Chasing Shakespeare—from Stratford to Verona

Verona is a city that Shakespeare set three plays in. And it hosts a very famous (fictional) house — Casa di Giulietta or Juliet’s House (and balcony). Photo by Tanya Lara

There is a scene I love in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. As the emperor is being stabbed by the senators, he recognizes his friend as one of the assassins and says, “Et tu, Brute?” (“And you, Brutus?” or “Even you, Brutus?” from Latin).

“Stabbed in the back” is such a common euphemism for betrayal, but no matter how apt this Shakespeare scene is in today’s world, it’s probably not the most famous in popular culture. That scene comes from Romeo and Juliet, the story of star-crossed lovers that has spun a million parodies and analogies.

Because between betrayal and tragic love, people seem to prefer the latter, notwithstanding the double suicide that could have been avoided had there just been proper communication about the poison from the apothecary 450 years ago.

The house and famous balcony of Juliet Capulet in Verona.  Photo by Tanya Lara

In the autumn of 2007, I took the train from London to Stratford-Upon-Avon in the UK to see Shakespeare’s houses — where he was born and where he retired and died. Nine years later, in 2016, I would take the train from Venice to Verona in Italy to see the fictional house and balcony of fictional Juliet.

Scholars are divided about whether Shakespeare actually visited Verona in his lifetime, but he set three plays here — The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the first of Shakespeare’s comedies where the heroine dresses as a boy. Rendering gender ambiguous and the resulting complications are themes that would repeat themselves in the Bard’s plays, most notably in Twelfth Night (one of my favorites).

The second Verona play is The Taming of the Shrew, where the headstrong Katherina is “tamed” by her suitor Petruchio until she becomes an obedient bride. (Anyone else remember that Moonlighting episode?)

Juliet’s bed. Not too far from the house is another tourist attraction — Juliet’s Tomb. Also on display are clothing from the Elizabethan period.  Photos by Tanya Lara

The third, of course, is Romeo and Juliet. Of the three plays, Shakespeare wrote this last (1597) with the first two written between 1589 and 1592. Romeo and Juliet is largely believed to be based on the English poet Arthur Brook’s narrative poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, which in turn was translated from an earlier Italian novella by Matteo Bandello, said to be from a French source. The list goes on and on because two lovers from feuding families is a tale as old as time.

But it is Shakespeare’s young, tragic lovers that endure, that have appeared before us on stage, in film, ballet and opera — and in our imaginations.

In Act 2, Juliet comes to the balcony and, no, she is not looking for him, rather she is questioning Romeo being Romeo — a Montague, the sworn enemy of her Capulet family.

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

Tanya Lara and Juliet’s statue in the courtyard. It’s a tradition to rub Juliet’s right breast if you want to get married. I stayed away from it as far as I could while posing.

So here I am staring at that balcony in Verona, an hour and half by Trenitalia from Venice. Called Casa di Giulietta, the compound dates back to the 8th century and originally belonged to the Capello family in the 13th century. Was it this surname that inspired Shakespeare’s Capulets? Or gave rise to the City of Verona that here, Juliet Capulet could have lived, that she could have stood on this balcony and delivered her soliloquy?

In the courtyard, surrounded by the open-brick exterior of the four-level house, there is a statue of Juliet (there are actually two, one is inside). For some reason, it’s a tradition for women to rub her right breast if they want to get married; men do it, too, but with a smirk befitting Petruchio rather than a lonely bachelor.

I didn’t know you could actually go up to the balcony till my friend Luca messaged me, “Vai su” (go up), and so I did. For 6 euros, you can enter Juliet’s house through the souvenir shop.

Visitors leave notes and letters to Juliet on the wall leading to the house.
The Capulets’ house gets with the program: you can write your letters on a computer (right) or scribble them on paper and drop them in this mailbox (left) on the second floor.

In contrast to the Elizabethan period and artifacts in glass cases around the house, the second floor has several computers where you could write a letter to Juliet. I wrote a short note and pressed “send,” and it’s now floating in some computer server somewhere in Italy.

If you saw the 2010 Amanda Seyfried-movie Letters to Juliet, you know that women really do write to Juliet and the letters are answered by the “Secretaries of Juliet,” composed of the women of Verona.

In reality, the letters are left on the wall leading to the courtyard.

On the third floor is the balcony, from which the architectural term “Juliet’s balcony” comes from to describe a small one just enough to fit one or two people.

