Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

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A major theme of the play is how the actions of the older generation impact negatively on those who are younger, and the Capulets pressing ahead with this marriage alliance to the ‘County Paris’ is an aspect of this. It also gives Juliet’s resistance to the idea some weight for the audience, who might otherwise lose sympathy for a daughter defying her parents in this regard. Capulet is later portrayed as a tyrannical buffoon for the same reason. Virtually all marriages among people of note were arranged in this period and girls (and young men) were expected to do as they were told.

12 ‘She’s not fourteen.’ – Lady Capulet’s momentary uncertainty about her daughter’s age has often been held against her, although by saying ‘She’s not fourteen,’ she is effectively stating correctly that Juliet is thirteen, she just isn’t sure of the date of her birthday. It would not have been unusual for a mother and a nurse to have work out a child’s birthday: the habit of knowing people’s ages with exactitude is a relatively modern one, and birthdays were still not widely celebrated in the Elizabethan period. The Church tended to discourage such things, and for centuries birthdays had been looked down upon, with clerics pointing out that the only one celebrated in the Bible was that of King Herod Antipas when John the Baptist was beheaded.

13 ‘teen’ – ‘sorrow’.

15 ‘Lammas-tide’ – ‘Lammas’ (Loaf Mass) was an old church harvest festival for the first ripe corn, from which loaves were made and blessed. It was celebrated on August 1st, so Juliet’s birthday is July 31st and the action of the play begins in July. In terms of the play’s imagery, the audience have been taken swiftly from ‘winter’ to ‘April’ and now to high summer.

18-19 ‘Susan and she – God rest all Christian souls –/ Were of an age.’ – This is no doubt why she was originally employed (as a wet nurse) since she would have been able to feed (nurse) Juliet from the breast as well as Susan. Her own daughter has died young, and it seems likely that the Nurse’s emotional ties to Juliet will be all the stronger.

25 ‘on that day’ – By an odd coincidence Juliet was weaned from the breast on the day of a memorable earthquake (there was one in England of note in 1570). The weaning was enforced: she applies bitter ‘wormwood’ (absinthe oil) to her nipple to put the child off her milk. All of this talk of Juliet’s infancy is to emphasise how young she is to be married.

26 ‘dug’ – ‘breast’.

29 ‘Nay I do bear a brain’ – The Nurse is congratulating herself on her exact memory of events.

33 ‘Shake! quoth the dovehouse.’ – According to Richard de Capel Wise, writing in his Shakspeare: his Birthplace and its Neighbourhood (1861), it was once a Warwickshire turn of phrase to use ‘quoth’ (‘says’) of inanimate objects: an example given being ‘Jerk, quoth the ploughshare.’ The line essentially means that the Capulet’s ‘dovehouse’ shook with the earthquake (and, no doubt, all the doves took flight at once making quite a turmoil, which is why the Nurse remembers this in particular).

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William Shakespeare
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