Concentrating on act 3 scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, how effective do you think the Zeffirelli and Luhrmann film versions are in relation to your own interpretation of the play?
Shakespeare’s tragic tale of “two star-cross’d lovers” has survived centuries of political and social upheaval to become one of the most popular and well-known plays of all time. Both Zeffirelli and Luhrmann have seized this opportunity to put their stamp on a literary landmark.
It is important to recognise the original context before examining the film versions. Shakespeare set the play in the 16th century, in the Mediterranean city of Verona. Zeffirelli adapted his 1968 version to the 13th century, in the dry, dusty streets of pseudo-Italia. Luhrmann took an entirely different approach with his 1997 film, with a mixture of futurism and kitsch that leads us to doubt the exact era, whilst incorporating the Italian setting into a place of his own devising, Verona Beach. In this way Luhrmann could manipulate the text to suit the setting, while gaining the empathy of both his demanding “generation-x” audience, and the more critical students of the original play.
This scene is pivotal to the rest of the play, as without it there would be no tragedy. However, within the scene there is much ambiguity surrounding tone and the relationship between characters, as well as the continuous references to “Fate”. This has provided the two filmmakers with much scope for interpretation, as well as giving them the challenge of portraying such a well-known play in an entirely new light.
Fate is a key influence in most Shakespearean plays, being a handy and irrefutable scapegoat for any otherwise anomalous events. In this play the role of fate is intertwined with the catalysis of the characters’ actions, so that one could argue it is entirely responsible, or has nothing to do with, the tragic ends to the play, according to which theory best suits your point. This is best illustrated by a line in the chorus: “from forth the fatal loins of these two foes”. Fatal has two meanings- “predestined” and “deadly”. With this one line Shakespeare manages to sum up the play in its entirety- the malicious actions of the parents leads to the inevitable death of their children.
There are many changes of tone within this scene, centred mainly around Romeo’s entrances and exits. The beginning of the scene is playful, with Mercutio taunting Benvolio about his tendency to quarrel. Mercutio accuses Benvolio of being “as hot a jack in [his] mood as any in Italy!” Benvolio is known to be an incurable peacekeeper from his earlier actions, and so at surface-level this conversation may seem contradictory of the rest of the play. However, soon after one realises that this is really a reference to Mercutio himself, and that the scene is prophetic of events to come.
Shakespeare manipulates Mercutio heavily in the opening lines, when he predicts that “If we were to have two such [quarrelsome men], we should have none shortly, for one would kill the other!” The irony of this statement is played out later, when a playfight between Mercutio and Tybalt results in both their deaths. This theme of prophecy ties in with the universal theme of Fate.
The first noticeable change of tone in the original text comes with Tybalt’s confrontation of Mercutio. However, the original text is ambiguous in that the wordplay between Mercutio and Tybalt at that point suggests that there is no real aggression involved in the fight. The verbal sparring between the characters suggests that this kind of confrontation has occurred frequently before, without it resulting in violence.
Luhrmann’s use of a black actor to play Mercutio provides an opportunity for an aggressive tone to be introduced earlier in the scene than in the original text. When Tybalt says “thou consort’st with Romeo” Mercutio takes it to be a reference to his race, in that his response “what, does thou make us minstrels?” refers to the black and white minstrels that existed at the turn of the 20th century, rather than a troupe of jugglers, which would be the context of Shakespeare’s time.
Zeffirelli places heavy emphasis on the heat of the day, directing Mercutio to mop his face with a handkerchief. The humidity of the scene is pivotal because it causes Mercutio to climb into a fountain to cool off, thereby providing an opportunity for Tybalt to splash him, and start the fight that results in both their deaths. Zeffirelli is aided in setting his scene by Benvolio’s line “for now these hot days, is the mad blood stirring”. The Shakespearean connotations of madness are very different to present-day, and “madness” (any unusual or socially unacceptable behaviour) was attributed to everything from diet to climate. Therefore it would have been perfectly reasonable at the time to conjecture that Tybalt is “mad” because of the heat.
