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    Romeo and Juliet: A Comparison of Zeffirelli and Luhrmann

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    Choose two scenes from “Romeo and Juliet” and comment on how Zeffirelli and Luhrmann tackle them differently. In particular you should consider:




    Fate and rivalry

    “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare, written around 1598, has been shown in many different ways by separate directors. Each individual version fits the context in which it is used, changing over again the primacy of the text. While the contexts and dialogue can be changed considerably, these directors usually keep the universal themes of the play in mind – love and loyalty, language, fate, rivalry and opposites.

    Two such directors are Australian Baz Luhrmann and Franco Zeffirelli. Luhrmann’s interpretation of “Romeo and Juliet” was released in the USA in 1996, starring two already popular American actors as the leads. As well as being set in the 1990’s Luhrmann’s film is viewed by us as a modern audience, with all the ideas and opinions fitting this context. This can further change the whole meaning of the film, yet still contains the original themes.

    Act I Scene 5 of Luhrmann’s interpretation of “Romeo and Juliet” fits well with the context in which it was made, yet keeps many important parts and doesn’t change the primacy of the text. Luhrmann’s version of “Romeo and Juliet” is set in a modern situation with guns, car chases and all the typical Hollywood-style moments that only appear in modern films. An example of this is the character Mercutio being a black, eccentric cross-dresser which was unheard of in Elizabethan England. Other, smaller aspects are changed as well, for example, the text is all kept the same but for small alterations such as the line, “These drugs are quick,” which actually appears much later in the play. These can often add good points to the scene, but Luhrmann fails when he misses out an entire soliloquy by Romeo at his meeting with Juliet – the speech beginning, “O doth she teach the torches to burn bright…” where he only includes the last two lines in the scene. This is a romantic and famous speech that was missed out for no apparent reason, not to an advantage. An interesting architectural point is that while the Capulet Mansion is modern in style, the grand staircase inside is of the Elizabethan era. This shows how Luhrmann has controversially mixed modern and older aspects in often quite random ways.

    Act I Scene 5 is a good example of directors adding their own elements to the scene, for example in the form of music. This plays a major part in Luhrmann’s film and is an effective means of conveying moods and reflecting characters. Like the film, the soundtrack is very unconventional. It cleverly mixes various musical styles ranging from orchestral and choral works to electronics and mainstream pop. Luhrmann uses music for three different effects. Firstly, at the beginning of the scene there is a loud party situation with people dancing and lots of fast music. The song is Kym Mazelle’s cover of “Young Hearts Run Free”. This is an upbeat, positive song whose title exactly describes the meeting of Romeo and Juliet as young “star-crossed lovers”, yet in contrast the lyrics say that one should not be tied down to a partner and should “run free”.

    Inside the Capulets’ house the music changes to a slow, warm tune, “Kissing You” by British artiste Des’ree. This is a smooth sounding soul song, enhanced by the performer’s fitting voice, which works both as the primary sound and as a background to the sonnet delivered by Romeo and Juliet. The tune, however, is more fitting than the rather vague lyric and is orchestrated differently throughout the film as its recurring theme. At the end of this particular scene the same piece of music fully modulates into a minor key, which by definition is darker sounding and less romantic, fitting with the images of Tybalt as a contrast to the earlier, romantic section of the scene. This draws attention to the negative aspects of the scene, which go unnoticed in many other versions of the play as it is widely regarded as purely a love scene.

    Another way in which Luhrmann interprets this scene as his own is through the art of visual metaphor, for example props, costume and depictions of the natural elements. In Shakespeare’s text the party is a masked ball and Luhrmann does not change this. The characters are rather boringly dressed as complete stereotypes of their personalities, Juliet as an angel in white, Romeo as a knight in armour and Tybalt as a devil in red. This is very conventional of Luhrmann in what is regarded as such a daring film and doesn’t do its reputation justice.

    The use of the natural elements plays a major part in Luhrmann’s film. This is perhaps because the elements of humanity are recognised as love and hate, which are the two main themes of the entire play and so Luhrmann wants to reflect this in visual metaphor.

    At the beginning of the scene fireworks are being set off outside. They represent light and fire – love is often seen as the light but is also a fiery emotion that can cause much destruction, so these are a good example of one of the two primary themes in this scene. The other is hate, coming from the character Tybalt and also from the age-old rivalry between the Capulets and the Montagues. Fire is also a sign of hell and the devil, which the theme of hate relates to entirely. Water is also commonly used in this scene, in the form of fountains, a swimming pool in the grounds and the meeting of Romeo and Juliet through the glass of a fish tank. Water symbolises safety, yet is used in this scene more as a counterbalance to the fire. It is seen as purifying and good, like love, yet can also be destructive in the form of natural disasters. These two elements both have good and bad points about them, like the emotions of love and hate in the play, but overall fire is the negative, dangerous element and water is safe and pure. They are linked to the story in that water can put out a fire, as love conquers hate at the end of the play. However, these elements together eventually amount to nothing, as in the story, where the families might have been united in the end but they had both lost people dear to them in the process.

