By Sara Brannen
"Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
a pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.
The fearful passage of their death-marked love,
And the continuance of their parents' rage
Which, but their children's end, naught could remove,
Is now the two hours' traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend."
Romeo and Juliet. When those names are spoken or the opening chorus of the play is quoted most people know thestory. "It was written by Shakespeare and is a tragic love story" is what most people think or say about it and it is that and so much more. Many plays, movies, and classes have centered around what some literary critics feel is one of Shakespeare's "mediocre" yet to ordinary people it is a wonderful and moving piece of literature.
Baz Luhrmann, a well known Hollywood producer, director, and writer decided in 1996 to put his unique touch on a modern movie theater version of this beloved play. Lurhmann is famous for Strictly Ballroom (1992), Romeo and Juliet (1996), and later successes Moulin Rouge (2001), and in December 2002, and the revival of his version of La Boheme. He recently released what he calls his "Red Curtain Trilogy" with Strictly Ballroom, Romeo and Juliet, and Moulin Rouge as his trilogy, showcasing his unique and entertaining look at life and film. At the time he cast two relatively unknown performers, Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio, as his "star-crossed lovers". Lurhmann's unique adaptation of the play is memorable for its humor, symbolism, allusions, freshness and originality. The Shakespearean language, basic plot, and characters are kept but the setting is modern. Instead of the family colors and clothing of medieval Verona, the families are set apart by colorful Hawaiian shirts; guns with brand names such as Swords and Daggers replace medieval swords, and cars replace horses in modern Verona Beach. The setting is similar to modern day Florida with ocean, sand, tourists, palm trees, and at some times unbearable heat.
This allows many to better relate to the story in contemporary guise. The movie is filled with vibrant colors and loud, modern, and mostly hard rock music as background sound that adds a more modern twist.
The movie version, however, does try to make the plot more humorous than the original play. For example, during the famous balcony scene, Romeo sneaks into the Capulets garden to find Juliet. After letting Juliet know that he is there, he engages her in an embrace in which they fall in a pool after Juliet futilely tries to hide him from guards andsecurity cameras. Shakespeare obviously didn't include the pool but it adds to the more sexual images we as a society are exposed to today.
Although in this day and time, a story like Romeo and Juliet seems less likely to occur, women and men alike still find it utterly romantic and entertaining,. not surprisingly, since as children we are entertained with fairy tales full of love and happily ever after. In such fables, true love always triumphs and the idea of dying for love is prevalent. A lot of people enjoy Romeo and Juliet because they can imagine they would literally die for love. At least philosophically, many people embrace the idea of dying for love and hope that one day they will love someone enough to die for them. Certainly the phrase "to die for" has become part of modern language.
There were also changes to the ethnicity of the cast. Due to changing times and more racial equality. Baz Lurhmann's Romeo and Juliet features a black Mercutio and Capt. Prince and Hispanic Capulets. However there never is a time in the movie when ethnicities are the factor for violence, just names and whom you associate with.
Another change in this movie version is the way Romeo and Juliet meet or at least see each other for the first time. Oddly enough they see each other through a fish tank that separates the men and women's bathrooms in the Capulet mansion during a costume party. The scene is shot with a blue tint while bright neon yellow fish swim and a mournful love song can be heard. In Lurhmann's movie water and the pool symbolize Romeo and Juliet at the most crucial moments in their love affair. They express their love for each other in the pool; after Romeo is banished, Juliet looks down at him in the pool and sees him and is shocked by her thoughts ,"O God I have an ill divining soul. Me thinks me see thee now though art so low as one dead in the bottom of a tomb. O fortune, fortune be fickle fortune for then I hope thou do not keep him long but send him back." The last time you see Romeo and Juliet together in the movie is during a clip of the pool scene. The movie is also filled with many more modern sexual images than Shakespeare's play. Although Shakespeare filled his plays with sexual innuendoes and unique puns, much used in the Nurse's character, the Lurhmann movie updates and modernizes this in surprising ways. This includes Romeo and Juliet kissing in an elevator before they even know each other's names.
There is one very important part of the movie that is in stark contrast with the play. In the infamous death scene, instead of a dark, dank family tomb filled with deceased relatives of the Capulets, Juliet is placed in beautiful St. Peter's Church surrounded by hundreds of lit candles and flowers. This is obviously a more romantic death scene. As Romeo in agony is announcing his intent to die and lovingly places her wedding ring on her finger she begins to wake, and the audience even sees her fingers twitch. Suspense builds as he opens the poison, Juliet opens her eyes and sees him, causing modern audiences to scream with frustration as he swallows the poison and she touches his cheek. Unlike Shakespeare's Juliet who awakens to find both Romeo and his rival Paris dead, Baz Lurhmann's Juliet awakens to hold a poisoned Romeo who dies in her arms. No friar comes to console her and tell her that life can still go on.
