The Beatles wrote this in the 1960’s but they certainly were not the first to think it. Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” was based around this sentiment. It is a story of love, passion, romance, betrayal, life and of course, death.
In the late 1990’s Baz Luhrmann produced one of the most controversial interpretations of a Shakespeare play. He shot it in modern costume with modern settings, though he kept the original text. Using Verona Beach, Los Angles as his setting and Leonardo DiCaprio as his leading man, Luhrmann made it into a Hollywood movie and one of the biggest blockbuster hits of the 90’s.
However 20 years earlier Franco Zephirelli had shot his classic interpretation of the film-using period costume. This film follows the script fairly closely and is close to how Shakespeare would have had it performed.
Even stage productions of the classic tragedy have been updated. Not long ago the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford put on a modern interpretation, which was apparently much like the 1970’s cult film “Grease” centring around fast cars and leather jackets.
The RSC production that our class saw was much closer to an original Shakespeare production: however it was of poor quality, many of our girls feeling that they could have acted the parts more convincingly themselves.
The characters of the play are complex: they blossom and unveil themselves throughout the play; first impressions are not always right.
Juliet Capulet, the only child of Lord and Lady Capulet, whose rivalry with the Montague family has been alive as long as the families have been, begins the play as an innocent young girl. She is very child like, obeying her parents. Her loyalties lie with her family.
In the first scene we meet her, she is with the nurse. The nurse and Juliet are firm friends, the nurse having had more input into Juliet’s upbringing than her mother Lady Capulet. The nurse is very crude and talks about an amusing incident that happened when Juliet was just two years old.
” ‘Yea’, quoth my husband, ‘fall’st upon thy face
Thou wilt fall backward when thou comest of age,
Wilt thou not Jule?’ it stinted, and said ‘Aye’.”
She talks far too much repeating the story three times until Lady Capulet tells her to be quiet. Juliet is not yet fourteen but is called by her mother to talk about marriage. When asked for her view on it she replies in an obedient way.
“It is an honour that I dream not of.”
She regards marriage as sacred, something that she is not worthy of, suggesting that she might not be ready for it. The nurse wants the best for Juliet, as does Lady Capulet, they seem to decide Juliet’s fate with Paris for her. She is barely consulted in the conversation. In Zeffirrelli’s film Juliet sits quietly and patiently at the nurse’s side, laughing at some comments but generally being dutiful and sweet. The RSC production was much the same. Lady Capulet asks Juliet if she thinks well of Paris’s like of her. The reply follows,
“I’ll look to like if looking liking move.
But no more deep will I edart that eye
Than your consent gives strength to make it fly.”
Juliet wants to do things with her parents’ consent, certainly not before consulting them, she wants to please.
Mercutio is introduced to us as the flamboyant friend of Romeo and the other Montagues. Our biggest clue into his personality is his name, which is derived from the word “mercurial” meaning changeable.
In Luhrmann’s film Mercutio is black. He first appears in “Drag” and high on ecstasy or some such drug. The “Queen Mab” speech is delivered in an almost paranoid style, Mercutio becoming increasingly angered it becomes obvious that he has been hurt by love. He begins by talking about the intricate detail on Queen Mab’s coach
“Her wagon spokes like long spinners legs,
The cover of the wings of grasshoppers,
Her traces of the smallest spiders web.”
He then goes on to describe the dreams that Mab creates in the minds of all kinds of sleepers.
“O’er lawyers fingers, who strait dream of fees,
O’er lady’s lips, who straight on kisses dream.”
At this stage ideas are innocent and the dreams fairly acceptable. Mercutio then goes on to describe the more sinister, uncouth dreams that this mystical fairy queen creature creates.
“Sometimes she driveth o’er a soldiers neck,
And then he dreams of cutting foreign throats.
This is the hag when maids lie on their backs
Making them women of good carriage.”
