A Story of More Woe

Unlike most of the world, I have never found Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” to be touching and romantic. As a matter of fact, aside from the subplot of the medieval family feud, the tale of double suicide seems mostly an excuse for whinging about what turns out to be unreliable lust, rather than true love. True love after all, is just as often as not about suffering for the sake of one we love, not ending it all in a fit of pique. It is unfortunate that this work is held up as an example of romance, when to my mind it should be read as a cautionary tale.

If you remember your secondary school Shakespeare, the story is set in the Italian city of Verona, and if in fact you go to Verona, you will be shown the villa of the Capulet family. However, most do not realize that the story of these village idiots appeared for the first time set in Siena, the characters having different names, within the pages of Il Novelino, a collection of anti-clerical short stories by the 15th century Tuscan writer Masuccio Salernitano that was placed on the Vatican’s Forbidden Books Index. His story was subsequently adapted by Luigi da Porto and transferred from Tuscany to the Veneto, where it became source material for Shakespeare’s play.

In order to turn over more tourist trade, the good people of Verona have decided to open up the so-called Juliet balcony at the similarly so-called Capulet residence to weddings. This seems a most inauspicious spot on which to begin a life-long commitment. On the other hand, people would probably want to get married on the deck of the Titanic if it were available. (Odd that Leonardo DiCaprio has interpreted both of these annoying roles.)

First of all, the motivation for the setting is a lie: even if there were a Romeo and Juliet whose lives provided the inspiration for the novels and plays about them, they never flirted with each other anywhere near this balcony. Second, Romeo and Juliet were emphatically not married from Juliet’s house, because their families and friends did not support their marriage, so they wed secretly with only two witnesses. Third, it is questionable whether that marriage was even legally valid in the Middle Ages, since a minor such as Juliet – and particularly one from her social background – could not have married without her parents’ consent. The marriage would have been annulled immediately by the bishop of Verona, and Friar Laurence would have been in rather deep trouble. Fourth and finally, is it really such a good idea to begin married life together in a spot commemorating a marriage which ended in double suicide?

Still, money wins out over taste every time, and there will no doubt be plenty of takers who want to join in the ignorance. I can imagine that there will be a rolling trade in having Shakespeare impersonators perform the ceremony, since I cannot imagine the diocese sanctioning any priest to do so. At the same time, no doubt the ultimate beneficiary of this little exercise will be the diocese, given the likely number of annulments they will have to process as a result of this new wedding venue.

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