According to historians, William Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet some time between 1591 and 1595, and it was first published in a quarto (a book or pamphlet) in 1597. One of the play’s most iconic moments occurs in Act II, Scene 2, and has universally become known as “the balcony scene.” Except nowhere in Shakespeare’s play is the word balcony ever mentioned, and there’s a very good reason for that: according to Merriam-Webster, the earliest known usage of the term, originally spelled balcone, didn’t occur until 1618—more than 20 years after Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet.
According to the play itself, the scene takes place at Capulet’s Orchard when “Juliet appears above at a window.” In fact, the entire scene unfurls at that window, not on, beside, or anywhere near a balcony. In other words: the balcony is a flat-out lie—a mistake that has been repeated enough times to become Shakespeare canon. So much so that Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet—which has become required viewing in schools across America—features that famed, albeit imagined, balcony. (Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version instead had Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio talking by a pool—and falling in.)
While the etymology of the word—“Italian balcone, from Old Italian, large window, of Germanic origin; akin to Old High German balko beam”—suggests that the word window could have originally been used to describe what we now know as a balcony, Shakespeare died in 1616, so he wouldn’t have become familiar with the word during his lifetime.
Still, whether or not there ever was a balcony—or even a Romeo or Juliet—doesn’t seem to matter to even the Bard’s most persnickety fans.
In Verona, Italy—a place Shakespeare supposedly never even visited—an early 20th century home added a balcony and dubbed it “Juliet’s Balcony.” The balcony is attached to a home that once belonged to a family with the last name Capello (close enough) and is now known as Casa di Giulietta, a.k.a. Juliet’s House. It is one of Verona’s most popular tourist attractions, particularly with honeymooners, and visitors were long encouraged to leave letters to Juliet in the cracks of the wall beneath the balcony with the hope that Juliet would cast a spell of eternal love on them in exchange. (Though if you plan to leave a Post-it or affix your letter with a piece of chewing gum, which was for a long time the most popular method, don’t be surprised to leave Juliet’s house with a $500 fine as a souvenir.)
“Verona earns a fortune from the legend of Romeo and Juliet, despite the fact that there is little evidence that the couple ever existed,” wrote The Telegraph. “Historians say there is almost nothing to link the house to Shakespeare’s tragic love story and that the celebrated balcony was constructed out of bits of a medieval sarcophagus in the 17th century.”
Much like “the balcony scene,” the balcony at Juliet’s House is all just part of one big misunderstanding.
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