Mercutio does not believe in love and regards dreams of this kind as nothing but idle fantasies. We don’t know if this is because he has been hurt in the past or if he has never believed in love. He is angered at Romeo’s selfish behaviour and his moaning about Rosalind; Mercutio feels that Romeo is wasting his time on women. He seems almost jealous. Romeo and Mercutio are very close and not long before Mercutio dies, Tybalt says
“Mercutio, thou consortest with Romeo.”
This suggests to us that Romeo and Mercutio were mocked for being such close friends and that their relationship may have been something more.
In the Luhrmann film when the Montagues arrive at the party, Mercutio gets the party started, standing in the limelight, singing, dancing, being wild and generally playing the fool. I think these two extremes portray Mercutio’s very flippant character, however the fact that he is on drugs does detract slightly from the point.
I think that Lurhmann used the drug taking to mirror the effects that love can have; a raised temperature, fast heartbeat and loss of control. Love can drive people mad. It is well documented that “Love is the greatest drug of all.”
At the party Romeo and Juliet meet for the first time. They are both quite clearly infatuated, besotted with each other. In Luhrmann’s film he shows the long lingering feelings with smouldering looks through a dream-like fish tank. Glorious music plays in the background and the immediate passion is clear. As the two have their first kiss Juliet makes religious references glorifying and elevating her new found emotion – love.
“Ay, pilgrims lips that they must use in prayer.”
These moments mean a lot to Juliet: this is her first kiss, she is only thirteen and her hormones and emotions would be raging. Some of the things that she says after discovering that Romeo is a Montague lead me to believe that she is almost naï¿½ve to the complexity of emotions. She refers to him as her love after just a few moments in his company.
“My only love sprung from my only hate.”
The nurse and her family have probably protected Juliet from the world and so does not yet have much experience when it comes to love and hate. However she does realise the mutual hate and rivalry between the Montagues and the Capulets. After kissing Romeo twice and still not knowing his name she declares her love for him. We will never know if this is just teenage angst, which is what any situation of this kind would be put down to in today’s society, or real, true love. We do know however that her emotions are becoming strong, she is developing personality and is starting to act on her emotions.
It is in the balcony scene where Juliet seems to grow up the most; she even talks (in one of the most famous lines in Shakespeare) about giving up the Capulet name. When talking to her mother earlier that night she had regarded marriage as something that she was not worthy of, yet now it would seem that not only would she agree to it, she suggests it.
“Deny thy farther and refuse thy name;
Or if thou wilst not, be sworn my love
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.”
Juliet no longer finds it a problem to give up her family name. In a matter of hours her loyalties have switched to her sworn enemy. She also says nothing of needing her parents’ permission to wed Romeo.
The nurse and Mercutio are very similar in their crude humour. When the nurse goes looking for Romeo she comes across Mercutio who accosts her with his quick wit and suggestive jokes. It does not shock the nurse at all who does seem to have a “one track mind,” she enjoys the attention and can sometimes be thought of as shallow. On several occasions she seems impressed by qualities in men that aren’t all that important when it comes to a marriage. When talking about Paris she seems enthralled by his good looks
” A man young lady! Lady, such a man
As all the world – Why he’s a man of wax.”
Also after talking to the priest she is easily impressed by his words.
“O lord, I could have stayed here all the night
To hear good counsel. O, what learning is!
My lord, I’ll tell my lady you will come.”
She likes the attention from Mercutio and seems to be playing with him most of the time. In Zeffirrelli’s film Mercutio takes off the nurse’s head-dress, he means no harm and wraps himself in it taunting her and singing songs as he goes.
“An old hare hoar,
And an old hare hoar,
Is very good meat in lent?
But a hare that is hoar
Is to much for a score,
When it hoars ere it be spent.”
The Zeffirrelli film has a different interpretation of Mercutio to the later Luhrmann film. He is always the centre of attention, making crude jokes and taunting people. He is generally presented as “the Joker”, “The Funny One.” It is only for a very short time in the Queen Mab speech when we see the disturbed side of Mercutio, Mercutio easily shrugs off that character once Romeo consoles him and goes back to playing the fool soon after.
