Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 66
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published February 7, 2017. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. “Any Man That Can Write May Answer a Letter” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the Associate Producer. It was editing by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had help from Jeff Muller at Alchemy Studios in Calgary, Alberta and Jake Gorsky and Jeff Peters at the Marketplace Studios in Los Angeles.
More podcasts related to Romeo and Juliet:
MICHAEL WITMORE: The letters all start the same: “Dear Juliet.”
“Dear Juliet, I am 16 years old, and have waited so long to meet my Romeo. When will he appear?” “Dear Juliet, I've been accepted to a college far away, but my boyfriend lives here.” “Dear Juliet, women don't like me. I find that I can't lead them to close relationships, and then to have sex. Please tell me what to do.” “Dear Juliet…”
Juliet, a fictional character, a fake Italian created by an Englishman more than 400 years ago. And yet, the letters pour in from all over the world: “Dear Juliet, Dear Juliet...” What's going on?
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger's director. This podcast is called “Any Man That Can Write May Answer A Letter.”
Starting in the 1930s, people began sending letters asking for advice on love and romance to Verona, Italy. The letters were addressed to Juliet, and for years, no one knew what to do with them. In 1972, a man named Giulio Tamassia began hosting dinners for a group of his friends. They started calling themselves “The Juliet Club,” and 17 years later, as the letters continued pouring in, a Verona city commissioner asked if it was okay for the town to send all the letters over to them. Giulio has long since retired, but the letters keep coming, and today his daughter runs a team of volunteers who continue to dole out advice.
In 2014, a Canadian high school teacher named Glenn Dixon, whose love life was itself kind of a mess, decided to take some time over the summer vacation to go to Verona and work as one of Juliet's secretaries, as the volunteers are called. The result is a delightful memoir titled Juliet's Answer, that was published in 2017 by Simon and Schuster. Glenn came in to talk about his book, the adventure that led to it, and how it actually ended up changing his life. Glenn spoke with Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: Well, let's start at the beginning of this story. How did you first hear about the Juliet Club?
GLENN DIXON: Well, I taught high school English for twenty years, and I had to teach Shakespeare to mostly compliant teenagers. And at the back of our textbook, the Romeo and Juliet textbook, there were a series of essays. And one of the essays was about these letters to Juliet. So, I had actually known about this for a couple decades, really.
BOGAEV: Right, and in that article, which was called “A New Career for Juliet: Advice to the Lovelorn” (and it really described the whole process of what happens in this Juliet Club), it said that the letter answering was started by the groundskeeper at an estate in Verona. How did that come about, and why did letters start arriving around 1937, I think they said?
DIXON: Yeah, and that's right. Because there was an early movie version in 1936, 1937, something like that. That was the first, you know, sort of popular rush. And all of a sudden letters just started appearing at what they call the Tomb of Juliet, which is on the grounds of this Franciscan monastery. And there was a groundskeeper there who didn't really know what to do with these letters, and bless his heart, he decided that he would start answering them. And that's how it all started.
BOGAEV: That's wild. And at a certain point, the current director of the club, her father took over, right? In the 1980s, when there were just a lot of letters, kind of a surge.
DIXON: Right, so that's Giulio, Giulio Tamassia, and he had a bunch of friends, in I think 1972, that they would get together and drink wine. And they called themselves “The Juliet Club.” And then the city of Verona actually came to them, I think, in 1979 and asked if they could somehow organize the answering of these letters. And that's how, sort of, the modern version started. And yes, Giovanna, who's now sort of the head secretary, she took over from her father, Giulio. And now she kind of runs the place.
BOGAEV: Yeah, I want to talk more about how you answered these letters. But first, I think we really need to know what was going on in your mind, and in your life, when you took off for Verona. Because it sounded like you were in need of a little love therapy.
DIXON: [LAUGH] A little love therapy. Yeah. There were actually two trips to Verona. So, the first trip I went there, it was all a bit of a lark, it was a male going to work amongst these legendary secretaries of Juliet, and I hoped to get a good little magazine article, or a chapter in a book. But I had my own little personal agenda. And when I was there, I wrote my own letter to Juliet. I had basically had a disastrous love life, and I needed some answers.
