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Shakespeare's Juliet inspires lovelorn letter writers

As a new Hollywood film highlights the role of a group of agony aunts in Verona, the BBC's Duncan Kennedy meets the people who respond to letters sent to one of Shakespeare's most tragic heroines.

Image caption People from around the world write to Juliet for romantic advice

"O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?"

Remember the scene?

It is Act Two, Scene Two of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet - one of the most recognisable speeches in his entire canon of work.

Think impossible love and famous balconies.

It has been the inspiration for cinema for decades. George Cukor's 1936 film was among the early interpretations, with Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer locked in the doomed relationship.

Now it is also the basis of a new film, this time with a modern day twist.

Agony aunts

Letters to Juliet is the fictional story of a young American woman who travels to Verona in Italy - the city where Romeo meets Juliet - and joins a group of volunteers who respond to letters written to "Juliet" that seek romantic advice.

She discovers a letter sent 50 years earlier, then helps its author - played by Vanessa Redgrave - in her quest to find a long-lost fiance she had left decades before.

Is it just Hollywood schmaltz? That will be for viewers to decide.

But behind its heavily-beating heart are a number of truths.

Firstly, there really is a Juliet's house in Verona, though many historians question whether she actually existed at all.

Image caption The volunteers are bracing themselves for an increase in letters

And secondly, many people do write to "Juliet" every year, pouring out their aching thoughts onto the written page.

The letters, which are often just addressed to "Juliet, Verona", are read by a team of 15 secretaries.

They are kind of agony aunts (and at least one uncle) who deal in the pain inflicted by love, or the lack of it.

"We receive about 6,000 a year, from every corner of the world," said Giovanna Tamassia, who has been replying to the letters for 16 years.

"Seventy percent are from women, 30% are from men."

Asked what kind of people write, she described them as "sad".

"Those who can't find love or have been rejected by it and who need to communicate with a stranger, like 'Juliet'."

Written in ink

The letters are a mixture of heartbreak and stoicism.

Take this one from Belarus:

"Dear Juliet,

"I'm 16-years-old. I have one big problem. It's very hard for me to find a boyfriend... My dream boyfriend is very simple and poetic. He must be gentle, clever, honest and brave. Perhaps it's too much for me."

Another, this time from Italy, reads:

"Dear Juliet,

"I don't have a Romeo and I am very sad. I'm not a young girl... I've always loved very deeply, but who knows why they have all betrayed me?"

A third, from Canada, takes a more optimistic (or should that be opportunistic?) tone:

"Dear Juliet,

"Would you please work your magic and bless me with a passionate love affair that will last forever?

"He must be tall, handsome, smart and he must have a heart of gold. I don't think I mentioned his 'gold' bank account. It would be greatly appreciated."

Giovanna and her colleagues dispense sensitive, caring advice.

"We're not psychologists or priests," she said. "But we do know the ways of the world and we like to be kind and gentle with people".

The biggest single group of letters come from American teenagers. Nearly all letters are handwritten and in ink.

Forget e-mails, tweets and Facebook. Old fashioned romance, it seems, is about putting pen to paper, not fingers to keyboards.

The secretaries often hear back from those who write.

Some do find what they are looking for, others remain cursed by loneliness.

The secretaries are bracing themselves for a deluge of new deliveries on the back of the film's release.

Writing to a stranger who may never have existed in the first place, might seem like an odd or desperate thing to do, even in the depths of the crushed, delusional state heartbroken people can find themselves in.

Is it sentimental? Maybe.

Is it sincere? Almost certainly.

Is it what love can do to otherwise rational human beings? Definitely.

Letters To Juliet is released in the UK on 9 June

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