    The purpose of camera angles and the way the actors are shot can often dramatically change the way the audience subconsciously views the film. Luhrmann uses modern technology not available to his predecessors, such as underwater camera shots of Romeo. Romeo and Juliet also first see each other through a fish tank and are filmed through the glass with tropical fish swimming into view. This is slightly mysterious yet very modern. By the 1990’s people were experimenting more with film shooting than in say the 1960’s, as the technology had now been invented and there were so many new possibilities, and Luhrmann doesn’t pass on this opportunity.

    Another interesting way in which this scene is filmed is during the dancing, when Romeo has taken the Ecstasy pill and it has begun to affect his brain. As soon as he takes the tablet there are clips of swirling lights and spinning fireworks to symbolise him spinning into a state of drug-induced euphoria. As the negative effects of the drug hit him, Romeo is filmed 360? with the camera spinning round him. This is a very modern technique, fitting with the context. The whole general filming is fast moving, just like the fast moving society in which we now live, where people do not often stop to reflect and everything has to be instant or on demand.

    “Romeo and Juliet” by Franco Zeffirelli is very different to Luhrmann’s film adaptation of the same play. The main difference is that Zeffirelli’s version is set in Shakespeare’s original context of the 1590’s. We can tell this from the costumes, the use of swords as opposed to guns and flick-knives and the use of music.

    In this film, the Montagues distinctively wear black and blue and the Capulets wear orange and red. This provides an instantly sharp contrast between the two families and also helps the audience to quickly identify which characters are on which side. The audience can then pay more attention to the dialogue and visual images without worrying about learning characters. This allows Zeffirelli to not include some text from the original play that dealt mainly with character introduction. Romeo and Juliet are dressed in different colours from the others in their families to outline their tendencies to drift away and break the boundaries set by their parents. This is typical of the era in which the film was made. In the early 60’s children were gradually starting to want to be more different to their parents. By the late 60’s, when this film was made, there were wars and political dilemmas that encouraged people to protest and make a stand against. Juliet in this instance resembles a “flower child” of the 1960’s with no visible make-up and long straight hair.

    The dancing in Act I Scene 5 is unlike that in Luhrmann’s film. It is very formal and repressed, as it would have been in Shakespearean times and to a certain extent the 1960’s. Dancing would symbolise harmony between the Capulets, but in this circumstance it seems like more of a war dance in preparation for a fight.

    The dance sequence is very elaborate and full of colour. Zeffirelli opts for many close face shots of Romeo and Juliet, unlike Luhrmann who focused more on the surroundings. There is one particular close up of Juliet and a guest, in which the guest has a very serene look on her face and appears much like a Virgin Mary figure. Next to her Juliet looks very young and immature. As in Luhrmann’s film, the singer in the middle of the party provides a diversion for the guests so that Romeo and Juliet can meet and exchange words and a kiss.

    The music used is in the typical English Renaissance court style, with pipes and lutes as the main instruments. This would have been the music played at the scene, and maybe on stage in Shakespearean times to symbolise a party. The song is about ice and fire; these opposite but equally effective elements also appear in Luhrmann’s film. When Tybalt appears, there is a modulation into a minor key briefly, unlike Luhrmann’s film where the peaceful, romantic song contrastingly carries on as background sounds to the rivalry showing through from Tybalt. The only discord is at the line, “My only love sprung from my only hate,” which in itself is a powerful line and the music adds to the drama. The music finishes to harmonious applause from the party guests, just as Romeo and Juliet are exchanging alternating lines in the form of a sonnet as an example of natural harmony.

    This sonnet is another example of the strong rituals observed – Romeo and Juliet, on first meeting, bow to one another. Instead of gazing through fish tanks, the couple meet properly through eye contact and then the formal playing of words as they naturally form a sonnet. The sonnet is also a ritualised form of writing; fourteen well thought out lines are exchanged “instantly”.

    Fate, in Zeffirelli’s film, does not play as major a part as it does in Luhrmann’s version. The only part where fate is really recognised is as Romeo falls in love with Juliet, Tybalt is humiliated by his uncle at the exact same moment. The two opposite characters are experiencing contrasting emotions at the same time. As fate is such a major theme in the original play, not much is really made of it in this scene which is disappointing.

    Tybalt is portrayed as more of an unpleasant character in Zeffirelli’s film because Luhrmann appears to want the scene to be primarily a love scene but Zeffirelli realises the two passions of love and hate are featured just as often as each other in the original text. An example of this is the inclusion, only by Zeffirelli, of the line, “This, by his voice, should be a Capulet.” This is utter discrimination on Tybalt’s part, whereas he is portrayed in Luhrmann’s scene quite sympathetically as he is slapped by his uncle.