BOGAEV: Well, it sounded like you were stuck.
DIXON: I was completely stuck. And I didn't know why, and I didn't know how to get out of it. I mean, the basic story is that I was in love with my best friend. I called her Claire in the book, that's not her real name. But she wasn't in love with me. And this had gone on for almost two decades, if you can possibly imagine. And so I decided I'd ask Juliet for help. But I think I can tell you that it didn't work, it got more disastrous. And at this point, I think I had to decide, what do you really want to do here? Do you want to just write some little, you know, fluffy article about this? Or are you really gonna write about this? Which meant writing about myself. So, I did, I started to write the things that happened to me, the letter I wrote, the answer I got, how it went wrong. And I knew I had to go back to Verona a second time to, well, I guess, get my real answer.
BOGAEV: So, you had this mix of motivations to go to Verona. And this is a town that, from the way you describe it, it sounds almost like a Romeo and Juliet movie set. Why don't you give us a sense of just how much Verona milks the tourism potential out of this association with Shakespeare?
DIXON: Well, I think that was in my original first chapter; well, it is still there. Like, for example, there is a place called Juliet's House. And there's a balcony there, but it's completely fake. It was put there in 1937, also for that movie that we talked about before. On the other hand, that building is more than 700 years old, and it belonged to a family called Capello. Which, we're pretty sure now is what Shakespeare called the Capulets. There is the Capelli House, which is a 700-year-old house belonging to a rich family, but just up the street from that, there's a place they call Romeo's House. And it's a complete fake. It is a house from the right time period, and it's this fortified house. So, it was the house of a rich family.
But as I spent a lot of time in the city, and as I talked with the secretaries, you know, one in particular, I’ll mention her name is Manuela, and she is a certified city tour guide, and she was telling me, this wasn't really the Montague house. They were called the Montecchis, and we have historical records that the Montecchi family actually lived outside, south of the medieval city wall. So, this was not their house. And at that point it was kind of funny because I was thinking, “Well, wait a second, are you actually saying that these were real families? The Capellis and the Montecchis?” And she nodded her head, “Yeah, yeah, we have the historical record for them.”
BOGAEV: Okay, wait, let's back up because this is really rich stuff here. First there's this Juliet's House, it has this fake balcony, which is kind of a selfie spot, or you know, a place to get your photo taken with your lover. And there's also a Juliet statue too, right?
DIXON: Yeah. There's a Juliet statue. It took me a long time to realize that actually at the end of the play Romeo and Juliet, Lord Montague, Romeo's father, declares that he's going to build a statue of Juliet. So, it's kind of symbolic that there's a really beautiful statue of Juliet in the courtyard there. The only funny thing about that is, for some reason, the tourists have been going there and they rub her right breast for luck. So, her right breast is polished to a sheen. And it's really kind of this bizarre thing that goes on there.
BOGAEV: And there's also Juliet's tomb.
DIXON: Yes. There are these vaults that are hundreds of years old, and really quite spooky. And in one of them, there's this sarcophagus, it's unadorned. And people have known about it for a couple of hundred years. So, Charles Dickens was down there, Lord Byron was down there— I think he hacked off a little piece of it for a memento.
BOGAEV: To give to his daughter. That's how legend has it.
DIXON: Yeah, he gave it to his daughter.
BOGAEV: Napoleon's second wife had some stone fragments made into earrings.
DIXON: Yeah, she had some stone fragments made into earrings. So, you are no longer allowed to chip off any pieces of rock, I can tell you. But the story on that is that the sarcophagus wasn't always there. In fact, this ancient stone coffin was actually buried outside the cemetery walls. And what that tells us is it was not allowed to be buried in hallowed ground because it might have been a suicide. And the time period is right, about the early 1300s. And because it's a big stone sarcophagus, it obviously came from a rich family. So, that's all we can know for sure: it was a suicide from a very rich family, about the right time. And that's a remarkable story. So, I have to say, when I first went there, I was going, “Well, this is completely fake. Shakespeare was probably never here, Romeo and Juliet never happened here, it's a story, people.” But I now believe that it actually was a true story. They say it happened in the year 1302.
