Act like a gentleman, or else… (2.4.133-147)

NURSE            Now afore God, I am so vexed that every part of me quivers. Scurvy knave! Pray you, sir, a word: and as I told you, my young lady bid me enquire you out; what she bid me say, I will keep to myself. But first let me tell ye, if ye should lead her in a fool’s paradise, as they say, it were a very gross kind of behaviour, as they say; for the gentlewoman is young; and therefore, if you should deal double with her, truly, it were a very ill thing to be offered to any gentlewoman, and very weak dealing.

ROMEO           Nurse, commend me to thy lady and mistress. I protest unto thee—

NURSE            Good heart, and i’faith I will tell her as much. Lord, Lord she will be a joyful woman.

ROMEO           What wilt thou tell her, Nurse? thou dost not mark me.

NURSE            I will tell her, sir, that you do protest, which, as I take it, is a gentleman-like offer. (2.4.133-147)

In the midst of the affronted dignity (and the Nurse is like Mercutio in this respect: once she’s started she keeps going and going) there’s a steely pragmatism, and this is one of the moments in the play where that long, long, sometimes inappropriately sexual speech that the Nurse makes about baby Juliet resonates. For the Nurse loves Juliet fiercely. She worries about her, because she is indeed young. And if Romeo intends merely to lead her in a fool’s paradise, seduce her and abandon her, presumably pregnant, then that would be a terrible thing. But it would also be a terrible thing to lie to Juliet and deceive her, to deal double. The sentiments are hedged around with nice, posh-sounding phrases – the euphemistic fool’s paradise, the very gross kind of behaviour, the repetition of as they say– but the Nurse is terrified, not just by what she’s in the middle of doing, but in case her beloved charge, her girl, her child, should be hurt. She’s not quite saying, if you mistreat her or let her down you will answer to me, because the Nurse has no power; she’s a servant, a woman, and older in a world in which the running is increasingly made by the young. Her belated fury in response to Mercutio is undoubtedly comic, but it also gives Romeo a little indication of the kind of opponent she could be.

And then it shifts again, to make the Nurse a more obvious source of comedy, mistaking Romeo’s I protest unto thee as the swearing of a solemn vow, rather than just a kind of courtly filler, so that she’s about to be off back to Juliet even before he’s said anything. But she’s reassured. And Romeo is notably patient (although it could be played for laughs by being frustrated): What wilt thou tell her, Nurse? you’re not listening, not letting me finish. And then the joke is concluded: I will tell her, sir, that you do protest, which is clearly something that only a gentleman would offer to do. Romeo comes out of this well, not just because he’s not behaving like Mercutio, but because he is being patient and – when we know how impatient he is, how fast he can move – he is taking his time to get this right.

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