New book explores the sexy, violent underside of ‘Romeo and Juliet’

Brooklyn BookBeat

May 28, 2015 Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Author Lois Leveen will speak about her book “Juliet’s Nurse” on June 11 at the Morbid Anatomy Museum. Photo by John Melville Bishop
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On Thursday, June 11, at 8 p.m., the Morbid Anatomy Museum (424 Third Ave. in Brooklyn) welcomes Lois Leveen to discuss the research behind her book “Juliet’s Nurse” (Simon & Schuster/Atria/EmilyBestler Books).  Her talk, “Capulet Gynecologist, Montague Onanist: Medieval Sex, Renaissance Death, and ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” offers new insights into what might seem to be the most familiar literary work in the English language.

“Romeo and Juliet” is such a ubiquitous part of our literary culture that we seldom question how bizarre its popularity is. Shouldn’t it strike us as odd that the world’s favorite love story ends in a pile of corpses (some fresh, some moldering)? That a troubled teen visiting her religious confessor leaves with mind- and body-altering drugs? Or that a family would keep a professional breast-feeder as part of their household, even when their child is almost 14 years old?

Leveen’s new book, “Juliet’s Nurse,” imagines the 14 years leading up to the events depicted in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” In this illustrated talk, Leveen shares the research behind the novel, which uncovered unexpected details about how people experienced sex and death in 14th-century Italy.  

When plague first came to Italy in 1348, it killed 40 percent of the population. In the wake of this devastation, many survivors turned to hedonism rather than piety. Even those who flocked to churches found themselves on their knees before eroticized pictures of naked saints, while out on the streets eruptions of gang violence could draw as many as 1,000 young men into a single brawl. Families might spend five generations taking bloodied revenge upon their enemies, and young women under pressure to produce viable heirs were subject to superstitious rituals and pseudo-scientific gynecological procedures, from conception through childbirth.

Drawing on diaries, court cases, letters and illustrated medical treatises, Leveen explores a society on the cusp between the medieval era and the Renaissance.

Tickets for the event are $5 and can be reserved online at morbidanatomymuseum.org.  

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