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.
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?)
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.
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.
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.
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.
* * *
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.