Friday, April 20, 2012


Shakespeare 101 or What Your English Teacher Never Taught You

The third city we visited in Italy was Verona, a small, historic town and the oldest city in Italy. It has the second largest arena, right after the Colosseum in Rome. It contains walls and tiled floors that were built in 100 BC. It even has great ravioli. But the number one reason I chose to spend 3 days in Verona is that it is home to the families Capulet and Montague - the families that raised those two rebellious and star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. I am a major fan of the book, thanks to my 9th grade English teacher who taught me that reading Shakepeare would not make one suddenly sprout nerd glasses and saddle shoes. Not only did I survive reading the play (with the help of the handy margin notes) but I found that I really enjoyed Shakespeare. Please don't share this with any of my 9th grade classmates. I feigned lots of eye-rolling and "PU's" just like they did when we were told we had to read "yet another" Shakespeare play. In my head, I was doing the literature happy dance.

Like all good travelers, I went on-line and searched for a guide to give our family an authentic tour that covered, not only the historical locations connected with the play, but also the locations used for the movie "Letters to Juliet." (Hey, I had to have a selling point for my 16 year old daughter) I began email correspondence with the tour company owner, Michelangelo. My first email covered the important issues of cost for a private tour and whether his real name was truly Michelangelo. He assured me his name was genuinely given to him by his parents at the hospital and I felt the tour charges were within my price range. It was a "go".

The morning of our tour, we were met in the hotel lobby by our guide, Daniel. (I didn't feel it necessary to ask if his name was legit.) The entire tour was on foot as Old Verona is pretty small. Daniel and I led the way, the 2 girls made up the middle of our duck line and Jim kept us safe by walking in the back to beat up any houligans (as Katie calls them) that might accost our group. I had plenty of time to talk with Daniel and find out his life story. Anyone who lives in Verona and makes his living walking the streets and giving history lessons has got to be living an enviable life. He told me he knew Italian, English, Spanish, German, French and was currently working on Russian. I told him I knew English. "And by the way, can YOU knit a sweater from the top down and do a spot-on impersonation of the Wicked Witch of the West?" OK, I didn't say that last part but it did go through my head and I felt so much better about the language thing.

Daniel took us to the historical points of interest and several of the movie locations. We all snapped pictures like the goofy tourists that we were/are. But the fascinating part of the tour was our discussion of "Romeo and Juliet." I am here to tell you that for years, we all have been douped by English teachers and old William himself. If William lived today, I'm sure there would be a cover story on People magazine, exposing him as the fraudulent, plageristic guy that he was. First, I need to tell you that Shakespeare never darkened the door of Verona. He never stepped foot in the city. Second, and most scandulous, is that decades before William was even born, another man wrote the story about the Capulets and Montegues - and this man had actually been to Verona. Shakespeare read this original story and decided to write a play, adding a few fabricated details here and there. It seems that  the Montagues and Capulets were two families at war with each other, similar to our Hatfields and McCoys. This part is true. One of the members of the Montague family did kill a member of the Capulet family but we do not know if that man's name was Romeo. Nor do we know if the name of the Capulet man was Tybalt. Unlike the play, the entire Montague family was asked to leave Verona, not just "Romeo." This made the Montague family really mad and regret that they ever begat "Romeo" in their already shakey family tree.

As far as map issues, the Montague house was indeed within walking distance of the Capulet house so Romeo could have easily made it that far. However, the wall that surrounds the Capulet house would have required a catapult to get him to the other side so he could hide in the bushes and spy on Juliet who was talking out loud to herself. I'm not sure why this activity did not seem to deter Romeo's ardour towards her. He must have thought her crazy as well as beautiful.

Then Daniel drops the tour info bomb: no one really knows if Juliet ever really existed. Shakespeare made up the romance situation to give a motive to the murder of a Capulet member. I was so disillusioned. Even knowing that Juliet may have been totally fabricated by Shakespeare, I still wanted to visit her home and balcony. I also wanted to see the mailbox where damsels in distress send letters to Juliet for love advise. (just like in the movie). Daniel assured me that the Juliet council of advisors is indeed real (he could tell I was getting fainty from the possible fake Juliet thing) and they do actually answer letters from women who can't seem to figure out life and love for themselves.

We entered the Capulet courtyard to find it packed with other love-struck tourists, just like us, snapping pictures and visiting Juliet's statue. I need to tell you that there is an immense number of square feet of wall in this place. And every inch of it is covered at least 3 layers deep in sharpee notes, sketches, band aids, chewed gum and pieces of paper. The idea is to get your thoughts, initials, little hearts or revenge message onto the wall one way or another. Bandaids and blobs of bubble gum are just a great way to accomplish this as you can write on them. It was kind of an "Eewww!" moment for me and seemed to detract from the romance of the area. I tried to overlook the gross factor and not touch a thing. I did take a picture of Juliet's balcony. Which leads me to one other piece of fabricated trivia that I hope does not burst your Hollywood trust-bubble. When MGM came to Verona in the 1930's to shoot the "Romeo and Juliet" movie, they decided the real balcony was too plain to be believed. They found an alternate fancy balcony in Lucca for Norma Shearer to stand in and talk to herself. The city of Verona was so insulted (they seem to have lots of citizens there who fly off the handle) that they added a fancy bacony just below the actual, historically plain one.

After we walked back to our hotel,  I shook Daniel's hand good-bye, expressing my thanks for such an awesome tour. As I stood in the street, fabricated playwright info swirling in my head, I decided that every bit of my beloved play was real. Someone along the way got a little jealous of Shakespeare, probably one of those hot-headed Verona people, and tried to muddy his reputation. It may not have been a couple named Romeo and Juliet. It could have just as easily been Rodney and Jane. But it happened and it lives comfortably, in my 9th grade English mind.

By Becky Capulet