Paris is worse than a toad (2.4.162-172)

NURSE            Now God in heaven bless thee! Hark you, sir.

ROMEO           What say’st thou, my dear Nurse?

NURSE            Is your man secret? Did you ne’er hear say,

                        ‘Two may keep counsel, putting one away’?

ROMEO           ’Warrant thee, my man’s as true as steel.

NURSE            Well, sir, my mistress is the sweetest lady—Lord, Lord! when ’twas a little prating thing—O, there is a nobleman in town, one Paris, that would fain lay knife aboard; but she, good soul, had as lieve see a toad, a very toad, as see him. I anger her sometimes, and tell her that Paris is the properer man, but I’ll warrant you, when I say so, she looks as pale as any clout in the versal world. (2.4.162-172)

The Nurse too can be practical (and the two of them are now the best of friends, it seems): can Romeo’s servant keep a secret? She has a proverb at the ready, the wording of which suggests that either twopeople can only keep a secret if one of them isn’t there, or when one – a third party – isn’t included. Either way, it’s the proverbial nature of the wisdom that matters here, and Romeo matches it with another proverb, as true as steel. His sensitivity throughout this exchange has reassured the Nurse, and so she starts again, praising Juliet, and also making it clear that she has indeed been thinking of Juliet as a child, a little prating thing: perhaps she’s been about to retell the story of the earthquake and the bump on the head and the innocent reply to the dodgy remark about falling backward… Fortunately not; instead the Nurse tells Romeo, and reminds the audience, about Paris. Paris is a bit of a catch, a nobleman, a properer, more handsome man than Romeo (the Nurse continues to have no filter, at least once she’s in full flight) – and he’s keen. To lay knife aboardmeans to put a knife on the table reserving a place, apparently – but it also echoes Romeo’s earlier conceit of Juliet’s balcony, and by extension Juliet herself, as the high top-gallantof a ship (so yes, the knifeis phallic, a characteristic double entendre from the Nurse). I think this is very often cut in performance; I can’t recall ever hearing that Juliet would prefer a toadto Paris (and it sounds like the Nurse is echoing Juliet here), which is a shame. (Toads have warty skin; they are imagined as repellent in their tactility. Touch, again. The thought of touching Paris and being touched by him makes Juliet’s skin crawl.) And Juliet looks paleas a piece of cloth, a rag when the Nurse teases her: pale with anger, pale with love? (both would be possible). To be pale is also to be dead: the Nurse will, all too soon, describe Tybalt as pale as ashes, and Juliet will comment on Romeo’s corpse-like pallor when, as they take their leave, she looks down at him from the balcony. Let’s not think about that yet.

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