BOGAEV: And now we're getting to this alleged connection to Dante and The Divine Comedy.
DIXON: Yeah, it's amazing. I had no idea about this. So, Dante the famous Italian poet was in the city, in 1302. In fact, he was exiled there from his native Florence. And it's a bit apocryphal, but they say that in 1302, Dante went there, and he was good friends with the ruler of the city, Cangrande della Scala. And in Shakespeare, that's Prince Escalus. And that's a real person, I saw his tomb, it's a real person. And supposedly, della Scala told Dante the story of this. “You won't believe this amazing thing just happened in our city.” And Dante wrote the two names Montague and Capulet, and he placed them in purgatory in his Divine Comedy. Now, the names are a little bit different. It's Capello, as I said, and Montecchi. But we know those were really rich families in the year 1302. And we know for a fact that Dante placed them into purgatory. It's in Canto Six, lines 106 to 108, you can go look it up. The two names are right there. That's 300 years before Shakespeare.
BOGAEV: Okay, this is really fascinating. But just to be clear, it's generally agreed that Shakespeare did not read Dante, had no idea who he was, and that Shakespeare's source for Romeo and Juliet was a poem by someone named Arthur Brooke. So, what you're saying, it's not to say that there's a direct line from the story that Prince della Scala told to Dante to the story that Shakespeare told to the world. As convenient as that might be for Verona.
DIXON: Yeah, there's no record of Shakespeare knowing Dante. And yes, almost certainly, Shakespeare took the idea for the story from this Arthur Brooke's poem, a long 3,000-line poem. But we also know that Arthur Brooke's poem was based on an earlier French version, which in turn was based on at least two other much earlier novellas, they called them, that were Italian. And one of them did take place in Verona. So, even though Shakespeare might not have been able to trace it back, we can now trace it back. Maybe not directly to Dante, but you can go back a couple hundred years at least.
BOGAEV: Okay, well, you arrived there to take up your internship as a letter-answering volunteer with the office. Why did they take you in? I mean, isn't there a screening process? Or do they let anyone volunteer?
DIXON: You'd think there should be a screening process. And they say on their website that there's a screening process. But I had emailed Giovanna months before. And I explained that I was a teacher of Romeo and Juliet. And she never said this, but I think it's maybe because I knew the text really well.
BOGAEV: Well, Giovanna, she has a full time staff of women, and you were coming into that. Four or five of them, and they'd been doing it a long time. And is that their full time job? To sit and answer love letters for eight hours a day?
DIXON: Yes. Except I have to say that they're volunteers. So, even Giovanna, she doesn't get paid for this. And they go in every morning, and they answer the letters.
BOGAEV: Wow, they really know how to do this. How did they train you?
DIXON: They didn't tell me a whole lot. I remember the very first day I sat down and they plunked this huge cardboard box, brimming with letters, in front of me. And basically said, you know, go to it. But you know, over the next couple of days, Giovanna would sit down with me and look at my answers, and shake her head, maybe a little. Probably the main thing she would say is, you're not trying to solve their problems. You are just there to be a sympathetic ear, but it's like throwing a wish into the air. That was the important act, is just for them to write. And I think maybe there's a lot of magic in getting an answer back. And so, even though my answer didn't work, it was still quite an amazing thing to be back in Canada, ten thousand miles away, and there in my mailbox one morning was a letter from Juliet.
BOGAEV: Before we get to your letter, what were all of these other letters like? Did you see obvious patterns to them?