There is one aspect of the play though, that is definitely more romantic than the movie. In the original play, Juliet, after finding no poison in the bottle, grabs a knife and kills herself. In the movie even the suspense of her death is prolonged. As one last tear runs down Romeo's face and we hear his whispered "With a kiss I die," the audience feels the mounting grief and surprise Juliet is experiencing. Juliet's cries are all that is heard until she finds Romeo's gun and is quiet for a moment. The silence is broken by the sound of the hammer clicking on the gun and then shattered by the sound of a gun shot and we see an aerial view of Romeo and Juliet covered in blood but surrounded by the beauty of the church. Though the audience is familiar with the outcome of the play, seeing Juliet's blood cover both of them in a church where less then a week ago they were married is still shocking. Piercing your heart with a knife could be considered more romantically "theatrical". Shooting yourself in the head is too grimly modern.
One character that had a minor but crucial part in Shakespeare's version is Juliet's betrothed, Count Paris, a noble gentleman who loves her and after her death goes to her tomb to grieve. When he sees Romeo there, Paris feels it is his duty to kill him since Paris believes that Juliet died of a broken heart because Romeo killed Tybalt, her cousin. In the duel, Paris wounded and dying asks Romeo to place him beside Juliet in the tomb, not knowing that Romeo and Juliet were in love and married.
In Lurhmann's version, Romeo is chased through Verona by police, helicopters, and news crews. The audience doesn't see Paris after Juliet accepts his marriage proposal except briefly at the funeral. Romeo and Paris never fight and Paris survives. In the movie Paris is much more passive and not a major character.
Another character that is changed from the original is Juliet's mother. In the play she is a reserved, dignified woman who is obedient to her husband. In the movie she is a loud, outgoing, and flirtatious woman who spends most of the time flirting with Paris and her own nephew, Tybalt. There are moments in the movie, though, when she shows a caring motherly attitude especially after Juliet fights with her father over marrying Paris. The change in character perhaps depicts a more assertive, broader freedom for women existing in recent decades.
An important character that stands out in Lurhmann's movie is the vulgar and bawdy but loving Nurse. The Nurse is portrayed as Juliet's mother figure and best friend. At the beginning of both Shakespeare's play and Lurhmann's movie she is supportive of their love and marriage, hoping like Friar Laurence that it will bring about peace between their families. Toward the end of both the play and the movie, however, she, with good intentions, believes that Juliet should forget about Romeo and marry Paris.
Another scene in Lurhmann's film full of symbolism is the duel between Tybalt and Mercutio. The day of Romeo and Juliet's wedding is filled with tragedy when , after the wedding Romeo and Mercutio run into Tybalt. Though Tybalt antagonizes Romeo and threatens him, Romeo refuses to fight him because they are now related. An angry Mercutio fights for Romeo and is stabbed with a piece of glass. While dying Mercutio delivers his most famous line ,"A plague on both your houses." Romeo tries to reconcile with the dying Mercutio but is denied forgiveness. As Mercutio dies a sand storm starts raging, representing Romeo's anger and thoughts of revenge for Mercutio's death. Romeo chases Tybalt down in a car and Tybalt's car flips in front of a fountain. Momentarily the audience feels for Tybalt as he drags himself on the ground covered in blood. But when he draws a gun and aims it at Romeo all our sympathy is diminished. After a struggle Romeo gets Tybalt's gun and kills Tybalt. Tybalt falls into a fountain ,and looking up, Romeo sees the statue of Jesus looking down at him and it starts to pour as Romeo realizes what he has done.
In the beginning of Luhrmann's movie we see the allusions of the characters and what they symbolize. Juliet is an angel :the balcony scene when Romeo calls her "bright angel", could allude to the fact that they will die or that to him she is already heaven. Romeo is dressed as a knight , perhaps to represent fairy tales and how every woman, even Juliet, wants to be rescued by a night in shining armor. Paris is given an amusing costume of an astronaut which could represent the fact that is is "out there" sometimes. He is Juliet's date to the costume party but doesn't even notice that she kisses Romeo a few feet away and that she disappears with him. Paris also tries to "woo" Juliet right after the death of her cousin Tybalt, which isn't the most romantic time or gesture. Juliet's parents, ironically, dress up as Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. Julius Caesar was a power hungry man, at times more concerned with power and wealth then anything else. As Cleopatra, Juliet's mom could represent beauty, vanity, and intelligence but also infidelity because of her betrayal of Caesar with Marc Anthony. Tybalt goes as a devil which could represent his role as the antagonist , beginning the disintegration of Romeo and Juliet. Mercutio, Romeo's best friend and advisor in both Shakespeare's play and in Lurhmann's movie has a rather small but crucial part in both. Mercutio goes to the costume party in drag, a device which could be poking fun at how in Shakespeare's time men dressed up as women or even alluding to the fact that Shakespeare himself was perhaps homosexual or bisexual.
