In present paper I’m going to compare two works of art: “Romeo and Juliet” – tragedy written by William Shakespeare, and “Romeo + Juliet” – film adaptation of Shakespeare’s play by Baz Luhrmann (1996). I’ve enjoyed them both and have gotten my own perception of two interpretations of Shakespeare’s masterpiece that I’m going to present here.
“Romeo and Juliet” is probably the most well-known play of William Shakespeare. It’s an amazing tragic love story, full of action and inevitably arousing strong emotions in a reader. In addition to being a masterpiece of dramatic literature, it has become a classic love tragedy with Romeo and Juliet becoming archetypical young lovers. The actual story is believed to be borrowed by Shakespeare from Italian tale dating back to antiquity and consequently interpreted by a number of other authors. Shakespeare significantly developed the plot, making more focus on supportive characters.
The story tells about the tragic love of two youngsters coming from two feuding clans. The young people go through every kind of trial on the way to reunification and in the pursuit of common happiness. Supported by Juliet’s Nurse and Friar Lawrence, Romeo’s spiritual director, they arrange wedding ceremony, and even manage to spend a night together as a married couple. Eventually, they get separated again: Romeo is banished from Verona for the murder of Tybalt on whom he has taken revenge for the assassination of Mercutio, Romeo’s best friend. While Juliet is being forced to become Paris’ fiancée by the will of her parents, and Romeo is lying in hiding in Mantua, Friar Lawrence arranges a plan of Juliet’s escape from Verona by drinking a liquor that will put her into the state similar to death. Yet Romeo, being misled by tragic news of Juliet’s death does not wait till finding the truth out, he mourns her death so desperately that eventually poisons himself at Juliet’s tomb, previously killing her unwanted suitor Paris.
Consequently, when Juliet wakes up from sleep after being unconscious for about 42 hours, she discovers dead Romeo by her side, and stabs herself with the help of Romeo’s dagger in despair. All three dead bodies are discovered then by both Juliet’s and Romeo’s relatives and the Prince, and as a result, Capulet and Montague make peace and pledge to never fight again.
It is hard to say what version of the story I like more. I prefer the play from the aesthetic point of view, – I love the language and the image of ancient Italy, Verona in particular, that serves as a background for tragic events. Yet I prefer the film from the romantic point of view, since I believe the actors look amazingly realistic demonstrating the emotions that Shakespeare laid as the foundation of his narrative.
The movie version of Romeo and Juliet story follows both the plot and the text of the play. That is what really great about the film for it doesn’t conform to the overall tendency to distort and ad details to the original version of the work of literature being adapted for the screen.
The movie is amazing, but not necessarily in a positive way. The action takes place in modern US town Verona-Beach. Two families of the nobility are turned into Mafia clans, swords being turned into guns. Representatives of hostile clans now look more like skinheads, hooligans and Italian Mafioso, obviously abusing drugs and alcohol. However, they still speak like Shakespeare’s characters do, saying rhymed lines and elevated phrases with the most natural expression possible in the provided context. The shocking contrast between sophisticated language and the appearance of bandits that the speakers have somehow makes the movie unbelievably gripping. The fact is I has been extremely curious through the whole of the film how would they perform that or this scene, because the interpretation proposed in movie is really unusual. I also loved the actors’ performance. I believe they personified the characters in the most successful way possible. They looked natural which is truly important, and intrigued me with the power of feelings that seemed surprisingly sincere. What I didn’t like was the background presented by the director. It’s not only about the modern interpretation; it’s more about the details which I believe where out of place. All the characters except but Romeo and Juliet are too eccentric in my opinion. In some scenes they are unnaturally bizarre which makes the whole plot look unrealistic. Still, I believe that the film excel the play in the expression of romantic context and emotional richness of the love between two young people. The mutual tenderness, affection and sexual attraction that they feel to each other are illustrated with a great power and vividness due to the contrast that the dismal and hostile environment provides. Leonardo Dicaprio and Claire Danes are really gorgeous and wonderfully young.