DIXON: I think the longer I worked there, I saw patterns. But I have to say that the vast majority were from very young women. I'm talking teenagers. So, “Dear Juliet, can you find me my Romeo? Please send them to San Antonio, Texas.” But occasionally, there would be a letter that was absolutely heartbreaking. I was just thinking again about one I had from a father. And he had just gone through a terrible divorce. And I think the ex-wife was now seeing someone else. But he wasn't writing for himself, he was writing for his daughters. And he said, “I'm just so worried that my daughters will be disillusioned about love, and what can I tell them because it's gone horribly wrong for me.” But then the letter that was right underneath that was actually from one of his daughters. The daughter also wasn't writing for herself, she wrote about her father. And she said, “What can I do to help my father? He's sad, and he's lonely.” And so, every once in a while you get letters like this that… “Wow, that's amazing.”
BOGAEV: That's heartbreaking. And they want and deserve real answers. How did you go about answering those very serious ones? And did you answer as yourself? Or did you try to think yourself into some kind of Juliet doppelganger? Did you answer as a Giulietta?
DIXON: You know, quite often the other secretaries would be there. And when a letter like that came up, you would say something, you'd say, “Everyone, let's hear this one,” and you'd read it out loud. And then we would all discuss, “Okay, this one's really serious. How are we gonna answer this one?” And we would discuss it for a while. In that case I can tell you, it was one of the very young secretaries. She said, “You know how we should answer this one, is that this father and daughter, they have a fantastic source of love in their life. It's the father's love for his daughter, and the daughter's love for the father. Which they probably didn't know, having not read each others' letters. But that's what they have, and that's what we can talk about in our answer.”
BOGAEV: Oh, that's beautiful. And that really does get to the heart of it, because love takes all of these forms. And you have to be resilient.
BOGAEV: So, while you were writing your responses, were you constantly seeing parallels with the play? Between your life and it?
DIXON: Yes. I think so. And you know, there's advice in the play itself, usually coming from Friar Lawrence. Sometimes maybe from the Nurse. And it is, it's just advice from an older person to a younger person. I want to say that one of the secretaries, Anna, also told me that every time you answer a letter, you're answering yourself. And that really stuck with me as well. That you know, it's that idea about what would you say to your younger self if your younger self was in this position? And then, there's the converse of that, is what would your younger self say to you now? And what you're doing in your life. Which, I think came back to me, that my, as I said, my love life had been a disaster. And so, I had to figure out how to get beyond that. And you know, in a sense, it was my younger self saying, “Come on man, it's been a lot of years. You need to get this together.”
BOGAEV: Okay, well, getting back to our excruciating examination of your love life. You went back to Canada after a summer of answering these letters at the office of Giulietta, and you went back to teaching Romeo and Juliet. What did you learn about love during the summer, and in answering some of your own questions about it that you could apply to Romeo and Juliet and your students?
DIXON: You know, Romeo and Juliet is taught where I live, in Alberta, at grade 10. So, these students are 15, maybe 16 years old. And that's very much on purpose because they're basically the same age as the characters in the play. But I think there's much more to it than that. They are at the age, not only they're totally, you know, consumed with ideas about romance and love, but also, they're right at the point at which they can start to think metaphorically. They can start to think really abstractly. There's, you know, in educational research, there's Piaget, and that might be kind of old school, but he talks about that age of moving from concrete operational thought to really abstract thought. To be able to think about thinking. So, there's a famous line, for example, about “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” We always stop there because I can see the light bulbs pop on when they start thinking about… it's just a word. It's just a random sound in our mouth, but yet it means this thing, and does it always mean this thing? And we have long discussions about, you know, it's the beginning of philosophical thought for them. And I think they get really engaged by that.
BOGAEV: Well, all of this is very far from love. I mean, you immersed yourself in love for a summer and then you went back to this friend of yours who had moved back to where you lived. So, did you just march in there and just say “Look, I was crazy all these years. I'm going to stop. I'm done. I'm done, our friendship is no longer fraught, I've moved on”?
DIXON: Well, the very short version of this is that I got the answer back from Juliet, and my plan was...
BOGAEV: Wait, what was the question, and what was the answer?
DIXON: My question was that I have been in love with this girl, my best friend, for almost 20 years. And we've never been, she'd always had boyfriends, and we were really the best of friends. We lived close by each other, but I was always not-even-so-secretly in love with her. And then there came a point where there wasn't a boyfriend in her life and I thought “Okay, so here we go.” But we could never get to that place.
