Juliet’s Balcony: or, Artistic License

I knew a Sicilian once. Mad as a hatter.

But he did have a castle, and also an enormous nose.

His sense of theatre was perfect. He had easy comic timing teamed with a taste for danger which tended to take one unawares. We- a household of university students- called him Lobbo.

One day he bought a real-life machete. He was not the sort of person to use a machete but he did love brandishing it with fairly wild theatre. He spent hours working out how to get it through customs and back to his home.

Ah yes: his home. We were all huddled round the communal television in the kitchen one day, watching Inspector Morse, when there was a  chase scene where the murderer ran up a palatial flight of stone stairs. Lobbo piped up: “That’s just like the one we have at home.”

I do not know, to this day, whether Lobbo really did live in a Sicilian castle. But I like to think he did, and that he was one of some dynasty of institutionalised Sicilian crooks who loved machetes and wore immaculate suits.

There is a Monty Python sketch, a game show called “Stake Your Claim’. John Cleese interviews various people and the point of the game is to discredit their tall tales.

The first contestant is Mr Norman Voles of Gravesend. His claim is that he wrote all Shakespeare’s plays, and his wife wrote all his sonnets.

To which Cleese responds: “Mr Voles, these plays are known to have been performed in the early 17th century. How old are you, Mr Voles?”

“Forty three,” responds Voles, cheerfully.

“Then how is it possible for you to have written plays performed over 300 years before you were born?”

“Ah,” responds a sanguine Voles, “This is where my claim falls to the ground.”

There is a small but stubborn contingent who insist that William Shakespeare was not actually William Shakespeare, but Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza.

The smouldering Sicilian suspicion was published in Shakespeare Era Italiano (2002), written by a retired Sicilian professor, Martino Iuvara.

His claims are many and lavish. Crollalanza, it seems, means Shakespeare in Sicilian: his family fled the Inquisition and came to London. Crollalanza was taught the classics by monks; and in a final flamboyant Sicilian twist, on his travels in Europe he met and fell in love with a 16-year-old girl named Giulietta. The families opposed the liaison, runs the tale, and Giulietta committed suicide.

Outrageous. But there it is, in black and white, and talk to residents of Messina as the BBC did for a recent documentary, and you will find many of them most solemnly swearing Shakespeare was born there. Otherwise, how could he know so much about them?

How indeed? The academics have long puzzled over the issue of whether Shakespeare travelled to Italy. Anyone who looks at La Casa Di Giulietta in Verona would find it hard to believe he had not been there.

We have all, in our minds eye, seen the balcony with a fresh faced beautiful young girl talking to her lover below. Who would think it stands in Verona to this very day?

Yet there is just such a house with just such a balcony. Enchanting, pale Renaissance brick and plaster casa, once owned by the Del Capello family; a name so winsomely close to Capulet.

For me, it was love at first sight.

Yet, as with my friend Lobbo, and Mr Normal Voles, it pays to scratch beneath the surface of a lovely story. For while the house is most centainly 13th century, the balcony was added in a restoration carried out in the 1930s.

Was this Juliet’s house? Was Shakespeare there, once upon a time?

There is nothing like an artful smokescreen, hung with impeccable taste, to make such myths sparkle.

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56 thoughts on “Juliet’s Balcony: or, Artistic License

  1. One day you will write the definitive :”Who really wrote all that stuff attributed to Shakespeare”, it will be a worldwide best seller, even among those who never heard of the chap, let alone could read English.

    Meanwhile, let us sit with a glass of wine and listen to the tall stories, without challenging them, until forced to do so by uncontrollable giggling

  2. Kate, never mind trying to become famous…look what’s happening to the poor ol’ Bard himself!
    There’s a wee prezzie waiting for you at my not-so-famous blog. The item is well deserved, but you are free to respond however suits your fancy.

    1. Yup, you’re right, IE: there is a whole culture surrounding Shakespeare when his words can, an o, speak for themselves. These days we are not content with not knowing…

  3. I always think people miss the point about Shakespeare – it’s the words that matter; not the author.

    Speaking of words – fabulous hook today, Kate.

  4. What a wonderfully written piece! Loved how much you managed to touch on while keeping the whole concise and to the point. Verona, like so many Italian cities, is ravishing, absorbing, atmospheric, evocative. The idea of Juliet’s balcony still existing is such a beautiful concept, “So beautiful it must be true!” as Ellie may have exclaimed in ‘The Water-Babies’, but the reality is tawdry, blemished, all sensibility bleached out by the crowds and the ephemeral graffitti. And of course historically it’s not true.

    Don’t remember the Python sketch, but it is so typical!