Comparing the two versions I’ve discovered for myself that they seem more to complement than to contradict one another. From the very beginning of the first scene in both play and movie it is obvious that the enmity between two families is rather absurd. Referring to “two households, both alike in dignity” (The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet 1.1), Shakespeare doesn’t really mean the representatives of the clans to have any dignity at all. And if the play seems to disguise the ridiculousness of those young men being provocatively hostile, the movie illustrates their selfishness, arrogance, offensive treatment to other people with the shocking vividness. Those guys are obviously looking for a fight, they simply look like people begging to get into trouble. The movie version emphasizes this feature of the rivalry.
Romeo is not involved in the first fight, as well as he’s evidently trying to avoid any involvement in any of those brawls. He’s fully absorbed in his lover’s worshipping, being in love with some Rosaline, whom we never actually meet. The fact of Romeo’s being in love with another girl when so abruptly falling in love with Juliet is absolutely disgraceful. At the very beginning of both play and movie we find him being tormented by the tortures of unrequited love, he seems to be desperate and behave as someone experiencing the greatest shock in life. However, very soon we find him suffering from similar symptoms but now caused by passion to another girl. When reading the play the whole situation doesn’t seem that ridiculous since we can attribute oddness of Romeo’s behavior to the specific character of those time relationship between men and women. However, when we observe the same behavior in the modern context, it strikes by the obvious superficiality of Romeo’s romantic feeling. If it were not for a suicide he committed at the end driven to despair by the news of Juliet’s death, I would think he never actually loved any of his objects of passion.
From the very moment when Romeo and Juliet meet till their very death, the movie provides much more physical contacts between young people than the play does. They kiss passionately when meeting at the ball that takes place at Capulet’s mansion, they go much further during the scene in the Capulet’s orchard, while the famous scene by the balcony in the play does only mention the conversation they have, no hugging and kissing at all. I believe that’s a tribute paid by movie-makers to the present time. It emphasizes the sexuality of their sudden passion that in my opinion can be interpreted as the strongest drive that connected those two. It’s obvious that true love cannot come into being with such rapidness. Whether they are star-crossed lovers or not is a question, yet the seriousness and depth of their feeling is under a serious doubt as for me. Can Romeo’s feelings be trusted? Both lovers are completely inexperienced and obviously unable to judge own case. They are confused, unable to think over the problem and to resolve the conflict reasonably. After all, they both are just too young to take responsibilities even for own decisions. Friar Lawrence words seem to be some kind of prediction whose true sense is not realized till the very end of the play:
“These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume: the sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite:
Therefore love moderately; long love doth so;
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow” (The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet 2.5.9).
Through the whole of the story Romeo goes through certain transportation. It can be summed up by the decisions he make, – the three decisions ending with Tybalt’s murder. At first, Romeo is determined not to get involved in the argument between representatives of two households. Then he decides to stop the conflict and to call the rivals to peace. Finally, he ends up killing Tybalt avenging own best friend. Eventually, he kills himself and provokes Juliet’s suicide. His choices have led him in wrong direction, his constant haste and lack of thoughtfulness resulting into blood shedding.
Shakespeare presents society as an uncontrollable force. Once again, this point is illustrated more vividly in the movie. Even though the author depicts Italian town in the play, I believe he is still referring to the one society he used to live in – The London society. The author’s background actually influences a lot of plot details. It’s not for nothing that the failure of lovers’ reunification plan is due to the plague, even though indirectly. Plague was Shakespeare’s present time’s everyday reality. As far as I know, theatres happened to be closed because of the epidemic of plague in London. Many of playwright’s relatives and acquaintances died of plague. A somber and deadly essence of the disease plays a significant role in the tragedy’s finale. And yet, it’s not in the movie, which somehow alienate movie plot from Shakespeare’s original intent, depriving film adaptation of some meaningful details.
I believe that Romeo is represented in some way by each character in the story. Tybalt is an embodiment of anger, male aggression and readiness to kill. Mircutio is endowed with playful, artistic and talented personality. He’s full of charm in the play, though he obviously lacks charm in the movie. Juliet represents Romeo’s lover’s side, his tenderness, passion and readiness to love. Romeo has a many-sided personality. He embodies all those qualities remaining perfectly natural in all his upsurges of romantic passion, noble impulses, fits of temper, all occurring on the spur of the moment. He’s considered to be a really good fellow, treated with some kind of liking even by his enemies. He is a charming young man, beautiful and full of good human qualities. And his untimely death is a great pity indeed, especially when performed by Dicaprio.