So, my question to Juliet was, “What should I do? How can I get to this place? What should I do?” And the answer, oh, I remember it said, “Sometimes love arising out of long friendships is the best kind of love.” Which I took to heart. It said, “Maybe take her to a restaurant, you know what she likes.” And I remember the exact line. “You should confess her your love.” And I know that that English is slightly broken, not quite right, because that would have been one of the Italian secretaries who wrote that. At any rate, the short version of that is, I had this plan that I was going to show her the answer. Not just act on it, but show her the answer, because I thought she would think that was really romantic. But before I could do that, I found out she was pregnant, and it wasn't me.
BOGAEV: Well, I mean, this is just what is so astounding, again. And paralleling the theme of miscommunication in Romeo and Juliet. And speaking as someone who's not answered a bunch of letters about love, but as a woman, if you had confessed your amazing love to me, even as my best friend many times throughout our friendship, something might have happened. Things tend to happen when you communicate forcefully.
DIXON: Mhm. And so, you're right. It's just like Romeo and Juliet. It was terrible timing, it was star-crossed, if you want to call it that. But it was certainly a disaster.
BOGAEV: You know what's really fascinating to me about this story of your personal unrequited love, it seems to really mirror some of these themes of Romeo and Juliet. For instance, you were clinging to this very romantic ideal of eternal love. That love endures, no matter what, and she'll come around. But at the same time, you had a really bad record of communication and timing with this friend of yours. And timing and miscommunication, that is Romeo and Juliet.
DIXON: Yeah. Romeo and Juliet is all about timing. And of course they talk about the star-crossed lovers, which means that fate, that they are fated to die. That's right in the Prologue. I used to tell my students that, and they'd say “Oh, come on, you're wrecking the ending already.” But in fact, that is the point.
BOGAEV: And what came from that? And you ended up going back to Verona?
DIXON: Yeah. Then I quit teaching, I decided I was gonna go back to Verona, because I wasn't through with Juliet yet. And it changed my entire life.
BOGAEV: So, you quit teaching because of this experience? Because of your personal life?
DIXON: I only wanted to be a writer. I've always just wanted to be a writer. And being a teacher, I mean, that was a great thing, being able to be an English teacher and stand in front of students and talk about the books you love. But that wasn't being a writer. So, I think at that kind of crisis point in my life— good things can come out of crisis— so, that's the point at which I had to give my head a shake and say “Glenn, what are you really doing here? Do you want to be a writer or not?” And that's the point at which also, I decided I have to write about my personal life as well. As painful as this is going to be, but this has become part of the story. One thing I always say is that at about that point, I wasn't writing the book any more, the book was writing me.
BOGAEV: So, you go back to Verona, and this is where the person who seems to be the true love of your life just enters, stage right. Tell us about that decision to go back and answer love letters again.
DIXON: Okay. Well, this is the amazing part of the story. This is maybe where the star-crossed comes in. But I had a friend in Canada, her name was Desiree. And she had lived in Italy for eight years. And I didn't see her very often, in fact, I borrowed a book from her on learning Italian, which I was never really very successful at. She was fluent in Italian. And in fact, before my second visit to Verona, she came over because I was going to give her that book back, and… all this stuff about Claire, is the figure that I call her in the book, who got pregnant. This had just happened, and I was despondent and distraught. And I told Desiree this, just because I needed to talk to somebody. And Desiree sat down, and I'll never forget this, and she told me her story. And she had lived in Italy for eight years, had married an Italian guy, which I didn't know. And it had all gone horribly wrong. And she had thought that she could never go back to Italy again. And you have to understand that she'd loved Italy. She loved the Italian language. She told me once she just wanted to be Italian, not just to go to Italy, but she wanted to be Italian. And that was all taken away from her. I didn't know any of this. And at that point, I had already thought that I'm going back to Verona. And so, I asked her, maybe you should come to Verona and answer some letters. And she did.