The courtyard of Casa di Giulietta. For 6 euros, you can go inside the house and the balcony.
The 2,000-year-old Verona Arena is still used today for opera performances; outside is the Christmas Star sculpture. Photo by Tanya Lara

I’ve come to Verona to see this house, to imagine Shakespeare’s characters, but for some reason I am cranky when I actually peer down from the balcony and see couples posing. I want to yell at the people below, “You fools. Love is not real but tragedy is!!” But why ruin it? So I keep my mouth shut.

I leave the house and walk through the wonderful streets of Verona to find a good restaurant. The open market not far from the house is flanked by ristorantes and tratorrias.

Like everywhere else in Italy, pasta (or a cute Italian guy) always gets you in a better mood.

* * *

William Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-Upon-Avon was the biggest house on Henley St. during The Bard’s lifetime. Photo from

I love trains and what I love more than trains is complaining about them.

My beef with the London Tube is that it is cold. And I have to take several lines and a regional train to get to Shakespeare’s hometown Stratford, nestled on the River Avon.

It’s autumn in 2007 and I’m staying in a hotel just off Gloucester Road. I have to take the Circle Line at Gloucester station, then get off at Edgeware Road station and transfer to Marylebone station and on the Chiltern Railways, then on to Leamington Spa Railways station, take a bus which stops at a McDonald’s, and I’m on my own to find Shakespeare’s houses.

I’m alone in London and I write my friends at the Philippine Consulate that this is where I am going and the next day I’m flying to Italy — just in case I go missing.

Holy Trinity Church and Shakespeare’s final resting place in Stratford. Poto from

I had been traveling to Europe for several years by this time, but I look back at this as the year of being young and carefree and really beginning to wander, of being footloose in the world.

I don’t know this yet, but this the beginning of finding my way by getting lost — of literally stepping onto the wrong platform and the wrong train, of being curious about other countries and going there to satisfy that curiosity, of almost crying at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate because there is a Starbucks on the eastern side where they used to shoot and kill people for trying to cross to West Berlin, going to Florence’s Accademia and seeing Michelangelo’s David sculpture for the first time, hearing the church bells ringing at Giotto’s Cathedral in Florence, getting pickpocketed in front of Harrod’s in London and being mugged in Milan.

Anyway, back to Stratford-Upon-Avon… I find the place to buy the two-house ticket to Shakespeare’s Birthplace and the New House where he retired and died. Well, I don’t actually buy the ticket; I show my press ID and they give it to me for free.

Shakespeare’s Birthplace is a Tudor affair, the largest house on Henley St. He was born and grew up here, the third of eight children. He also spent the first years of his marriage to Anne Hathaway in this house. According to the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust, “it was because of his father’s status as Mayor that William was privileged enough to have attended the local grammar school to begin his education.”

Tanya Lara in Shakespeare’s Knotted Garden, 2007

The house was later owned by Shakespeare’s eldest daughter Susanna and later his granddaughter Elizabeth. When it became for sale in the 1847, the Shakespeare’ Birthplace Trust purchased it.

Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway, whose family cottage at the edge of Stratford is also a museum, moved to New Place in 1597 (where he presumably wrote and finished Romeo and Juliet) and raised their family there. According to the Trust, “When Shakespeare bought New Place he was an established playwright and it is believed that he wrote his later plays there, including The Tempest.”

I don’t remember in which house I am told that it isn’t allowed to take pictures or touch the furniture (of course I do!). I run my hands on his bedposts, on his mantelpiece and desk, stomp my boot heels on the wooden floors and generally touch surfaces and take pictures of everything I could.

Shakespeare’s bedroom in Stratford-Upon-Avon.  Photo by Tanya Lara

This was the Bard’s bedroom, this was his desk! Did he write Twelfth Night with a quill? Were his fingers darkened black by the ink? What the hell am I doing here alone?

You have to understand…I’ve been a fan of Shakespeare my entire life. In my grandfather’s house north of Manila, there was a book titled The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. It was printed in 1936.

It’s a hardbound book on thin paper (the kind you see in Bibles) that an uncle — I don’t know which one — stole from a library, and which I stole from my grandfather’s house. I’ve never read it completely, but it’s been with me since I left home as a teenager, through three apartments and two houses.

When I was a journalism student at the University of the Philippines, I fell in love with a classmate (a reject from engineering who thought journalism was easy), who knew Shakespeare like no one I’d met before. He studied at the Jesuit school Ateneo de Manila and took up two Shakespeare plays a year in high school. Two plays a year! This was no Cliff’s Notes, this was no Wikipedia summary; this was early memory embedded in his brain.

Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, where she grew up with her family. Photo from

Whenever I forgot a character, it was he that I called. What was Othello’s crazy sister’s name? (Ophelia) Where did he say all lawyers should be killed? (Henry VI) What was the heroine’s name in Twelfth Night? (Viola)

So here I am in Stratford like a giddy fangirl about to meet her idol…except Shakespeare’s been dead for 400 years.

I’ve been given grief for putting the movie Shakespeare in Love on my top five list. To me, this was like seeing Shakespeare as he was struggling and writing in the Elizabethan period, of being poor and drunk and in love. There is Gwyneth as a thinly veiled Viola, my favorite heroine, from Twelfth Night. There is a shipwreck that he will write as they say goodbye, a case of mistaken identity, there is confusion and complication, there is falling in love with a person who pretends to be someone else. What’s not to love about this story?

The Shakespeare Memorial by Lord Ronald Gower, 1888, in Bancroft Gardens. At each corner of the square is a statue of a Shakespearean character to represent his writing versatility — Hamlet (philosophy), Prince Hal (tragedy), Lady Macbeth (history) and Falstaff (comedy). Photo from

I sometimes look at the book from my grandfather’s house and turn it my hands the way people do for one last time at things they are about to toss them in a brick oven. I don’t do it, of course.

It will always remain with me. It’s not always the same with people you love, which is the real tragedy. I go like Ophelia sometimes, other times like Juliet, but most of the time like Viola struggling at sea. I try to forget that Julius Caesar’s Brutus will stab you in the back, and he would have done it in the heart if you just turned to look at him. And you did, didn’t you? Even when you were bloody and on the floor, you did turn.

This Shakespeare volume, written 500 years ago and printed 81 years ago, I will take it out of the bookshelf and read all of its verses someday. Because we go from Stratford to Verona in a span of several innocent years and we think that in another life — maybe not this one, but in that tightly constructed stage of a Shakespearean play — love really will endure.

Stratford on the River Avon, about three hours from Central London. Photo from

How I found my muse in Florence

Florence01_from_firenze turismo
Santa Maria del Fiore and Giotto’s bell tower glow in the evening. The entire city of Florence is one giant museum.  (Photos from Firenze Turismo)

For weeks, I had it in my mind that if I went looking for my muse I would find her. It was as though she were a physical thing that I would bump into on the streets or find sitting in a café sipping cappuccino and I would introduce myself and tell her: Will you please help me write?

This restlessness, this search for my muse had its beginnings in a missing flash drive. A layout artist in my newspaper borrowed it to transfer files from one computer to another, and the next day he told me he had lost it. The drive contained the only copy of a novel I had been writing intermittently for six years.

The only copy.

Florence02_from_firenze turismo
Detail of the Duomo in Florence.

Somebody had stolen it from his drawer, he said. My mind refused to accept that it was lost; it was just misplaced. Sooner or later, it had to turn up. I didn’t want to think about the missing novel, which I was now itching to continue to write after having ignored it for six years.

But the flash drive remained lost in the black hole that suddenly contained everything I needed in my life. Like a lost love — I suddenly felt its absence.

Florence03_ by_christopher_ patterson
Giotto’s Campanile stands adjacent to the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore, part of the complex of Florence Cathedral at Piazza del Duomo. (Photo by Christopher Patterson/wikipedia)

An officemate, short of calling me an idiot, scolded me: Why do you have it on your flash drive and not on your laptop? Because I had been transferring files from one laptop to another. Why didn’t you print it out? Because it was not finished. I didn’t want to jinx it.

And yet, I’m not superstitious, I don’t even need ambience to write. In the office, we all work amid ringing phones, people dropping by inquiring about this or that press release, on desks that are so messy snakes might as well be hiding beneath the piles of folders. We multi-task — downloading e-mails and photos from columnists, editing, writing, ears half-tuned to the news on TV. If you can write through doomsday-scenario newscast style — you can write in a jackhammer factory.

Florence04_from_firenze turismo
The capital of the Tuscan region, Florence was once one of Europe’s wealthiest cities.

But what my flash drive contained was fiction, the roots of my writing career. Six years of my life. Thirteen chapters. One hundred thirty pages. Written under moments of grace that no one can ever bring back.

When it became clear that it really was lost, I couldn’t breathe, my knees buckled. It felt like someone in my family had died.

