, also a child, spending his time with the Nurse and his little cousin Juliet, upon whom he dotes from the time of her infancy. We see Angelica’s husband come for clandestine visits, as he tends the beehives of House Cappeletto, and how Juliet and Tybalt come to love him as they love Nurse, and mourn with her when she is widowed.
It is very difficult to give much description here without giving away too much of what you will delight to read yourself in this novel. But by the last quarter of the book, the events of the play begin to take place. All from Nurse’s point of view, and Leveen skillfully integrates Shakespeare’s dialogue into the story. And we come to see the play in a new light. Romeo is not the young gallant we’ve come to think of him as, but a false and deceitful boy, who, thwarted in his pursuit of Rosaline, turns his attentions to Juliet. We see Tybalt, not as the hot-headed villain, but as a loving and loyal brother, and cousin, and a defender of Capelletto’s honour. Events hinted at in the play are fleshed out, such as the time when Juliet was said to have fallen upon her face as a child, and Tybalt’s appellation as “King of Cats.”
There is also an ingenious plot twist regarding Juliet’s parentage which, as Leveen writes it, could be true– or it might only have been Nurse’s own imaginings. But you must read it for yourself to decide.
Of course, the play, the original story is a tragedy. So that cannot be changed. But as we are introduced so intimately to this family, we get to see the principals of the play as little children, and we see them grow up, and we see the politicking and circumstances that help mold who they become as they grow up. And it makes the tragedy of the story all the sharper, all the more cruel. We see it in a way that we cannot see in Shakespeare’s play– Even in a full production; for in the play, we are introduced to the players in their final forms. We are taken (or not) with the beauty of the words and lines. But in Leveen’s book, we become so familiar with these young lives– with Juliet– that the pain of her foolish choices, leading to her death, is very real, and very close to the heart.
I would even urge that anyone who wants to put on a production of Romeo and Juliet should first read Lois Leveen’s book.