And will answer your letters

Silent and serene amid all the chattering, giggling, restless young people lined up to sign the visitors' register, stood a stocky balding middle-aged Japanese gentleman who in other costume might have been a Shinto priest. I joined the line so that I could turn back the pages to see what he had to say. It took eight lines to say it, in orderly calligraphic Japanese script, indecipherable by me, but there was no mistaking the symbol he had drawn between lines 4 and 5, it was a human heart, surely his own, pierced by the sharpest and stiffest arrow ever shot by Cupid's bow.

It was only one of the dozens of hearts interspersed among the hundreds of messages that are traced in the register day by day, messages in all tongues from all lands: Juliet, ich liebe dich...No puede estar sin tí...Je t'aime avec un amour énorme, éternel. incomparable...You are the sun and the stars and the air I breathe. A chorus of adoration punctuated here and there by pleas for understanding or consolation or advice Help me, dear Giulietta!... Bring back my lost love, Juliette... Please tell me, Juliet, where I can find a Romeo in Texas...

They trace their hearts, they sign their names, sometimes they wipe off a tear, and they go to join the throngs of others, most of them female, almost all of them young, who are prowling through the dark empty spaces of the ballroom on the second floor where Romeo and Juliet fell in love at first sight, and the bedroom on the third where they spent their single night of love, and the balcony to which Romeo climbed on a rope ladder in defiance of both their families and the legally constituted authority of Verona.. Or they mill around a hundred at a time in the courtyard scrawling graffiti hearts on the walls with their names wrapped inside: Giuseppe e Giovanna, François et Françoise, Samantha and Chris, Hawa and Hasan, Nikita & Svetlana. Or they are noisily taking snapshots of one another expressing their devotion to Juliet by laying a hand on, if they are boys, the right breast of her life-size statue in bronze, or, if they are girls, the right forearm. The statue is barely twenty years old, but the breast and forearm shine with as unearthly a light as the toe of St Peter's statue in Rome which the faithful have been kissing for almost five hundred years.

Outside in the street there may be another crowd waiting to push its way in to the courtyard.. It is the most animated crowd you are ever likely to run into on the sidewalks of Verona, one of the loveliest of Italian cities but also the most staid and proper and clean, the only city in Italy where the traffic laws are observed and people do not raise their voices in the streets, a pocket of Switzerland, say scandalized visitors from Rome or Naples, which has been smuggled into their country.

Yet here it is today, the center of a pilgrimage for people from the ends of the modern secular world come to express their devotion with the noisy artless sincerity of those who have come for two thousand years to the shrines of Christian saints, or those who for thousands of years before that came to the altars of the oldest of goddesses, the goddess of love.

This was a goddess of as many names and forms as they were peoples who worshiped her. To the Greeks she was Aphrodite, the ancient Hebrews worshiped her as Ashtoreth, and forward young daughters of Jerusalem once told the prophet Jeremiah to his face that all the wars and woes and famines that afflicted them were the result of the monotheistic religious reforms which overthrew her altars and stopped them from baking cakes for her.(Jer. xliv, 15-19). She could be the grossly corpulent Venus of neolithic shrines, or the slim chorus-girl Venus of Botticelli. Here in Verona she is a girl of good family, Giulietta Cappeletto (englished into Juliet Capulet), who in ninety-six hours just short of her fourteenth birthday discovered and passionately embraced all those things that girls of good family are always being warned against, teen-age sex, adolescent solipsism, reckless disregard of authority, scorn for family values, illegal drug trafficking, murder and suicide. And she has become a universal symbol, along with her lover Romeo, of devotion, constancy, courage and the true love which conquers all.

The story of star-crossed lovers who defy their families for love and die for it must go back to the time when humans first formed families in stone-age caves. Scholars have traced the first recorded appearance of the Romeo-Juliet pattern, with its parted lovers and poisoned potion, to a third-century novel by one Xenophon of Ephesus.. Under the names of Mariotto and Giamo, of Sienna, the lovers re-appeared in a 16th century novel published in Naples, and they were moved to Verona in a pamphlet called Historia novellamente retrovata di due nobile amante, published in Venice in 1530, by a man named da Porto who claimed it was part of the authentic reminiscences of an "elderly archer" dating back to the times when the blood-curdling Della Scala family ruled the rich and turbulent city of Verona..

