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Romeo and Juliet: Modernity vs Classics as depicted in the Film – Play Comparison Completed by University of Outline 1. Introduction 2. Shakespeare’s modern image 3. Characters, settings, genres and imageries’ comparison 4. Cuts and omissions from the original version 5. Conclusion 6. Works Cited Introduction This paper, by analyzing the characters, plot, settings, genres and symbolism, compares and contrasts the play Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare and the film by Baz Luhrmann. At first glance, Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet could be mistaken for yet another misappropriation of Shakespeare’s play for purposes of parody, a hip-hop retelling aimed at a hopelessly low-brow audience of teenagers. William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet simultaneously encourages and undermines such a reading. Throughout the film, Luhrmann sets up expectations and then challenges them, freely manipulating past, present, and future time, connecting poetic language with pop-culture imagery, theater to film, employing cinematographic and editing styles that evoke both MTV and the historical avant-garde. He simultaneously flatters and critiques the teen culture from which his film appears to draw its inspiration. As the film begins, a television set occupies the screen - a retro 1970s/1980s model. We are at once in the present-day world of mass communication and yet the first object we see is already archaic. We are, vaguely, in the past, a feeling reinforced by the montage of images drawn from later points in the film, as well as in the future. As the Chorus makes clear, this is a story already told, already done; its end is in its beginning. The opening sequence fragments into a disagreement of sound and image, even as the words of Shakespeare’s Prologue are given strength and, by repetition, redundancy. We will be given Shakespeare’s words, this initial sequence tells us, but the seeming promise turns out to be something of a deception, as words will not play so central a role as we are led to suppose. Shakespeare’s modern image This sequence - and something similar could be said of Shakespeare’s opening scene - acts as an attention getting device. Deceptive because, in Luhrmann’s case, the stylistic magnificence that characterizes this opening does not accurately represent the ground of the film; what it succeeds in doing, most of all, is providing a cover for what follows. For all of its cinematic energy, Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is a highly theatrical film, its style clearly drawn from Luhrmann’s work in opera as much as from his works in advertising and rock videos.
Indeed, what many critics have identified as Luhrmann’s "MTV style" can be more accurately described as a mix of early experimental cinema and modernist video art. Luhrmann draws on a far richer range of allusions and on a wider variety of stylistic choices than can be summarized by the reference to MTV. In this sense, the photographic qualities of Luhrmann’s film coordinates with his scenic effect; a future that is really a past; a “there” that is really “here”; a story that is freshly being told yet again. This effect is intensified by the way Luhrmann shows up the sense of fate and knowledge already present in the play: this is a story already over before it begins. One strategy for translating the highly rhetorical essence of Romeo and Juliet into acceptable modern terms is to make what is public in the play private on the screen. Juliet’s reception of the news of Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s expulsion is almost entirely eliminated, and what remains of it is transformed into an internal meditation by Juliet alone in her bedroom. What is passionate intensity in Shakespeare’s play is a passive reflection in the film. Juliet, in fact, suffers most from this avoidance of rhetoric and of the tragi-comic. Characters, settings, genres and imageries’ comparison Shakespeare created a Juliet quite capable of irony as well as anger and fierce determination. Her love for Romeo quickly turns to hatred when she hears the news of Tybalt’s death; she engages in elaborate and deceitful wordplay, allowing her mother to think that she is mourning for Tybalt when, in fact, she is yearning for Romeo; she dismisses her nurse with angry finality when the latter encourages her to marry Paris; she fools her father with a hypocritical pretense of submission even as she plots her rebellion against him; she doubts the motives of the Friar, temporarily seeing him, with mature insight, in a Machiavellian light, as she prepares to swallow the potion . Claire Danes’ Juliet, robbed of these enriching traits, emotions, motives, and inconsistencies of character, is an ideal Victorian Juliet, perhaps, but she is far from the Juliet Shakespeare created. Neither a contemporary teenager nor a Shakespearean heroine, the Luhrmann Juliet has little social or cultural grounding. More significant than the cuts and themes’ alterations, however, is the way Luhrmann interprets Shakespeare’s text, and in particular, his focus on the doomed nature of Romeo and Juliet’s love.