    Act III Scene 1 of “Romeo and Juliet” by Baz Luhrmann is very different to the original scene in that the structure has been changed, rather messily, and the scene broken up. In this scene both Mercutio and Tybalt are killed in the modern way, with guns and flick-knives. Perhaps Luhrmann is trying to make up for the fact that their deaths were so quick and not following street brawls by cutting up and changing the continuity of the scene. It is set on Verona Beach and there is a huge, majestic stage in the middle. It appears disused, maybe the remains of an old theatre. Much of the scene takes place around or on the stage, as Shakespeare once wrote, “All the world’s a stage,” and Luhrmann has effectively put on a play inside a play. Mercutio staggers up the steps onto the stage to die, screaming and looking very prominent on the apparently disused theatre. He is higher up that the others when dying, as if he were standing towards heaven so the process would be quicker. The image of Mercutio on the stage wounded is quite striking.

    The whole scene is set up like a 1950’s western, with lots of long drawn out silences, one for almost a minute, and wide, open spaces. At the point where Tybalt dies, the continuity is broken up by a clip of Juliet talking about her love for Romeo, none the wiser that he has just killed her cousin. Luhrmann purposely breaks this up and it also allows the audience to be reminded of why the men are fighting. Luhrmann leaves out the extended metaphor about consorting because it would seem too long and in the 1990’s context everything still has to be instant. This said, the silences are often too long but are filled in with music.

    Music in this scene is specially written background film music, the purpose of this being not to be noticed but to add to the suspense without being too prominent. The music chosen works successfully. It frequently comes back to a clarinet playing minor arpeggios with lower stringed instruments as a sort of drone. This is suspicious, tension-building music that fits the scene perfectly. The other style of music used in this scene is before the dramatic section, where there are arguments and the men are driving or talking amongst themselves. This is modern gothic rock music, which is quite heavy and contrasts the delicate sounding previous style.

    Sound effects play more of a part in this scene than music, as the weather is a major factor involved. Weather and music go together in the scene, as the weather changes the music does with it. For example, as Romeo falls to the floor thunder rolls and there is a rising musical sequence, still in the minor key, as the tension greatens. This is often a good way of building suspense in films as the rising sequence shows there will be a climax and very rarely amounts to nothing. As the fighting takes place there are very low sounds, double basses and ‘celli provide the pitch and timpani and cymbals are the forceful percussion. This is the climax to the aforementioned rising sequence from the clarinet. When Mercutio is wounded and shouts, “A scratch!” he is standing on the stage and his voice echoes around it to show his defiance. The music then changes to sacred choral music, still in the ever-dramatic minor key, the sky is dark and the clouds are moving fast. The visual impact of the sky mixed with the prominent holy music is very dramatic and only enhances the way the scene is viewed.

    When Romeo shoots Tybalt in Luhrmann’s version of the play, he does so knowingly and readily. The killing is not impetuous as it could have been, so Romeo is portrayed as a villain by this point. This opinion is only changed when we see part of Act V Scenes 1 and 2, where Juliet talks about her love for Romeo. As he shouts, “I am fortune’s fool,” she is too. This makes the scene seem more realistic, as events do not happen one after the other. This also shows fate playing a part in the scene because at the exact same moment the two things are going on at the same time, unknown to the characters that they are linked. As Romeo kills Tybalt a picture of Juliet flashes into his mind, where the audience realise that his loyalty for one person has got in the way of his loyalty to the other. It is raining hard by this point and Romeo screams and looks up to see a statue of Christ the Redeemer which is more ironic than anything as he realises has just killed his lover’s cousin as a result of petty rivalry between families. This is a landmark of Rio de Janeiro, where this film was shot, which Luhrmann has used to his advantage in a very fitting shot.

    The use of silence as opposed to sound is evident again as there is almost a minute without any sound, then the wind and rain build up as if Romeo is beginning to realise fully what he has done. The music then changes to a Requiem piece which is dramatic and fits with the image of the Christ statue.

    Use of lighting is an important factor in Luhrmann’s film, for example when Mercutio dies the dark clouds are beginning to come over and as Romeo shoots Tybalt the sky is almost pitch black. Nighttime is traditionally associated with evil and bad things which fits with the story. As the light dims, it is also as if the light has gone out on Romeo’s life because he has just committed cold blooded murder while thinking of Juliet.