Juliet is charming as well. In my opinion, while the play makes more emphasis on her natural beauty that fascinated Romeo for less than a moment, the movie Juliet is more about charm, charisma and magnetizing innocence. In the movie she is cute and fascinating indeed, but not gorgeously beautiful as I believed her to be after original version reading. Her particular charm is also due to her loneliness. She has very formal relationship with her parents, her mother doesn’t seem to know her at all. There is no affection between them that daughter and mother usually have. Her father doesn’t seem to be fond of her as well. They only seem to care about her marriage. What is really disgusting is how they put pressure on her all the time without a single attempt to be supportive or loving. Her Nurse is also a kind of person she cannot be fully open with. The Nurse has a primitive personality, rather rough in fact. No doubt she also has a kind and loving nature, but can such a tender child as Juliet be absolutely frank with someone rather vulgar and dull? I guess not. And that is why Juliet is so lonely and so precipitate in her decisions. There is no truly authoritative opinion that could influence her resolutions, she has no one to rely on, thus her decisions are irrational and are barely based on anything but emotions.
Both Juliet and Romeo put trust in Friar Lawrence’s opinion. Eventually, his actions turn out to have fatal consequences. His help has only pushed two lovers to the grave. Instead of trying to bring those to mere children to reason, he attempts to make use of their love affair in pursuit of peace between two feuding families which would also bring peace to the town’s social life. The movie Friar Lawrence is nice, but not very considerate, he doesn’t act wisely indulging lovers’ haste. Should he really marry them off? Was it a reasonable decision? Most of his recommendations appear to be bad ones. And there is a certain portion of guilt for the tragic fortune of two teenagers that is his. Probably Shakespeare makes an allusion to the role of religion in society, and uses his ways of highlighting the fact that advices of church should not always be trusted.
One of the most interesting moments in both play and movie is Mercutio’s speaking his monologue about Queen Mab, which takes place in the fourth scene when we meet Romeo’s best friend for the first time (The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet 1.4.53). Young man’s speech is very unusual and very mysterious. In the movie interpretation Mercutio is referring to drugs, ecstasy in particular, when talking about “fairies’ midwife” that “comes in shape no bigger than an agate-stone”. It is unclear what Shakespeare truly meant by this piece of text, but I am declined to accept the idea of his pondering on the issue of “idle brain”.
One of the central ideas of the play, which is though being vague and not distinct I believe to be the most important one, is the danger that the idleness of human mind can cause. What are groundless quarrels, hostile aggressiveness and obsessive love, if not the results of the exercises of idle brain? What is presented in movie as a drug effect was probably meant to represent the lack of reasonable thinking aimed at useful activities. There is a strong enmity between two family clans, hostility that has eventually ruined many people’s lives, and yet there is not even a single hint of what the initial reason of conflict is. There is no explanation of the quarrel at all. All we can see is a dull confrontation of two groups of people, represented mostly by stupid aggressive boys, behaving arrogantly and cockily. The true conflict is aroused by those who lack maturity even to think for themselves. Their boyishness affects every aspect of life they lead. Isn’t Romeo’s being a devoted fan of courtly love due to the similar childishness? I believe, and that what Shakespeare is probably making focus on, that if it were not for immaturity being indulged by everyone in the play, the finale of the story could have been different. And even if Romeo and Juliet were not supposed to live happily together, they could at least stay alive and build separate lives none the less happy. Because what can be ‘for sure’ when you are fourteen?
In my opinion, no matter how many hypothesis and speculation about the famous tragedy are suggested, it will always remain something partially out of understanding and partially very personal for each reader. In addition to being a socially and philosophically meaningful work of art, it will always maintain its reputation of a great love story. And it is great indeed “for never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo”.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Yale University Press. Richard Hosley. New Haven, CT, 1954.