By placing his emphasis on fate, Luhrmann robs the lovers of agency, of responsibility for their own actions and choices. Fate, of course, plays a crucial role in Shakespeare’s play, which is one reason why some critics deny it tragic stature. Romeo and Juliet is a tragicomedy not merely because it mixes tragic and comic elements but because its tragic elements are also comic. Any production of the play has to come to terms with preventing the image of Romeo and Juliet dead in the tomb from seeming ridiculous. In one way, Luhrmann adds to the sense of sheer bad luck by having Juliet wake up before Romeo dies - all Romeo had to do is glance over at Juliet before he drinks the poison, and the story would have a happy ending. Shakespeare continually adjusts between the apprehension of inevitable fatality and a recognition that humans can choose to act in some other way. The postscript, almost entirely cut, exists in part to allow the surviving characters, as well as the audience, to consider the complex intertwining of human error and sheer bad luck. Shakespeare’s ending also emphasizes the larger dimensions of the tragedy. Luhrmann includes a postscript, but it is highly abbreviated and it is not designed to achieve any sense of social integration. The young lovers become merely another bright image for a media-boasted culture. The twice-repeated ‘all are punished’, spoken by Captain Prince, words that simply recognize a tragic fact in the context Shakespeare provides, sound more like a threat of retribution in the film. Among the last words we hear at the end of Romeo + Juliet, ‘we hope your rules and wisdom choke you’ come not from Shakespeare but from Radiohead, and they affirm a generational conflict that, in truth, we have not actually experienced in the course of the film itself. The moral of the story is that if you teach hatred to your children, you lose them. This is, no doubt, what countless viewers and audiences have wanted Romeo and Juliet to be about. But it is not, except very superficially, what Shakespeare seems most concerned with. To understand the play as primarily centering on the generation gap is to misrepresent its essence. Shakespeare goes out of his way to suggest that the Montague and Capulet parents may be, in today’s works, ‘over-protective’, almost too concerned to keep their children away from the harsh world they must ultimately inhabit. “Oh where is Romeo - saw you him today?”, Lady Montague inquires (in both play and film), "Right glad I am he was not at this fray" (1.
1.107-9). At the same time, the older generation seems eager to keep the peace: Capulet, notably, though he discovers a Montague at his family celebration, refuses to tolerate any disturbance that might spoil his daughter’s festivities, and even acknowledges of Romeo that “Verona brags of him/To be a virtuous and well-governed youth” (1.5.66-7). The impulse for Romeo and Juliet to create a world of their own is not necessarily a response to the failures of the parents. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is in fact a double-edged sword when employed as a glorification or even validation of the young and an associated censure of grown-up values. In the social world of Shakespeare’s play, it is the young - masters and servants - who maintain the deadly dispute, a fight that has been inherited from generations of parental figures, but also an argument of which the adults have become weary, as Capulet’s attitude towards Romeo indicates. And, although Romeo and Juliet is inevitably remembered as a tale of young lovers whose love is forbidden, nothing of the kind actually takes place in Shakespeare’s play. But if Luhrmann’s young lovers speak the language of Shakespeare, they project images drawn from popular culture. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo, a more complexly drawn character than Claire Danes’ Juliet, combines a number of cultural signifiers: first of all, inevitably, we have DiCaprio’s own image as a kind of asexual love object for adolescents; then the sensitive, essentially white-bread teen. These reference points are not all necessarily aimed at the 1990s teen audience that would constitute the obvious target of the film’s production and marketing strategies. Luhrmann’s film is designed to appeal to the parents and even the grandparents of that primary audience. Nonetheless, the various elements that go to make up the image of Romeo in the film are available to any youth who has absorbed, whether at first, second, or third hand, those cultural markers. The image of Juliet, on the other hand, though less clearly defined than Romeo’s, appeals to a special kind of nostalgia for girlhood innocence, not so much lost as never available in the first place. Even a tired sixteen-year-old can be imagined yearning for the kind of protected existence Claire Danes lives out in Luhrmann’s film. This is a world of parental protection and direction as well as of parental control and physical violence. Cuts and omissions from the original version The history of critical and theatrical reactions to the play demonstrates the fact that Shakespeare worked in a far more literary mode than has been fashionable in the theater of later ages, and that its style has often been regarded as a theatrical disadvantage.
Long speeches that summarize what the audience has already seen are cut in the film. Among Luhrmann’s many alterations and omissions, the following are especially noticeable: the virtual elimination of the scene where the Nurse reports Tybalt’s death to Juliet; the discovery of Juliet’s supposed death by the Capulet household; the killing of Paris at the tomb; the comic musicians; Friar Lawrence’s appearance at the Capulet tomb and his subsequent desertion of Juliet. Other scenes are severely reduced: Juliet’s 45-line ‘potion’ soliloquy is pared down to two lines; the ball scene lacks most of Capulet’s exchanges with Old Capulet and other characters; and the Nurse’s interchanges with her servant, Peter, are gone. What a number of these cuts have in common is that they can be thought of as eliminating either rhetorical excess or violations of decorum - or both at once. These are pressure points in Shakespeare’s play, places where his failure to adhere to classical principles and, by anticipation, neoclassical rules have in the past been regarded as close to scandalous. These are the elements of Shakespearean drama presumed to be difficult to understand for a contemporary audience. Conclusion Whether in Elizabethan costume or in modern dress, heavily cut or textually complete, Romeo and Juliet continues to rank with Hamlet as among the most frequently performed of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Recent film adaptations have only contributed to the play’s popularity and its appeal to young audiences. It may be adapted to carry a social or other ideological message. Productions may emphasize the star-crossed lovers motif announced in the Prologue, or they may show the young lovers bringing disaster upon themselves by their impulsiveness. Or they may stress the hopelessness of a young and innocent love in a world governed by power struggles, violence, and greed. As the play’s performance history shows, its appeal is persistent, and not only in the form Shakespeare has given us. The play has inspired over two dozen operas and ballets by such notables as Hector Berlioz, Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, Charles Francois Gounod, Sergey Sergeyevich Prokofiev, and others. No wonder. The story was popular long before Shakespeare, who has given it consummate expression, and it will continue to remain popular as long as young people still find poetry and each other irresistible.