Luhrmann interprets the role of fate as religious destiny, with the continuous appearance of icons of Christ and the Madonna at pivotal moments in the film. There is also the heavy irony that is typical of Luhrmann’s other films, in that these images appear on the most unlikely objects (i.e. guns).
The film also implies that Romeo’s fate is synonymous with Christ’s. At the end of act three scene one Romeo cries, “I am fortune’s fool”. In the same way that the play is described as “fated”, the death of Christ is held by believers to be predestined. Luhrmann ends the scene with a shot of Romeo stretching his arms out in the manner of a crucifix, and then an opening shot in the next scene of a church spire crowned by an icon of Christ on the cross, a resemblance that can in no way be misinterpreted.
In the same way that guns figure as precedents for tragedy in the Luhrmann version, Zeffirelli uses bell ringing to precede turning points in the play. There are church bells tolling in the background at the beginning of the scene, a reminder of the marriage that has just taken place. Bells also close the scene, being audible just after the death of Tybalt.
One of the things characteristic of all Shakespeare’s texts is his choice of language to convey something about the personalities of his characters. This may be in the name (i.e. Benvolio, from the Italian ben voglio, meaning good will), or the choice of phrase. The language of war that runs throughout the scene is important both to portray aggression and give a sense of impending doom. Mercutio’s line, “Marry, go before to field, he’ll be your follower,” is a reference to the battlefield.
The second tone change comes when Mercutio challenges Tybalt to a duel, when it reverts to the playful taunting we saw at the beginning of the scene. Mercutio cries “Tybalt, you rat-catcher, will you walk?”, in this way distracting him from his intended fight with Romeo.
The way the challenge is delivered suggests that it isn’t particularly aggressive, but it is important that Romeo misinterprets the tone in order that he intervenes and gives Tybalt the chance to deal a fatal blow to Mercutio.
The characterisation in the text and the subsequent actions of Tybalt, Romeo and Mercutio suggests that Tybalt seizes the opportunity to stab Mercutio during Romeo’s intervention, and then flees, aghast. The stage direction is “Tybalt under Romeo’s arm thrusts Mercutio in; and flies”. This kind of action would appear to a Shakespearean audience as the result of “mad blood stirring” on a sweltering day.
In the Zeffirelli film version the youthfulness of the characters and their horror at Mercutio’s death implie uld kill Mercutio underhandedly, rather than wound him honourably through an accident.
The third and final change of mood comes after Mercutio has been wounded. Mercutio says, “Help me into some house, Benvolio”. This would have been a real blow for Romeo, who up until now would have considered himself to be Mercutio’s best friend. This is the first death in the play, giving implications that there will be more, and setting the scene for the tragedy. Mercutio’s dying words, “A plague on both your houses!” are prophetic of the lovers’ fate and their families’ grief.
In the Luhrmann film version Mercutio is a very aggressive and obnoxious character, whereas in the original text Shakespeare intended the character to engage the sympathy of the audience through his playfulness and loyalty to Romeo. Zeffirelli remains true to the play in this respect, making Mercutio’s death scene a very moving moment. The Zeffirelli film lingers on the irony of Mercutio’s words, “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man,” where, although the audience understand the gravity of the situation, Mercutio’s companions believe him to be acting, until he is actually dead.
The Zeffirelli version is very true to the Shakespearian text, both in and portrayal and characterisation. The youth and innocence of the characters draws the sympathy of the audience, making the tragedy all the more poignant. However, it fails to challenge any preconceptions about the play, adhering to the usual interpretation of the themes and characters.
Luhrmann injects a controversial aspect to his characters, seizing on the ambiguity of many events that occur within the original stage version to make his mark on the play. The flamboyance of his Mercutio made his death all the more ironic, in that the character had a degree of invincibility about him.
My interpretation of the play ties in closely with the Zeffirelli version. However, saying that, I believe the Luhrmann version was a far more entertaining screen adaptation, being accessible to everyone, regardless of whether they had read the play or not. Mass appeal is, ultimately, what films are about, and Luhrmann has incorporated all the aspects of a blockbuster with the timeless appeal of Shakespeare.