Juliet is an interesting character due to her changing character during the course of the play. At the beginning of the play, Shakespeare tries to portray Juliet as an innocent young girl, who is obedient and respectful to her parents. As she falls in love with Romeo and becomes more disobedient, she fakes her own death to her parents – something she never would have done earlier in the play.
There have been many different interpretations of Romeo and Juliet since it was written by William Shakespeare in the 17th century. The classic love story still remains popular to this day. Franco Zeffirelli directed a film version of Romeo and Juliet in 1968 and Baz Luhrmann directed a film of the play in 1996. I think that the story of Romeo and Juliet has remained so popular throughout the centuries because it shows how powerful love can be, as it brings the two feuding families together.
Despite being a main character, Juliet does not make an appearance in the play until Act 1 Scene 3. Shakespeare uses this scene to introduce Juliet’s character, to give the audience a very good idea of what her character is like before she meets Romeo. We discover that Juliet is very obedient towards her parents as soon as she comes into the play; as soon as she is called, she arrives. Her first words of the play tell us a lot about her character. The way she calls her mother, Lady Capulet, ‘madam’, shows us that she respects her parents. She asks her mother ‘what is your will?’ suggesting that she is willing to do whatever her mother tells her. From this scene we can tell how Juliet respects her parents. This shows how young she is.
Act 1 Scene 5 sees the first meeting of Romeo and Juliet, in Capulet’s mansion, at the party. Romeo is first attracted to her because of her beauty. He describes her as ‘a snowy dove trooping with crows’. This imagery, which implies that Juliet stands out from everybody else at the party, describes Juliet as a snowy dove. Shakespeare picks the contrast of white against black (white dove, black crows) for Juliet deliberately, as white symbolises goodness and purity. This idea of a connection between Juliet and the colour white occurs several times in the play. At this stage in the play, Juliet shows only a physical attraction towards Romeo, and uses religious imagery to show this attraction; ‘saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch, and palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss’. In Act 2 Scene 2 (the ‘balcony scene’), the relationship between Romeo and Juliet changes; their love is no longer based on a purely physical attraction.
They arrange for a messenger to come and see Romeo the next day, to arrange a time and place for them to be married. It is unusual for a woman to behave as Juliet does in this scene as she is planning her own marriage behind her parents’ back, without consent. Normally, at the time that the play was written, the marriage would be arranged by the parents. It is especially unusual for Juliet, as at the beginning of the play, Juliet is a well-behaved, obedient girl. This is the biggest example so far in the play of Juliet’s changing character. In this part of the play, the dramatic interest is achieved through the fact that Juliet is being called from inside, and she has to rush. Imagery for speed and movement is used as Juliet is being called by the Nurse; for example, when Romeo says ‘love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books, but love from love, toward school with heavy looks’. This means that two lovers go towards each other as fast as a schoolboy goes away from school, but two lovers go away from each other as fast as a schoolboy goes to school (‘with heavy looks’: the schoolboy would not want to go to school).
In Act 2 Scene 5, Juliet is waiting, in Capulet’s mansion, for the Nurse to return with news of Romeo. Juliet is impatient, and mentions that love should make the Nurse’s return quicker. Romeo and Juliet get married in Act 2 Scene 6. The dramatic interest in this scene comes from the fact that the marriage is a secret, and Juliet’s parents are expecting her to marry Paris. Juliet finds out about Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s banishment from Verona in Act 3 Scene 2. When the Nurse arrives in Juliet’s room, she is very distressed, and is unable to give a clear answer when Juliet asks what the matter is. At first, Juliet believes that it is Romeo that has been killed. Juliet eventually finds out that it is Tybalt, not Romeo, who is dead. Although she is very upset at the news of her cousin’s death, she defends Romeo when the Nurse tries to criticise him (‘shame come to Romeo’) for killing Tybalt.
Juliet faces another problem in Act 3 Scene 5 when her parents tell her that they want her to marry Paris. Capulet, Juliet’s father, who has not noticed the change in his daughter since his party, is infuriated by this, telling her that if she does not marry Paris in two days time, he will disown her. As she turns to the Nurse for comfort, the Nurse betrays her, and says that she should marry Paris, at her parents’ will. The dramatic interest gained here is through the fact that Juliet is becoming more and more isolated and alone; the only person she can talk to is Friar Lawrence, as Romeo has been banished. Juliet goes to see Friar Lawrence (the only other person who knows about Romeo and Juliet’s marriage) in Act 4 Scene 1.
When the Friar suggests a plan to Juliet, involving her dangerously faking her own death, she jumps at the chance; she feels that she has nothing left to lose. Juliet faking her own death adds to the drama and tension of this scene; and also shows how much she has changed since the start of the play, when she was so obedient to her parents. Juliet’s language in this scene is very desperate; she comments that she would rather jump ‘from off the battlements of any tower’ than marry Paris; and goes on to list many other unimaginable things that she would rather do than marry Paris. Shakespeare uses dramatic irony in Act 4 Scene 2; the audience knows that Juliet will not marry Paris, whereas Capulet is led to believe that Juliet is willing to be married on Thursday.
