Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Romeo and Juliet - Happy Valentine's Day!

Romeo and Juliet by Frank Dicksee

Frank Dicksee, an English painter (1853-1928), created my favorite Romeo and Juliet painting.  His handling of fabric and lighting is exquisite, as is the emotion on Romeo's face.  I love this painting, and have an inexpensive print of it.  But, on this Valentine's Day, I can't help but find myself questioning the use of Romeo and Juliet as an example of romance.  In Shakespeare's play, a 13 year old Juliet is swept off her feet by an impetuous Romeo, and Romeo himself is on the rebound from an infatuation with Rosaline.  This does not make him a good catch.  You can almost excuse Juliet because of her youth, but this story of star-crossed lovers is more of a cautionary tale--an example of what love should NOT be.  Despite the tragic end, however, the fascination with Romeo and Juliet continues.


The story of Romeo and Juliet emerged from other early romantic tales, including that of  Pyramus and Thisbe.  Perhaps the earliest version of the story is set not in Verona, but in Siena, Italy.  Anne Fortier explores this story in her wonderful book, "Juliet."  The heroine, Julie Jacobs, is in Siena in pursuit of a purported old family treasure.  Once in Siena, she is entangled in a sometimes perilous journey that includes researching the story of her medieval ancestor, Giulietta.  Fortier deftly blends the story of Giulietta with that of Julie Jacobs.  Medieval Siena comes alive with all the drama of the famous Palio de Siena horse race, as well as the timeless tale of forbidden love.

The famous Palio de Siena is still held in modern Italy.

Shakespeare is the one credited with moving the story of Romeo and Juliet to Verona.  He also made Juliet much younger.  Although there is some historical basis for the existence of the Montagues and the Capulets, there is no evidence that the two families were in a feud.  Nor is there any evidence that Romeo and Juliet really existed.  Today, Verona entices tourists to Juliet's house, and her tomb.  Not bad for a literary fictional character!  

"Juliet's Tomb" in Verona, Italy

"Juliet's House" complete with balcony.

The book, "Letters to Juliet," recounts the history of multiple Romeo and Juilet stories, as well as the development of the current tourist sites.  The book also chronicles the trend of people writing letters to Juliet asking for help with their romantic problems.  Several years ago, volunteer secretaries facilitated by  the city of Verona began answering these letters, and this continues today.  The book has excerpts of letters, and tells the story of the secretaries of Juliet and their dedication to writing replies to the lovelorn.  

2010 movie "Letters to Juliet"

In the movie version of "Letters to Juliet," the letters and secretaries are background, and provide the jumping off point for the story of Claire searching for her long-lost Lorenzo.  Starring Vanessa Redgrave as Claire and Amanda Seyfried as Sophie, the fact checker and aspiring writer who assists Claire, this 2010 Summit Entertainment film is a fun romance for Valentine's Day.  It is a bit predictable, but is worth it for the scenery of Tuscany and Verona.  Siena has a cameo in an overhead shot of the famous piazza where the horse race takes place.  Vanessa Redgrave is the scene-stealer here, and has a commanding presence every time she graces the screen.  It is a treat to watch her.  Both the book "Juliet" and the movie, "Letters to Juliet" have happier endings than the original Shakespeare play.  But if your Valentine's Day is shaping up to be tragic, Shakespeare's version may be just what you are looking for.  Happy Valentine's Day!

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