BOGAEV: That is really beautiful. You both met each other when you had suffered these tragedies in your love life. And then you were together in this incredibly romantic place.
DIXON: Yeah. It didn't take long, I guess I could tell you that.
BOGAEV: I mean, maybe somewhere in the back of your mind that was going on. Do you think you were unaware?
DIXON: Oh, yeah, definitely I was unaware. I had gone there first and then she arrived later. But Desiree's fluent in Italian. So, the secretaries like Giovanna and Manuela and Anna, and some of the people I had mentioned, their English is very good. But it's still not the same as being able to speak in your first language. So, when she came and could just talk away in this beautiful, beautiful Italian language, all these doors opened up. Like, metaphorically, and literally, that now we were invited over for dinner at these people's place. And now we were, welcome and we'll show you the fields of Valpolicella, outside of Verona. And all these things, there was just so much more. And so much more warmth and inclusion and advice. It changed everything.
BOGAEV: It's almost as if you were going home.
DIXON: Yeah. And for her, I think it was going home.
BOGAEV: So, I was thinking there are a few morals to this story. But I'm curious what you think the moral is.
DIXON: I think it's taking a good hard look at yourself, and saying, “Well, maybe I was doing something wrong.” And then facing up to that and trying to fix it.
BOGAEV: Which I guess is what everyone who's writing these letters to Juliet is trying to do in some way.
DIXON: Yeah, in a sense, I think that's true. I think it's an important thing for people, that's something that Giovanna would always say, is that's the important thing is the act of them writing the letter. Not so much our answer.
BOGAEV: In the book, you do talk a lot about fate. Both in the context of Romeo and Juliet with your students, and you generally say, “Look, I don't really believe in fate.” But how has this experience shaped or affected how you think about that?
DIXON: There's one of my favorite lines in Romeo and Juliet is when Romeo, all hell is breaking loose, and he says, "Then I defy you, stars." And that's the point at which he undertakes this plan. It all goes horribly wrong, of course. But still, he's fighting against his fate. Amazing things happened to me, but on the other hand it's because I chose to go back to Verona and go on with this and do something more. And I tell my students that, and they're quite interested in that as well. They are very interested about what's fate, and what can I do. And I am still kind of—maybe it's a male version, I'm not sure— but I'm still of the view that you know, there's lots of things that are going to happen to us in life, but it's how you react to them. It's still your own choice. And I chose to go back to Verona. And I chose to have some more to do with Juliet, because I thought I didn't get the right answer. And in the end, I did get the right answer.
BOGAEV: Well, bringing this back to Shakespeare then, do you think differently about Romeo and Juliet after this whole experience?
DIXON: I have come to believe that it could have been a real story, that's certainly true. I think as a writer, I've always looked to Shakespeare, not just for the language, although he's the master of language, of course. But it's for the structure of a story, for the building of characters, the philosophy, and depth of thought that goes into these things. So, every time—I taught Romeo and Juliet many, many, many times—and every time there was something new in there, it was like some little line. Maybe I didn't even draw it to the students' attention, but it was for me. That I would see a little line and go “Whoa, I never noticed that before.” And that means that, you know, it shines a different light on an earlier scene or something like that. There's just such richness and depth to it. So, as a writer, I think I couldn't have written this book without knowing Shakespeare really well.
BOGAEV: Well, thank you so much, I hope we didn't tell too much of your story, but I loved what you did tell. And I really enjoyed the book. Thanks again.
DIXON: Ah, thank you.
WITMORE: Glenn Dixon is the author of the memoir Juliet's Answer, published by Simon and Schuster in 2017. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev. By the way, if Glenn's story has tempted you to write a letter to Juliet, here's the address: The Juliet Club. 29 Corso Santa Anastasia (that's 29 Corso Santa Anastasia), Verona, Italy, 37121. And good luck.
“Any Man That Can Write May Answer A Letter” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Jeff Muller at Alchemy Studios in Calgary, Alberta, and Jake Gorski and Jeff Peters at the Marketplace Studios in Los Angeles.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world's largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I'm Folger Director Michael Witmore.