During Mercutio’s last scene he is still laughing: it appears in fact an accident that he was hurt in the first place, whereas in the other film Mercutio and Tybalt’s fight is much darker and more sinister, their intentions both very clear. Mercutio says,
“‘Tis not so deep as a well
Nor so wide as a church-door,
But ’tis enough, ’twill serve,”
All his friends laugh, even the Capulets laugh. It is not until he says, “A plague ‘aboth your houses,” and actually dies that people actually realise that he has been injured. Zephirelli and Luhrmann both use a stage setting for Mercutio’s death, reflecting his showman-ship to his last words.
In the scenes of his death in the Luhrmann film Mercutio is very angry and because his hilarious scene with the nurse is cut our lasting impressions of him are of resentment for the feuding between the families.
Personally I prefer the older portrayal of Mercutio. Even though I prefer the Luhrmann film as a film, I feel that Zephirelli made Mercutio more how he was intended. The play becomes more sinister after Mercutio dies, it is the start of the tragedy, and it is here where the pain and anxiety begins.
After Romeo kills Tybalt, Juliet finds the nurse in a hysterical state, she is alarmed at this and is unaware of the day’s murderous events. Juliet’s mind is so full of thoughts for Romeo that she becomes confused and thinks that he is dead and not Tybalt. It becomes very clear in the text how the nurse feels about Tybalt and how Juliet feels about Romeo.
Juliet: “O break, my heart, poor bankrout, break at once!
To prison, eyes ne’er look on liberty
Vile earth, to earth resign, and motion here,
And thou and Romeo press one heavy bier.”
Nurse: “O Tybalt, Tybalt, the best friend I had
O courteous Tybalt and honest gentleman,
That ever I should live to see the dead!”
When Juliet learns that Tybalt is dead and Romeo banished she still is very emotional as if he is “as good as dead.” She is devastated by the thought that Romeo is banished and compares it to ten thousand Tybalts dying.
“That ‘banished’, that one word ‘banished’,
Hath slain ten thousand Tybalts.”
The nurse really cares about Juliet and promises to find Romeo and send him to her bedchamber that night. The two spend the night together, consummating their marriage. The morning after Romeo has to leave as he is doing so, Juliet has a vision of what is to come and her last words to him are full of foreboding.
“It is the lark that sings so out of tune,
Straining harsh discords and unpleasant sharps.
Some say the lark makes sweet division:
This doth not so for she divided us.”
In the next scenes Lord and Lady Capulet announce to Juliet that they have arranged for her to marry Paris, unaware of the fact that she has just lost the love of her life. When Juliet refuses to do so, her mother leaves her to her own devises, not wanting anything to with the argument that is to come between the Lord Capulet and Juliet.
This is the only scene that I remember from the RSC production indicating that it was the best. Capulet flew into a rage; absolutely furious at what he was hearing he threatened and insulted Juliet.
“But fettle your fine joints ‘gainst Thursday next,
To go with Paris to Saint Peter’s Church,
Or I will drag the on a hurdle thither.
Out, you Green-sickness carrion! Out you baggage!
The nurse flew to Juliet’s defence when he tried to hit her, only to outrage him further and be knocked back herself. Capulet threatens to disown Juliet if she did not obey him.
In the Franco Zeffirrelli film, Lady Capulet leaves early on in the argument, I think that maybe she was pressured into marrying Lord Capulet herself and feels that although she cannot defy her husband and defend Juliet, she also cannot aid Capulets rage.
After the fight Juliet seeks comfort in the nurse who tells her that she should forget Romeo and marry Paris.
“O, he’s a lovely gentleman!
Romeo’s a dishclout to him. An eagle Madam,
Hath not so green, so quick so fair an eye
As Paris hath.”
In Luhrmann’s film Juliet looks completely shocked by this comment and swears that she will never trust the nurse again, she is alone now and has no one to console her, in sheer desperation she flees to friar Lawrence’s cell seeking his aid. Zeffirrelli shows her completely distraught by this time she throws herself on the ground before his altar.
She collects a poison from him that will send her into an un-wakeable sleep, before she takes it Juliet visits her farther and begs for his forgiveness, promising never to defy him in future. He decides that she shall be married the next day.