Romeo and Juliet is a very romantic play but there are many realities never touched on during the movie and the play. Juliet is only thirteen and Romeo is around seventeen and even in Shakespeare's time they weren't considered old enough to marry; they are still teenagers with feelings that they don't know how to handle. Many people at that age are in love with someone one moment and can't stand that person the next. An example from the play and the movie is Romeo's reason to go to the Capulets' party. He is hoping to see Rosaline, a girl he is in love with, and convince her to be with him. The second he sees Juliet, all thoughts of Rosaline disappear; in fact you never see Rosaline in either the play or movie. Also the first time that Romeo sees Juliet he is under the effects of drugs, probably opium, that Mercutio had given to him before the party. Since Romeo had been heartbroken by Rosaline's refusal of him before the beginning of the play he was vulnerable. Opium will make people emotional and physical; when he first saw Juliet, he could have been the feling the effects of the drugs.
The average person in any era often wants what he can not have and Romeo and Juliet are two individuals who areforbidden to even look at each other, let alone fall in love and get married. Their families participate in a feud that has been going on for years. Their feud has been going on for so long that the audience never even learn the cause of it. Because they are supposed to be enemies, each family reacts violently to the other. Thus, the attraction of Romeo and Juliet, to each other is inflamed by the serpent of forbidden fruit.
Although their families have been forbidden by Prince Esculus to act out the feud, the second that they see the other they take up arms again. In the first act of the play and in the first scene we see the evidence of their hatred toward each other. Samson and Gregory , servants of the Capulets, round the corner and run in to Montague's servants. They all automatically draw their swords and fight. In Lurhmann's opening they meet at a gas station and fight there. To make it more modern they use gasoline, guns and matches as weapons, hurting innocent bystanders in the process: the nobility often ignite danger for the lower classes.
The movie does keep some of the plays more famous lines that allude to the fact that Romeo and Juliet will die. They are known as Shakespeare's "star-crossed lovers" and Baz Lurhmann keeps those famous lines that bind the two young people together. At the beginning of the movie before going to the Capulets' party Romeo feels a certain doom : " I fear, too early, for my mind misgives some consequence yet hanging in the stars." During the balcony scene when Romeo sees Juliet he says this about her : 'Tis not to me she speaks. Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven, having some business, do entreat her eyes to twinkle in their spheres till they return." Romeo's declaration of love is expressed by the comparison he makes of their love. " Lady, by yonder blessed moon I vow, that tips with silver all these-fruit tree tops-" Juliet protests this by using the stars and moons metaphors again and responds vehemently: " O, swear not by the moon, th' inconstant moon, that monthly changes in her circled orb, lest that thy love prove likewise variable." Before Juliet learns of Tybalt's murder she dreams of Romeo by thinking out loud: "Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun." When he learns about Juliet's "death", Romeo grieves by shouting,"Then I defy you stars." At the church he again expresses his feelings by using the stars metaphor again "O, here will I set up my everlasting rest and shake the yoke of inauspicious stars from this world-wearied flesh".
Another modern adaptation to the movie is the delivery of Friar Lawrence's letter to Romeo
explaining what was happening and that Juliet wasn't really dead. Instead of Friar John trying to deliver the letter and getting detained by an outbreak of the plague, Friar Lawrence uses the equivalent of the UPS man to deliver his letter. The twist is that the letter actually makes it to Romeo's house but Romeo is in the backyard and misses the mail carrier.
Adding to the tension and suspene of the movie is what happens when Romeo leaves with his friend Balthasar to go back to Verona after hearing of Juliet's "death". Romeo steps on the notice that the mail carrier left. They even drive past the mail carrier trying to deliver the letter. This helps raise the anticipation and frustration, leading to the death scene, as Romeo, pursued by police helicopters, police, and news crews runs through the streets of Verona. Full of loud, fast paced music, this scene causes audiences to get entangled in the movie. As audiences watch Romeo being pursued through the streets of Verona the scene switches back to Friar Laurence who discovers that the letter never reached its destination and reveals his confusion over what he can do. A climax is added after Romeo buys the poison and is running up to St. Peter's Church; he jumps over the hoods of police cars. Surrounded by the police with guns a desperate Romeo takes a priest hostage and screams the famous line still used today ,"Tempt not a desperate man." Our suspense is immediately thrown when Romeo enters the church and locks the doors. The outside sounds of police sirens quickly dissipate, and all that can be heard is Romeo's labored breathing and echoing footsteps as he slowly opens the door to the sanctuary.
Instead of listening to the characters recount what happened to led up to this tragedy, which allows audiences to absorb the events of the play, Baz Lurhmann's movie shows clips of Romeo and Juliet with mournful music in the background to allow audiences to realize what has happened. Their families have forgiven each other and Captain Prince declares in one of Shakespeare's best lines:
"See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
that heaven finds means to kill your joys with love."
Followed by a newswoman finishing the infamous monologue:
"A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow,will not show his head.
Go hence and have more talk of these sad things.
Some shall be pardoned, some punished;
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo."
Although there are many and obvious differences between Shakespeare's play and Lurhmann's movie, the film is still very enjoyable. It keeps the basic plot and modernizes it so the newer generations can enjoy and appreciate it for what it is:a tragic love story by a famous author that still touches the hearts of people centuries later. The film reminds viewers that Shakespeare is born again in each generation.