I went with my wife this past week on date night to see Letters to Juliet. (We had already seen Date Night.) It was light and likable. It made me want to go to Verona and Sienna. It made me think about my own letter to Juliet.

Back when I was teaching Romeo and Juliet to seventh graders, I discovered that visitors to Verona, Italy often left letters addressed to the fictional Juliet Capulet.  People also mail her letter – sometimes only with the address  “Juliet, Verona, Italy” and they reach their destination. That’s Santa Claus status.

More amazing (and the reason for the film) is that the letters get answered. That has been going on since the 1930s.

It is believed that Shakespeare’s play was based on a similar true love story of young lovers who were separated by warring families. But truth is not the reason that Guilietta (her Italian spelling) is asked for advice in the ways of love for hundreds of years.  Fiction doesn’t stop lovelorn people from all over the world from seeking her advice on matters of the heart.

Letter writers don’t expect a reply from Juliet, but they do expect a reply. That  response will come from one of a group of volunteers in “Il Club de Guilietta” (“The Juliet Club”) who pledge to answer all mail.

There are letters in many different languages from all over the world. Letters are given to native speakers and sometimes to volunteers who focus on particular kinds of advice. I have read that a letter goes beyond the lovesick, the volunteers may turn to a psychologist or a priest before responding.

The film, Letters to Juliet, is the story of  one letter that is answered fifty years after it was written and what happens because of that reply. (more on the film on this related post)

Juliet or The Blue Necklace (1898) by John William Waterhouse

Juliet Capulet is one of the title characters in Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet who falls in love with Romeo Montague. If there was a historical Giulietta, she became Juliet in the narrative poem by Arthur Brooke which is very likely to have been how Shakespeare became acquainted with the story.

Juliet is the youngest child of a wealthy Verona family. It seems that she had older siblings before the time setting of the play, but she is the only surviving child and therefore even more precious and protected.

Brooke said she was 16, but Shakespeare made her just about to turn 14. That may have been partially to allow a young boy to play the role on stage (Remember, females were not allowed on the stage in WS’s time – see Shakespeare in Love for a great take on that), but that also changes the dynamics of the R&J romance. It also made her much more identifiable for my middle school students.

The idea of getting married at 14 seemed very strange to my students. But the idea of parents being opposed to your friends and prejudices against groups did not seem so foreign.  I also had students whose heritage included “arranged marriages” like the one that the Capulets have planned for their daughter and Count Paris.

In many cultures and time periods, women did and do marry and bear children at such a young age. In Shakespeare’s England, most women were at least 21 before they took the plunge, so even his audience had a similar reaction to the characters as my students.

Romeo and Juliet are impulsive, passionate, and idealistic. So were my students. And those qualities are both wonderful (and why I loved that grade level) and the path to heartbreak and tragedy.

Let’s remember that the play ends in a double suicide. Scary stuff to deal with when teaching kids of that age. Tragically, I could find real life examples in the news every year that I taught the play – once in the town where I was teaching.

I got hold of the address for the Juliet Club and asked my students to write letters to her if they felt they had something to ask. I wrote one myself.

My letter to Juliet was written as if I was 14 again. It was a time when I was in love. Before you scoff at that, I caution you that one thing you learn in dealing with kids that age (in a classroom or in your home) is that you can’t trivialize their perception of being “in love.”  Crushes are not silly, but serious.

When I was that age I was in love with a classmate. We had a few “dates.” Those included meeting up at a movie, walking home together, being at a school dance and dancing together and a few kisses and hugs. Pretty innocent stuff by 2010 standards, I know, but very real to me.

All that ended when her parents found out. Their reason? I wasn’t Jewish.  They had assumed I was because my surname could be Jewish.  They told her we could not “date.”

I was shocked. We weren’t on the path to marriage. Why was my religion an issue? She obeyed her parents. We stopped dating. We saw each other every day at school. I seemed to be more upset than she was – which didn’t help me deal with it. It was entry into Shakespeare’s play when I encountered it a few years later.

1968

My first look at the play was, like many of my contemporaries, through a film version. Mine was the 1968 Zeferelli film version, and I joined many of my friends in having a crush on Olivia Hussey. (The low cut dresses and brief nude scene certainly helped fuel many crushes.) For my students, it was the Romeo + Juliet 1996 version directed by Baz Luhrmann

1996

There is a book that collects a group of those letters, Letters to Juliet: Celebrating Shakespeare’s Greatest Heroine, the Magical City of Verona, and the Power of Love, that the film is “based on” and is out to coincide with the film’s release.

*  full text and audio of the play at http://www.publicliterature.org/books/romeo_and_juliet/

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