Juliet and her nurse have a very interesting relationship. Students may not be familiar with the concept of the wetnurse, so when I teach Romeo and Juliet, I explain that the nurse was hired by the Capulet family to nurse Juliet, a common practice among wealthy families for centuries. I also explain that the nurse had a child about Juliet’s age who died: “[W]ell, Susan is with God; / She was too good for me” (Act I, Scene 3). Shakespeare doesn’t explain why the nurse is still employed by the family some ten or eleven years after Juliet has been weaned, but I tell students that her role has expanded into a kind of governess. Capulet mentions other children born to the Capulets who have died: “The earth hath swallow’d all my hopes but she” (Act I, Scene 2). It does not make sense that the nurse stayed on to take care of these children; she would probably no longer be able to nurse (unless, that is, she had more children herself; she mentions in Act I, Scene 3 that her husband is now dead). Therefore, the most logical explanation is that she became a part of the extended family and stayed on to be Juliet’s governess.
Act II, Scene 5 provides us with the most insight into the nurse’s relationship with Juliet. The Folger Shakespeare Library has an awesome lesson plan submitted by Sarah Squier of Montpelier High School in Montpelier, Vermont. I alter her plan a bit in order to fit with my own ideas. First of all, download the handout associated with Squier’s lesson plan. You can decide how you want the students to answer the questions in Part A: 1) as homework, 2) with a partner (I suggest Clock Buddies), or 3) as a class. I’ve done it all three ways, and I have no personal preference. It just depends on the mix of students. It is critical that students formulate a thesis and find textual evidence to support it. At this point, Squier suggests that students draft an essay regarding their position; however, I don’t ask students to draft at this point. Instead, I show students two versions of Act II, Scene 5 (Zeffirelli and Luhrmann), and ask them to take notes on anything they notice about the way Juliet and the nurse relate to each other. I have to admit that I prefer Luhrmann’s version in this scene — Juliet and the nurse have a much warmer relationship.
What I have students do next is outline a five-paragraph essay:
- Introduction, including thesis about Juliet’s relationship with the nurse
- Textual evidence that demonstrates student’s belief about the relationship
- Analysis of Zeffirelli’s version
- Analysis of Luhrmann’s version
- Conclusion, including which version more closely resembles student’s own thesis about the relationship
I love this assignment because it gives students the opportunity to critically analyze the text and also to think critically about the performance of actors rather than passively viewing.