Da Porte was the first to call the lovers Romeo and Juliet, and he gave them the family names of Montecchi and Cappeletti, no doubt because those names appear in Dante's Purgatorio (Canto VI, line 106) as examples of the unruly noblemen whose feuds and bloody brawls were tearing Italy apart in the 14th century. Borrowed by other Italian authors, translated into French and English, they reached London in the form of an enormously popular 3000-word poem by Arthur Brooke, published in 1564, which thirty or so years later caught the eye of a young actor-playwright named William Shakespeare

He had already developed an unerring eye for the kind of concentrated dramatic story, part timeless myth and part contemporary gossip, which can engage the hearts and minds and emotions of a universal public. He had learned how to wrap up the scattered episodes of the old stories into a tight fast-moving plot; it takes only four days in five acts for his Romeo and Juliet to meet, love, defy an uncomprehending world, marry and die. And he surrounded them with a rich selection of unforgettable characters -- e blabbermouth nurse, cynically wise Mercutio, self-righteous old Capulet -- and drowned them in the exuberance of his youthful smooth-flowing verse whose sugared harmonies lovers have been repeating to each other for four centuries.

He also knew how to change the whole character of the story, from what was originally a moralistic tale intended, as Brooke said, to "warn young people that they should govern their desires and not run into furious passion," into a paean to youthful love, the anarchic impulses and subversive rumblings of youthful sex. It was a manifesto of the individualism which was barely daring to speak its name in the 16th century but was destined to take over the world.

Thousands of sentimental novels and Hollywood films have conditioned us to take for granted that a pair of adolescents with stars in their eyes can handle their lives more wisely than all the hordes of purblind parents, teachers, clergymen, television commentators and correctional officers who surround them. This is an idea which, stated thus baldly, would have seemed criminally subversive in the 16th century; a body blow to the family values on which all human society had depended since Adam and Eve, and, in the case of the English royal family, high treason to boot. Queen Elizabeth, if she had heard that a cousin of hers was proposing to elope with a Roman Catholic, would probably have had both their heads chopped off in short order.

But Shakespeare got away with it: everyone from Queen Elizabeth down to our time has been on the side of the kids, Romeo and Juliet..

He did it partly by laying his scene in exotic operatic Italy, where his audience would take the feuds of the Capulets and Montagues no more seriously than a modern American audience takes the feuds of Hatfields and McCoys in old West Virginia. He also did it by changing the form and content of the traditional story.

Those who died of love in olden days came in two categories. They might be ordinary virtually indistinguishable boys and girls who met death because of an unlucky accident - Leander because he couldn't quite swim the Hellespont, Pyramus because Thisbe got scared off by a lion at a critical moment. Or they were grownups who played important roles on the world's stage, whose love conflicted with their duty to God and country; they were queens like Helen of Troy and Cleopatra, famous warriors like Aeneas or Tristram of Lyonesse.

Romeo and Juliet fit neither category, they are only kids, but they are not ordinary kids, they talk and act in the grand style, they are tragic heroes, knowingly standing up to and facing down fate.

Heroes are measured by the odds against them, and Shakespeare deliberately made the odds overwhelming. He reduced Juliet's age from the 16 or 18 in his sources to 13. (Liverish critics have maintained that Juliet is altogether too mature for a 13-year-old, but they forget that growing up in pre-modern days, without the slightest privacy in a house always overrunning with servants soldiers and poor relations, there wasn't much a bright little girl couldn't find out for herself; Marie-Anne, Louis XIV's daughter by Louise de la Vallière, was married at thirteen to the Prince de Conti and announced next day to any courtier who would listen than he was a lousy lover)

And he emphasized their loneliness in an uncomprehending world. In their moment of need they are alone. The grownups who pretend to direct their lives are fussy and boring and stupid. Romeo's best friend Mercutio tries to convince him that love is nothing but sex, (His dialogue is permitted on the modern stage only because it is assumed that today's undereducated audiences cannot understand dirty jokes in Elizabethan English). Juliet's beloved Nurse, after spending two and a half acts trying to get her into bed with Romeo, urges her in Act III, Scene iv to commit bigamy with her socially prominent cousin Paris.("O he's a lovely gentleman, Romeo's a dish-clout to him.")..The fatuous Friar Laurence, who had no business marrying two minors without the knowledge or consent of their parents, and still less procuring dangerous drugs for them, might try to assure them that everything would work out all right in the end, but they knew better. From the moment that they learned each other's names, they knew that they were doomed.

In all the famous tales of ancient lovers, there remained almost to the end the possibility of finding some way out of their troubles. If Samson had kept his big mouth shut, he might have settled down to a peaceful family life with Delilah. If Aeneas had forgotten his duty to go and found Rome, he might have married Dido and topped the popularity polls as Prince Consort in Carthage. If Sir Tristram had taken Isolt back over the seas he might have made a good living for both of them and their children in knight-errantry.

Similarly, in modern versions of the Romeo-and-Juliet situation, there is always room to maneuver. Tony and Maria in West Side Story could at any time have slipped off to the more tolerant air of California and got themselves jobs in restaurants or the movie studios. Bonnie and Clyde could have been converted by an itinerant preacher and spent the rest of their lives doing good works in the southwest.