    Used to teach kids of Sicilian and Neapolitan immigrants, and when I showed videos of operas I used to encourage reluctant students by suggesting operas like ‘Carmen’ were all about sex and violence; that woke them up. The Italian kids feigned indifference to ‘Tosca’, but privately they enjoyed it very much, especially loving the language and the settings. I don’t know if the sex and the violence rang a bell though…

    1. 😀 Chris, what a wonderful comment, full of enrichment for today’s thread. Sicilians, sex and violence: they go together like a horse and carriage. I particularly love that born teacher’s instinct that tells you they loved Tosca, despite the smokescreen they threw up for you. And the water babies quote! It belonged in this post, and I had forgotten all about it. It makes me want to read The Water Babies all over again. Thank you!

  5. Love the tale, always a fun read to follow your mind’s twist and turns.

    Macbeth:
    To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
    To the last syllable of recorded time;
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
    And then is heard no more. It is a tale

    1. I always think it depicts life as it was at the time, Lou. It must have been hard work in Shakespeare’s time. A walking shadow: who could say it better? No wonder the church was such an institution, at the centre of every community.Beautiful words.

  6. My vision of Shakespeare was fixed when I read Erica Jong’s Serenissima when I was arguably far too young to do so.

    And your opening line was very Morgenstern… er Goldman. I like to think you were all right about your Sicilian.

    1. Me too, Cameron. Serenissima: whilst academics pooh-pooh the idea that Shakespeare travelled they cannot rule it out, I believe; it is possible that he went in the entourage of someone more powerful. And that knowledge of Italy is indisputable. As for Serenissima herself: what better way to totally possess the plays of Shakespeare than to possess the man himself? It’s every literary woman’s fantasy….
      Thank you for the Goldman/Morgenstern compliment 🙂 Made my day, that did!

  7. I suspect – and this may be heretical – that Shakespeare is somewhat like the Bible. Lots of people wrote it. If actors were anything like they are today, lots more people revised it to approximate what real people would actually say. Somewhere along the way, it became Gospel, and nobody can change the words today. And, that’s hard. I’ve done some Shakespeare on the stage. I’ve never worked so hard to learn lines in my life, because if I go up, there’s no ad-libbing. 🙂

    1. Indeed: the scrutiny is detailed and merciless, Andra….interesting, your feeling that many influences were brought to bear on Shakespeare’s works.
      Acting Shakspeare: one of the great pleasures of life…

      1. Yep more-ish, can’t eat enough…. and if you throw in some Moorish-ness from Iberia you have Shakespearean smoke’n screen at it’s best.

  8. Bravo! Who cares if the balcony is original. Not I. Romeo & Juliet was my first Shakespeare, read aloud in English LIt. The same teacher took us to the Civic Opera House for a matinee of my very first opera. Carmen. What it had to do with English LIt was beyond me, but, I didn’t care one whit, so entranced was I.

    Again, Kate, Bravo.

  9. Dear Kate, thanks for the link to the Monty Python skit. I laughed out loud and whispered that I could have seen more of them, but I didn’t learn about the program for many years after it had ceased being on the BBC. As to tall tales, bring ’em on. I delight in hearing them for the wit and the simple joy that seems to inform so many of them. And if Shakespeare isn’t the one who wrote the plays, I really just don’t care because whoever wrote them was a creative genius and “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”!

      1. Dear Kate, thank you a bushel and a heap! That Monty Python skit with the cat who needed to be confused was a wonderful. Once again I laughed out loud. Whoever wrote the skit understood cats and also nonsense! Thank you for the link. Peace.

  10. You really had me on the edge of my seat there for a minute, Kate, and then you got to the 1930 add-on and I could relax! I assume there will always be questions about poor Will’s authenticity, but I must admit I haven’t really followed the stories that accompany the skepticism. This was a fun read for me…you filled in some very big gaps in what I know (or don’t). 🙂 Debra

  11. I like how history progresses, Kate, with a little flourish added here and a tiny part dropped from there… my takes on historical events have more flourish than drops, but there is always something of the truth in there. It’s just seeing the truth which causes a bit of a problem. I used to work with a descendent of Shakespeare in Birmingham a few years ago. Well, it was either Shakespeare or Charles Darwin… or both. Now, Sicilian ? I don’t know…

  12. With half of the plays set in Italy, a stiff upper lip Englishman could never have written such emotional, histrionic, lavish, romantic prose. Shakespeare was indeed an Italian. Don’t let embarrassing hidden knowledge be offensive. Instead, learn some humility and learn to live with it.

    1. Oooh, I don’t know, though, Rick. Being married to a histrionic, lavish, romantic Englishman, a journalist with a fabulous way with words, I’d have to say they’re perfectly capable of portraying the same shades of meaning as the Bard himself…

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