One of the more curious, non-dangerous, aspects of human nature is our difficulty in distinguishing between fantasy and reality. Indeed, many of the things that we call ‘real’ don’t exist at all: they are constructed in our brains and feel ‘real,’ so we think they are real.
Literature doesn’t help: it reinforces the illusion that its invented characters are real. And there are actually people who believe that some of them are real. The trustees of the Sherlock Holmes Society receive letters every day appealing to the detective to solve the writers’ mysteries. The English radio soap about simple rural folk, The Archers, has a whole department dealing with letters to the characters. When a baby is born or a couple marry the studio is flooded with gifts. And when someone dies the postman has difficulty dealing with the letters of condolence and the studio is fragrant with wreaths. The senders are all people who believe that the characters are real people.
And so it is not surprising that across the street from Juliet’s House in Verona, right opposite Juliet’s Balcony, there is an office in which a team of writers work all day long answering letters to Juliet, asking her advice on matters of the heart. They call themselves the Secretaries of Juliet.
The letters seeking advice on relationships or asking Juliet to bless their relationships arrive by the sack load. Some are written on paper burnt and smeared with mud to look like medieval parchment, while others are accompanied by photographs and drawings.
It all began in the 1950s, when a custodian of Juliet’s symbolic tomb, also in Verona, began responding to letters and notes that tourists left behind. When he retired, the tradition was continued by a succession of volunteers, until the late 1980s when city authorities asked the “Club di Giulietta” (The Juliet Club) to take over. And they are still working on it, dealing with the love issues of people from their teens to their old age.
Some examples show that there’s a kind of celebratory wish to share a love with Juliet:
Dear Juliet, I am in love and have never been so happy. We are getting married at the end of the month. Will you please bless our marriage?
Others ask the impossible:
Dear Juliet, two men want to marry me. Pete is a lovely guy, very sweet and generous, and gentle and loving to me. My parents adore him and are hoping I will choose him. Gareth is a ‘bad boy’ and has actually spent time in a correction facility. My parents would like to ban him from our house and just get up and walk out of the room when he comes round. But I find him exciting and when I am with him I feel high all the time. He is sometimes quite rude to me in public but then he takes me in his arms and all the hurt goes away. Please help me Juliet. Please tell me which one I should marry.
The interesting thing about it is that the people who write to Juliet really do think they are writing to a real person – the fourteen year old who lost her life through making the wrong decisions in her own attempt to deal with the difficult question of love.
Juliet never existed, but there is a sense in which all of Shakespeare’s characters are as real as the people we encounter in our daily lives.