But Romeo and Juliet lived in a century when the bonds of family and of society in general were much stiffer than they are today. The Capulets and Montagues took their feud very seriously, they thought of little else than making the other side suffer (Prince, as thou art true, For blood of ours shed blood of Montague, cries Juliet's mother in Act IV). The two lovers had slammed shut the doors of their own houses, and outside those doors, without relations or money or servants or training in any craft or trade, they had nothing to look forward to but a rapid fall into the stagnant morass of poverty hunger and dirt which underlay and surrounded the bright world of dances and duels and Renaissance art they had been brought up in. Old Capulet told Juliet exactly what she could and would do in the real world if she disobeyed him: "Hang! Beg! Starve! Die in the streets!"

But love, for those in its grip, mocks at what old Capulets call the real world,.everything that stands in its way. For Romeo and Juliet their love is a great flood carrying them beyond good sense, beyond family, beyond society, "It is the East," says Romeo, "and Juliet is the sun." "Give me my Romeo," says Juliet, "and when I shall die/ Take him and cut him out in little stars,/ And he will make the face of heaven so fine/ That all the world will be in love with night/ And pay no worship to the garish sun."

Dull earth caught up with them and they died defying it. And audiences have always admired and loved them for their intensity and their courage, they have called them back for endless curtain calls on the stage, in operas, ballets, movies, for the last 400 and more years.. For these audiences, Old Capulet was only being a tiresome fool when he called his daughter a "young baggage, disobedient wretch...a wretched puling fool, a whining mammet," For any one who has ever fallen head over heels in love, she has always been the sun shining constantly in the East.

As the fame of Shakespeare's lovers spread through the whole world, the citizens of Verona gradually became aware that they had a treasure in their midst. By the 18th century a marble sarcophagus lying in the garden of an abandoned convent was being pointed out as Juliet's tomb, and it began to attract moneyed visitors. Its cover was stolen, found, stolen again, and today it lies empty in a dark basement of the now abandoned convent. It is substantially reduced in size owing to the visits of tourists in more self-confident ages than ours, who thought the best way of paying homage to a monument was to take some of it home. Lord Byron chipped off several small bits to give as keepsakes to his daughter and his nephews. The empress Marie Louise, Napoleon's widow, had round pieces of its marble set in gold to make jewels for her pretty arms and ears.

An old house in the via Capella was arbitrarily ascribed to the Capulets, and is now known officially as La Casa di Giulietta. It is old enough to satisfy any one, but it is quite small by Shakespearean standards and could not possibly have held a wedding feast on the order of the one commanded by old Capulet in Act IV which required twenty cooks.

However, a confident sign by the front door reads, "Juliet Lives Here, and you can write to her."

Thousands do write to her, five or more thousand a year, most of them simply addressed to




The letters all go to the`Juliet Club on the via Galileo Galilei, a modest couple of rooms where a quarterly magazine is edited, medieval festivals are planned for Juliet's birthday (fixed by the Club on September 13, Santa Euphemia's Day, though Shakespeare puts it in the middle of July), and a group of seven young women, priestesses of the modern Aphrodite, come daily to pick the letters up, read them, discuss them, and write answers signed Juliet in Italian, English, Spanish, German, Russian They are helped out with letters from distant lands in strange tongues by occasional volunteers: a Turkish general in NATO headquarters, a Chinese restaurant-owner in Verona.

Sometimes, for particularly anguished letter-writers, they turn for advice to a local psychiatrist or a priest. But most of the letters are written in a standard Miss Lonelyhearts prose: always upbeat, earnest, optimistic. They recommend following the heart, speaking up frankly, leaving all to love, serving candle-lit spaghetti dinners.

It hardly matters what they say. It is enough for the letter-writers to have been in contact, in a physical contact that defies time, grief and death, with someone who understands their joys and their sufferings and will help them in their hour of need. In Juliet they touch real flesh, not the smooth-talking middle-aged disembodied experts who offer them banalities in newspaper columns and tv shows, but one of their own, who took her own advice, and loved, and died for love.

"Dear Juliette," writes a girl from Milwaukee, "Hello, I am a freshman in high school. Why the heck did you kill yourself over a man?`My parents hate the fact that I'm happy. I can't live without the man I love. His name is Mart. He is the most beautiful man in the whole wide world. My parents have forbidden me to marry him,. They had a man already for me to marry. He is funky. Sure he's a niciehead guy if you like squares. My love likes to live on the edge. If I marry him my parents will disown me. Should I kill myself like you? Is it really worth it?"