I told myself: I had to find inspiration.  If I had to go to another country, I would do it. I thought of Italy, where I once spent an entire afternoon wiping pigeon shit off my clothes at St. Mark’s Square in Venice, searching for Harry’s Bar and trying to avoid the floodwaters that besieged the city when it drizzled late in the afternoon.

I thought of Italy and all those art galleries. My editor told me a trip to Florence is a cultural trip. So I went online and booked flights and hotels from London to Florence, then a one-way train ticket to Milan, where I would fly back to London.

Florence05_from_firenze turismo
The Medici Park in Pratolino, north of Florence.

In England, I went to Stratford-upon-Avon and visited Shakespeare’s birthplace and his other houses. Maybe my muse would be here, hiding inside the 400-year-old Tudor houses. When the guide wasn’t looking, I ran my hands along the pockmarked and cracked wooden tables, the wooden doors and drawers. I pressed my nose to the Elizabethan furniture pieces and smelled the wood. I jumped up and down on floorboards that creaked. And I took pictures surreptitiously.

But my muse wasn’t in Stratford.

It was fall in Europe, that time of the year when it gets dark early. Shakespeare’s houses close at 4 p.m. the shops at 5, and everyone just wants to get inside and eat soup. It seemed everybody I knew was leaving or was at another place waiting for an epiphany.

Then on the plane to Milan for a layover, I felt the promise of something good. I looked out my window and saw snow-capped mountains, miles and miles of them, and then five minutes later it was farmlands — brown in the fall with patches of black and smoke rising from the dry fields. The Italians were burning their farms!

I changed planes at Malpensa Airport, where I saw Alessi kitchen accessories and debated with myself — a designer pepper mill to bring home or a bottle of expensive sparkling wine to consume alone? I went for the wine.

That night, when I reached Florence, I began writing fiction again.

* * *

Florence07_from_firenze turismo
Uffizi Gallery has over 45 museum halls. Some of the must-sees are works by the masters Caravaggio, Botticelli, Raphael and Titian.
The author Tanya Lara at Uffizi Gallery.

Florence opened up to me like a book waiting to be read. In the galleries, it was a different kind of atmosphere — it was as if you were trapped inside a giant artwork. I looked at the Medici paintings and stood for several minutes in front of “The Agony in Garden” and wondered why nobody looked to be in agony — not even Jesus Christ. He and his apostles just looked very, very tired.

Unlike London, nobody was running in Florence. People were looking at me as if asking themselves: Why is she running when she could very well take the bus?

That’s how I first saw Giotto’s Bell Tower — in the cold, early-morning light of fall, when the street sweepers were preparing for the day’s tourists, and the only sound you would hear on the empty, cobblestone streets is your own shoes. The Duomo stood before me in all its bas-relief glory and beside it the painter Giotto’s campanile.

Of all the stories about painters, this is the one I love best. When Pope Benedict XI wanted to employ artists to work on the frescos of the Duomo he was building, he sent an emissary to get samples of their work. With the messenger in front of him in his workshop, Giotto took a sheet of paper and dipped his brush in red paint, closed his arm to his side and in one sweeping motion he drew a perfect circle freehand — so perfect it looked like it was drawn with a compass.

Florence08_from_uffizi gallery
“The birth of Venus” by Botticelli at Uffizi.

The messenger thought it was a joke: a drawing of a circle to prove his genius. “Is this the only drawing I’m to have?” he asked.

Giotto said: “It’s more than enough. Send it along and you’ll see whether it’s understood.”

The pope understood.

There is a kind of hushed atmosphere in Florence, the kind you see only in museums. And I liked that about the place, plus it’s a small walking city filled with art galleries and palaces and small winding streets. It’s so pretty that there’s even a name for the feeling you get when you’re overwhelmed by it: “Stendhal Syndrome,” a psychosomatic illness that “causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art is in a single place.”

Michelangelo’s David at Accademia Gallery.

That was the atmosphere at the Uffizi Gallery, where “The Birth of Venus” by Botticelli is housed, and at the Galleria dell’Accademia where Michelangelo’s sculpture of David stands.

The lines at the Uffizi were so long, I had to wait for more than an hour just to get inside the building. At Accademia, there were no lines, but there were a lot of students and artists with their sketchpads and backpacks, sitting on benches or on the floor, and drawing in front of Michelangelo’s sculpture.

I wasn’t the only one looking for a muse in Florence.

On the plane leaving Italy, I thought that of all the nine muses, all I really needed was one — just one muse to recover, to rewrite, to reclaim the contents of my missing flash drive.

But really, it was more than that. It was to recover myself.