Forsooth Me Not: Shakespeare, Juliet, Her Nurse, and a Novel

By Lois Leveen

There’s this writer, William Shakespeare. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.

He wrote this play, Romeo and Juliet. Maybe you’ve heard of it as well.

It’s about Juliet and… her wet nurse.

At least, that’s what the data junkies at claim. As does Jim Carter, aka Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey.

What is up with the nurse? In the first scene of the play in which Juliet appears, the nurse first appears as well. And in that scene, when Juliet’s mother makes a passing reference to Juliet’s age, the nurse exclaims, “Faith, I can tell her age unto an hour.” She then takes three speeches totaling over 40 lines to do it, somehow managing to work all sorts of details about her own life story in. You know that friend who always tries to make everything about her? That’s the nurse.

So I figured I’d better give her the one thing Shakespeare couldn’t: her own novel. (Back when Shakespeare was alive, novels hadn’t yet come into existence — hence his failure ever to be nominated for the Booker Prize.)

There were a few big challenges in writing Juliet’s Nurse. One was crafting the story so it would be compelling for readers regardless of how well (or poorly) they remembered the play. Don’t tell my high school English teacher, but one thing that helped was that, until I lit upon the idea of writing the novel, I hadn’t actually re-read the play since high school. So I had a good sense of how little one might remember about Romeo and Juliet, even as I quickly came to know way more than I’d ever imagined I would about it.

Another challenge was that although Angelica (yes, the nurse does actually have a name) is on the surface a comic, and often quite ribald, figure, even in the play she is also a tragic character, who by the final scene has lost everyone she loves. Thanks, Shakespeare! Telling her story meant giving depth to a tremendous range of emotions.

And the third challenge was what I call the “forsoothiness factor.” This Shakespeare fellow is known for his brilliant command of language. But it’s language that much of the time sounds arcane to us. How could I give voice to Angelica, and the other characters, in a way that wouldn’t be too abstruse for 21st-century readers but also wouldn’t sound inappropriately modern?

For one thing, although I do incorporate some words and phrases from the play, I avoided what seemed like over-the-top Shakespeare-speak. Farewell, forsooth. I think not, methinks. Thou gettest the picture.

I also decided I’d not use any contractions Shakespeare’d not use.

Did that last sentence sound weird? It should. I also decided I wouldn’t use any contractions Shakespeare didn’t use is more natural phrasing for us. By using Shakespearean conventions for contractions in Juliet’s Nurse, I could make the prose sound right for the period, without making readers have to struggle so much to decode it that they stopped being carried along by the story. I doubt any readers will consciously notice the contractions, but it should give them a sense that there is something “Shakespearish” in the language.

They say you can start to look like your spouse or pet. But at what point do you start to look like the guy whose character and plot you’ve appropriated?

And now, having spent all this time carefully crafting every line of the novel, I’ve got to go at it one more time, Veg-o-Matic style, slicing and dicing a few key scenes. Why? Well, you might say because of Powell’s.

As a Portland novelist, I’m delighted that Powell’s will host the kickoff event for Juliet’s Nurse at their flagship Burnside store. Before my first novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, came out, I started going to a lot of readings at the Burnside store. Random readings. It didn’t matter who the author was or what the book was about. It was like I was casing the bank before a big heist.

I haven’t knocked over many banks. Okay, I haven’t knocked over any banks. But at this point, I’ve done enough book talks aboutThe Secrets of Mary Bowser that I can do them in my sleep. In fact, I actually did, once, thanks to a series of airline delays followed by a ride with a Chicago cabbie who got so lost I was lucky I didn’t end up in Lake Michigan. I managed to arrive at my reading (which was being taped for WBEZ, the Chicago public radio station) bleary-eyed, about 3 minutes before I had to step up to the microphone.

One of the tricks I learned for a good reading is to ignore what’s actually in the novel. Or rather, to cut, or add, or move big chunks of writing around, in order to create a passage that will be compelling when it’s read aloud, out of context of the rest of the book. I didn’t realize how strange this might seem until a friend happened to peer at a couple of pages of Juliet’s Nurse I’d marked up for a reading.

She gasped. Forget the bank heist. This looked more like a mass slaughter.

One of the strange truths about Shakespeare is that most of us first encounter his work in exactly the wrong way. We’re assigned to read one or another of his plays in school, something Shakespeare never meant to have happen (and not just because he couldn’t have pictured the typical contemporary high school). He meant his plays to be performed, not read: the play’s the thing; those words on a page are just a gesture at the play. For a novelist, the opposite is true. We create work to be consumed in the very private pleasure of reading. But weirdly, although we say we’ve got a bookstore reading, what a good author does at these events is perform.

That doesn’t mean I’ll be bringing my accordion to Powell’s. Or dressing up like a 14th-century wet nurse. Or even trying to read one of Angelica’s juicier speeches from Romeo and Juliet. It will just be me, and the some well-chosen and artfully edited scenes from the novel, and a bard’s worth of good stories about researching the novel, and maybe one small Lego figurine.

Hope you can join me — or us — September 23, at 7:30. I’ll be the taller one, who’s not wearing an Elizabethan collar.

Lois Leveen is the author of Juliet’s Nurse and The Secrets of Mary Bowser. She dwells in the spaces where literature and history meet. Her work has appeared in numerous literary and scholarly journals, as well as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post, Bitch magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, and on NPR. Lois gives talks about writing and history at universities, museums, and libraries around the country. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with two cats, one Canadian, and 60,000 honeybees.

This piece originally appeared on the Powell’s Books Blog. Visit the blog for essays, interviews, playlists and more.

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