Such cries of the heart come from lovers of all descriptions, girls and boys, bold and timid, young and middle-aged, starry-eyed and disillusioned, all with their hearts laid open."How can I make myself romantic for my husband who has been losing interest in me?".... " I have just left the Marine Corps, I have been nothing but a good soldier all my life, and now I am in love for the first time, with a married woman, and I don't know what to do, I don't know what to say."..."Dear Juliet, I cannot write to my lover because his mother would open the letter, you write to him to tell him how much I love him."..."Dear Juliet, As you see, my name is Romeo. But unfortunately I have already found my 'Juliet'. We are very much in love. My problem is that I am incarcerated and I cannot hold her or kiss her. Can you suggest anything special I can do to show her how much I love her?"

The classic star-crossed theme - the rigidities of society, the incomprehension of parents - is repeated in all kinds of modern variations:

[from New York] : Dear Juliet, I am 15, and an Italian-American girl. My father has told me I cannot marry any but an Italian boy. But I love a boy who is Polish, and he loves me too. When I am with him, my father gets furious. What can I do?

[from Georgia] "My boyfriend is very rich compared to my family. I went to his house the other evening, and it is so beautiful! Now I am embarrassed about showing him my house. Please help me!"

[from California) "My mom is a lawyer and my dad is a doctor. When they found out that I was going out with a boy who works in the local supermarket, they stopped me from going out with my friends because they were afraid I would run into him. What can I do? Help me."

[from California] "Dear Juliet, I am white and going out with a black guy named Jonathan. The problem is with his sister. One day she saw Jonathan with his arm around me, and she just walked off. Later though she came up to him while I was with him and yelled, 'We have to talk about this trash.' I have a feeling she doesn't like the idea of a 'white girl' going out with her brother. I don't want to lose him. What should I do?"

Other letter-writers can be more lyrical, more practical, more helpless, more confused:

[from Judy] "I would like to be able to hear and see beautiful words and imagery for love, see the stars in heaven and feel the grace of God and warmth of beauty.".

[from Israel] "Dear Juliet, Now it is the spring and the right time to write to you. Now the trees are full of flowers and their scent fills the air and the hearts that love. Open the doors of your balcony, Juliet and step outside, there is a little bird waiting for you sitting on the railing."

[from Phoenix] "Sometimes I look up at the sky and count the stars, one by one. I can't even begin to count the miles separating my love and I. I can envision his glossy golden mane. The twinkle and sparkle in his clear blue eyes, behind that mischievous dimpled grin. His full lips! Those adorable ears!"

[from Washington DC] "Dear Giulietta, I don't exactly know why I'm writing this. I'm 53 years old and have become rather cynical. When I was 16, I looked directly into the eyes of a young lady, perhaps not unlike Shakespeare's Juliet, and seemed to sense a beauty, peace, and wisdom so unassuming that my emotions ere forever changed. I loved her then as I've never loved again, and I wish that, by some magical device, she could read this letter and become part of my soul."

[from Italy] "I too have spoken to the moon of my first, my true love, and the moon replied, 'Anna, if Giuseppe makes you weep so, why not forget him?' And I replied: 'Oh moon, would you forget your sky and your stars?' And the moon had no reply."

[from France] "Chère Juliette, Here is my problem. I love a boy but he does not love me. This boy has never kissed a girl and I want to be the first. Please, dear Juliette, give me some advice."

[from Paris] "It is twenty years now that I am with a man I love with all my heart, he loves me too. I would so love for you to write me how I can continue to be happy and to give back the taste of romanticism to my Friend who in the course of time has let it slip away a little.".

[from France] "Juliette, I am married to a charming man who smothers me with gifts. Please tell me, Juliet, if I should choose stability with my husband and daughter, or adventure in the arms of my true love?"

[from Barcelona} "I am sixteen, I tried to make love to her in Venice, but she said we were too young. She said the same thing back in Barcelona. I went to her sister, who is 18, for advice, and the sister has now fallen in love with me."

The voice my be the voice of romantic paperback novels. But the heart behind the voice is always beating with all the woe and wonder of young lovers (all lovers, says Juliet in her letters, are young) as they try to fit their sudden overwhelming passions into the cold patterns of a world they never made. It cannot be done, but it must be done, and who should know better than the little girl from long ago who took her hopeless chance and gave all for love, killed herself for grief yet remains an eternal figure of hope.

That is why legions of visitors to this day, bypassing all the famous monuments of Verona - the Roman arena, the Pisanello frescoes, the church of the black-skinned San Zeno, the ferocious gangster-grinned statue of Cangrande della Scala who ruled Verona in Juliet's day when no one obeyed the traffic laws -- flock to pay their noisy respects to Juliet's balcony, Juliet's bedroom, Juliet's tomb.

©1998 Robert Wernick