    In contrast to Luhrmann’s somewhat overdramatised interpretation for the modern audience, Zeffirelli’s 1960’s Act III Scene 1 is a calmer, more orderly affair. The rivalry between the two groups seems less serious in general. The two groups are still wearing distinct separate colours which are a clear representation of sides, almost like an army uniform. This is almost saying they are not as serious, as used in the example of present day football hooliganism. The people that cause the trouble are not the fans in football colours with scarfs and rattles, they are the people dressed in different designer clothes who are less conspicuous and look for a fight. In Luhrmann’s scene everybody wears normal clothes and there is no pattern obvious so this seems more real, whereas Zeffirelli’s actors are dressed noticeably the same in groups. This is another example of the formality involved in the original Shakespearean context and also of the 1960’s era where people had set uniforms to wear for various occasions, more so than in the present day. However, when Tybalt takes off his outer clothing to fight he appears to be wearing much the same as Romeo.

    Mercutio is portrayed as a clown, washing and playing in the fountains at the scene. The water symbolises safety, as he is fine until he comes out of the fountain. He has blonde hair that contrasts Tybalt’s dark hair, as Tybalt is the bad character he wears dark colours that represent evil. The use of the crowd as background noise is recognised here and not in Luhrmann’s. This is quite formalised but also shows that the rivalry is not as bitter as it is in Luhrmann’s scene.

    At one point during the scene Mercutio makes a joke and Tybalt laughs with the rest of the crowd. They shake hands, which is the equivalent of meeting before a dual in a polite yet formal manner. This would never have happened in Luhrmann’s film as the atmosphere is too hostile and physical distance between the characters was kept. This is because of the generation difference once again, Zeffirelli’s entire film was more ritualised and formal as it was in the 1960’s and indeed the 1590’s.

    Sounds play more of a part in Zeffirelli’s version of this scene than in Luhrmann’s. Crowd noise is very important in adding to the excitement of the scene but also in holding back the tension. There is a group of men huddled around Tybalt and Mercutio as they fight, who laugh and shout things during this part of the scene. This is an example of the director changing the actual text by adding lines like,

    “He’s drunk!”

    “Mother’s baby’s lost his sword.”

    These would definitely be present in the original context of the play, although not the text, where street brawls were commonplace and served more as entertainment to others than as real fights. Zeffirelli adds these lines effectively as they continue the less dramatic feel to the scene. Rather amusing is that when Romeo states that, “Mercutio’s dead,” the crowd sound mildly disappointed as if this were the end of their entertainment, not somebody’s life. Then they start laughing again. This would be quite controversial at the time the film was made. Towards the end of the scene, however, when Romeo and Tybalt are fighting, the crowd get quieter as they realise the seriousness of the situation. This is the opposite of how Luhrmann tackled this part, as he builds up the tension to a climax where there is a lot of noise from the weather and music. The only sounds heard when Romeo kills Tybalt are that of a string orchestra playing long, drawn out minor chords. This is not music of that era as the main string section with ‘celli and violins was not introduced until the Baroque period. Therefore Zeffirelli has mixed music styles as Luhrmann did in the same scene, purely to add variety. In this scene, however, music is mainly left out to allow the director to focus on crowd noise, perhaps because of a low budget.

    Unlike Luhrmann’s interpretation of Act III Scene 1, the Zeffirelli version takes place entirely in the daytime. Where Luhrmann used special effects to sequence fast moving clouds and changing weather and times of day, Zeffirelli did not have these options. No computerised effects were possible at the time his film was made. While this is not a major difference on the Shakespearean stage – the scenery on the inside roof would simply be changed to stars and moons as opposed to the sun – it outlines quite a contrast between the two films. Luhrmann’s scene starts out in the middle of the day at its hottest but as events unfold the sky gets darker and the weather gets worse. Zeffirelli’s version is entirely in the daytime which also takes away more of the dramatic element that is omni present in Luhrmann’s.

    There are many similarities between Zeffirelli and Luhrmann’s interpretations. For example, both include Mercutio climbing steps to die above the other characters. This is an interesting idea, probably lifted from Zeffirelli by Luhrmann when he made his later film. Certain aspects were taken better than others for each director, for example the use of the elements as visual metaphors were particularly effective and thought provoking in Luhrmann’s first scene, but his Act III Scene 1 was overdramatised and as a result ineffective. Zeffirelli’s film was more suited to the original dialogue and, like Luhrmann’s, kept the primacy of the text. Particularly effective was the representation of fate in such a formalised manner, as would have been true to the Elizabethan audience. Although both were controversial at the times, Luhrmann prides himself on it with it printed on the video box, they were sufficiently groundbreaking for their separate audiences to understand. However, for some people Luhrmann pushed the accepted boundaries for Shakespeare slightly too far and tried to disguise it with special effects. This is why Zeffirelli made the better Shakespeare film and Luhrmann the better Hollywood box office hit.

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    Romeo and Juliet: A Comparison of Zeffirelli and Luhrmann. (2017, Nov 06). Retrieved from

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