In both the films the next scenes are pictured in Juliet’s bedroom, she is now truly alone, fighting her own mind over the poison, facing all of her fears, showing her real, honest love for Romeo. She states that if the potion does not work and she awakes the following morning, she would rather kill herself with a dagger than go ahead with the wedding plans.
“Shall I be married then tomorrow morning?
No, no, this shall forbid it; lie thou there.”
This is completely defying her father’s wishes. Would the obedient Juliet that we meet in the first scenes be this scheming? These minutes are the most difficult of Juliet’s life, her mind filling with fearful thoughts; questions start to stifle her rational thought.
“What if it be a poison which the Friar
Subtly hath ministered to have me dead”
“Shall I not be then stifled in the vault,
To whose foul mouth no healthsome air breathes in,”
“O, if I wake shall I not be distraught,
Environï¿½d with all these hideous fears,”
Her bravery prevails through all these dismal thoughts and she drinks the potion in Romeo’s name.
The next morning the nurse finds the “dead” Juliet, she is very dramatic, wailing and shouting, rousing the whole house. Capulet rushes in to see Juliet for himself, he sees her as a precious life, a beautiful, delicate little girl. He describes her:
“Death lies on her like an untimely frost
Upon the sweetest flower in the field.”
Lady Capulet is very distressed and shows the most emotion for Juliet that she has in all of the play. It seems to take Juliet dying for her to display her true feelings for Juliet.
“O me, O me, my child, my only life!
Revive, look up, or I will die with thee.”
Zeffirrelli showed the tomb of the Capulets as an underground vault, the other bodies from the family are laid out on plinths around the room the room is stone, stark and cold. Romeo fights and kills Paris outside, in order to gain entry into the tomb upon finding Juliet he falls to the floor beside her, talking of how death wanted her as lover. To prevent that and to join her in death, he drinks the poison. The friar enters at this moment, just as Juliet begins to wake; he cannot console her when she sees Romeo and Paris both dead next to her Juliet is hysterical. She will not leave with him out of the vault. Instead she continues to cry loudly (and unconvincingly) throwing herself on Romeo, sobbing and sniffing as she goes.
Juliet finds a cup in Romeo’s hand and complains that he has not left her any poison to die with. She finds his dagger in its sheath and stabs herself with it; she dies over Romeo’s Body.
” Yea, noise? Then I’ll be brief. O happy dagger,
This is thy sheath; there rust and let me die.”
In the modern Luhrmann film Juliet is in a church, the church is very lavishly decorated, to show the money of the Capulets. It is very over-the-top, at the end of each pew shines a neon cross, thousands of tiny candles surround Juliet, she looks peaceful where she lays. The moments that Romeo spends with Juliet are beautiful. Outside helicopters fly overhead and police surround the church with their guns, but inside it is tranquil and the fact that the lovers are in a church elevates their love. DiCaprio acts the part well; more convincingly so than the Zeffirrelli actor, he is emotional, tears streaming down his face. He becomes more and more “choked up” with every word he says. As he takes the poison Juliet begins to wake and they share a moment of sheer disbelief before he dies. Juliet then realises what has happened and takes the gun out of its holder. She does not say much as she does this, few words are needed to explain her actions. She shoots herself, falling over Romeo in a last display of affection.
The families decide on finding the lovers dead that the feud has gone on long enough, Capulet and Montague shake hands and the families find themselves at peace.
The two die with each other, for each other. It is the ultimate gift or sacrifice that can be made for the one you love. I don’t know how relevant the story would be today even though the lovers are immortalised in words and film. The age of Romeo and Juliet does give me doubts about the strength of the bonds and the love between the two in the early scenes of the play. However as the feelings deepen and the actions become more irrational, I realise that they are definitely in love. Their relationship is honest, equal and true. I don’t know how many people would say nowadays that they would die for their partner, but we must remember this tragedy is fictional; it was written in a much simpler world. Whichever way I look at it though, Romeo and Juliet are the original lovers and will be so until love itself dies.