Juliet: Returneth to Sender

Of the four preteen/teen girls who’ve come asking me for the book, Letters to Juliet, none have bought it. Some have even insisted, this can’t be the book. Well, it is.

It’s just not the movie. Instead it’s a history of the whole Juliet letter tradition, misleading movie-poster cover notwithstanding. I’m guessing it’s the same as expecting the He’s Just Not That Into You to be a comic-romance novel (which thank God no one has done, to my knowledge).

But let’s talk about this letter thing. To a point, I think I understand the letter-writing phenomena that includes attempted postal correspondence with God. Even by post-Santa Claus adults. They’re like journal entries directed at some imagined reader who could theoretically do or say something useful, and a lot of us have written these letters at least as a kind of therapeutic writing exercise. Some people just like to empower the illusion by actually mailing the things.

This is no excuse for the Juliet phenomenon, no goddamn way. Those participating in it have either never actually read/seen the Shakespeare play or have misunderstood it horribly.

So what I’m getting here is, you’re having trouble with romance, and you’ve decided to solicit the sage wisdom of

  • A thirteen-year-old girl
  • Who has only been in love once
  • Which only lasted several days
  • And she killed herself as a result of it.

Are people writing letters to Peter Pan for advice on male puberty? Tarzan on etiquette? Oh, I know, if I want to learn about the liberating power of forgiveness, I’ll ask Captain Ahab!

Here’s why this particularly bothers me:

I Like Romeo and Juliet

But for completely different reasons than most people do.

It’s not because I think it’s great, it’s because I think it’s odd. The entire first half is comedy, and (after Mercutio dies) the entire second half is tragedy. And this is one of the Bard’s plays where he’s got the gears and cogs of irony working behind and above the stage. The eponymous couple is by no means to be taken completely seriously, let alone as an example of wise and sincere love.

(But of course, the poetry is wonderful.)

Maybe you hate Romeo and Juliet, and you think this is a weird way to defend it. What I’m saying is I only liked R&J once I stopped taking its plot and characters at face value, and it became ten times more interesting (same with Henry V).

Here’s the problem: too many of us think of R&J as an indictment of those callous feuding grown-ups–which is natural because we were in high school, most of us, when we first read it. The meditation on eros as a force of nature that drives hyper-hormonal adolescents to do disastrous things, among other themes, fell secondary to that in our minds. Most everybody’s first exposure to Shakespeare is Romeo and Juliet because it’s the most readily relatable to young teens. But they take it at face value, not knowing what else to do with it.

So it’s no surprise that most of the Juliet letter-writers are American. That Romeo and Juliet have become defining figures for us on romance says a lot. None of it good.

Nevertheless this whole Juliet letter business has given me an idea: I will gather a willing cadre of friends, and we too will form a volunteer group. All writing as Achilles, we will answer anyone’s and everyone’s questions on anger management.

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One thought on “Juliet: Returneth to Sender

  1. I could never put my finger on how I felt about Romeo and Juliet but you explained it perfectly by simply saying it’d odd. And you do a great job of showing how our reading this play as teenagers influences our initial impressions of it and perhaps our memories of it. I didn’t know that people write letters to Juliet and they are answered – to me that is pretty hilarious, especially when you bullet out exactly who they are writing to. Great post!

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