In Act 4 Scene 3, Juliet is about to take to the potion, but begins to have doubts, adding tension to the scene. She has fears that the potion that the Friar has given her really is poison, and that he is murdering her to protect his reputation. Once she has cast these doubts aside, she begins to have new doubts; fears of suffocation in the tomb and of going mad with fear when she awakes. She again has to face her fears in Act 5 Scene 3 (the death scene), when the Friar leaves her with the watch coming to find her. She faces her fears and stays at the tomb, where she kills herself using Romeo’s dagger. I feel that Juliet has to be admired in Act 3 Scene 5, as she shows no sign of fear in the face of death. Even though she is alone (she has lost the support of her parents, the Nurse, Friar Lawrence and Romeo has died), she makes the decision to commit suicide.
This act of independence shows how Juliet’s character has changed throughout the course of the play; she decides to kill herself, even though she can take the easy way and just go back to her parents. Juliet’s death speech in Act 5 Scene 3 is much shorter than Romeo’s: ‘ah dear Juliet, why art thou yet so fair?’ Romeo has the time to ask himself rhetorical questions to himself during his soliloquy, whereas Juliet has much less time. This is a technique of adding dramatic interest used by Shakespeare; Juliet has little time (adding tension to the scene) and so has to act quickly (the watch is coming), whereas Romeo had a lot of time after Paris’ death.
I will now concentrate on the two films’ portrayal of Juliet’s character. The character of Juliet was played by Olivia Hussey in Franco Zeffirelli’s version of the play in 1968. She is depicted as very young in this film; she has long hair, which makes her look younger. She also dresses elaborately, to put emphasis on her wealthy background. At Juliet’s first appearance in the film (i.e. first impressions of her character) she is playing and laughing, like a child, to pit more emphasis on her youth. She frequently looks at the Nurse for reassurance in this scene, as at this part of the film, she finds it difficult to make independent decisions. She also sits on the Nurse’s lap at one point, which, as well as showing the close relationship between Juliet and the Nurse, emphasises her youth. She also giggles childishly a lot in the party scene, where she first meets Romeo.
At the balcony scene in Act 2, we see another side of Juliet; she is intimate and passionate with Romeo. In the marriage scene, she wears a veil, making her look older, and is holding white lilies, symbolising purity and innocence. The relationship between Juliet and the colour white is emphasised several times in the film; for example the morning she spends the night with Romeo, the sheets, curtains and her nightgown are all white. As she is betrayed by the Nurse, she remains calm, speaking with dignity. This shows how much she has matured; she does not get upset and makes her own decision, instead of taking the Nurse’s advice. When she takes the Friar’s potion, she looks as if she is praying, and there is a light on her in the darkness, to symbolise hope.
In Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version of the play, Juliet is played by Claire Danes. Luhrmann’s, unlike Zeffirelli’s, was set in the late 20th century, so Juliet wore modern clothes; for example jeans and t-shirts. The party scene in this film was a fancy dress party, and Juliet is symbolically dressed as a heavenly angel, suggesting innocence, hope and purity, along with the idea, once more, of Juliet wearing white. In the balcony scene, she falls into the swimming pool below her window with Romeo, possibly suggesting baptism or new life. As she is getting married, she wears white again, and also has her hair up, to suggest independence and maturity. Juliet wears black when she goes to see the Friar, after the argument with her parents, as she is upset and mourning. When she takes the potion in this film, she wears pink, silk pyjamas, looking sophisticated. She also takes the potion without hesitation, showing that she is in control, and showing no signs of looking back.
There are many differences between Luhrmann’s and Zeffirelli’s films. In Luhrmann’s version, Juliet looks much older (about the same age as Romeo) than in the Zeffirelli film. Zeffirelli’s Juliet acts childishly, and giggles a lot, whereas the Juliet in Luhrmann’s film acts less like a child, although the change in character is still noticeable, if not as much as in Zeffirelli’s version. Zeffirelli chooses music to reflect the mood in each scene, whereas Luhrmann opts for popular hits, but the music is still powerful and intense.
Of the two films, my personal favourite is Zeffirelli’s film. I think that Luhrmann tries to modernise the story too much, and ruins the film. As Zeffirelli keeps his version close to the original story, it is more authentic, and gives more of an insight into Shakespeare’s work, because of the close references to Shakespeare’s original text Also; the film is set in 17th century Verona, creating more authenticity for the film.
Concluding my essay, I find Juliet to be a powerful character (as portrayed in both films). She seems to be a childish character at the beginning of the play, but maturing as the play goes on, most notably after meeting Romeo. I feel that Shakespeare makes this change in her character to make her interesting to the audience. Shakespeare does create dramatic interest for the character of Juliet, as her changing character will keep the audience interested and wanting to see how she develops and wanting to find out if she will find happiness.