English teachers are well aware that appreciating a Shakespearian play such as ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is not something that the twenty first century GCSE student finds particularly interesting. As a member of Year Ten, I think that the use of a visual medium especially the film would be considerably useful in assisting pupils with their comprehension and analytical understanding of the play. Two of the most common productions that are currently used in the classroom are Luhrman’s film version which was made relatively recently and is set in a modern Verona and Zeffirelli’s adaptation which is set in a contemporary Elizabethan Verona and produced in the 60s. Both are advantageous in different ways and they might possibly attract different audiences.
First of all let’s look at the opening of Luhrman’s film. The first thing that the audience see is a newsreader on a television reciting the prologue superimposed on a dark screen. Since there is neither background music nor other images except the newsreader, the point of focus is the words of the prologue thus emphasising their importance. Furthermore in the top corner of the news reader’s screen there is a ring which is split in two. Isn’t this a graphic way to encapsulate the message of the prologue that the love between Romeo and Juliet is torn apart by conflict? I think this will certainly leave a lasting impression to the minds of the students. Once the newsreader has finished, the prologue is repeated as a voice over but this time with the words on screen, again making the importance of the prologue absolutely clear to the viewers.
The modern day GCSE student lives in a world surrounded by new technology therefore Luhrman uses lots of modern cinematic techniques in order to grab the attention of the audience. Here we see a technique that will really assist the audience in their appreciation of the play, while the prologue is repeated, images of violence between the two families are shown and there is a camera shot of two large towers with the words Montague and Capulet inscribed in bold letters. This juxtaposition helps the students to visualize the conflict between the two families and also the overwhelming domination that they have over the city. The newspaper headlines that are intermittently flash on screen also help to portray that the entire city is focused on the two families. The aural senses of the audience can not fail to notice that the orchestral background music has gradually increased in pace; the speed of the scene transition also increases, adding to the build up of excitement in the opening scene.
Likewise in Zeffirelli’s version while the prologue is being recited, only the title Romeo and Juliet is seen imposed on a black background. The director uses the voice over of Sir Lawrence Olivier who is a renowned Shakespearian actor to recite the prologue, stressing the importance of the prologue; although this is likely to be lost on a teenage GCSE audience. Olivier uses a very calm, relaxed tone reinstating an ambience of peace. The font that is used for the title is in a medieval style, as is the background setting and music; the audience cannot fail to notice that Zeffirelli focuses on the era in which Shakespeare’s play is set. As the title fades away a very peaceful morning scene is introduced and the camera focuses on the sun, might this signify tranquillity and joy and the start of a new day? The minds of the more literal students might be thinking about the Prince’s words at the end of the play, “The sun for sorrow will not show his head”, could this be foreshadowing later events?
In Luhrman’s film the director sets about replacing the actions of the play with modern day parallels without detracting from the original meaning. Instances such as this happen often in the Luhrman’s film for example the gesture of ‘biting a thumb’, which the majority of your students, are likely to gaze blankly upon has been replaced by an action more understandable to a twenty first century mind. As a GCSE student I think that Luhrman is instantly making the film more appealing and understandable to the students; thus they will be more inclined to watch and apprehend the film because it is easier to relate to. Additionally while the fight scene in Act 1 Sc 1 is being carried out the director employs a cinematic technique that makes it clear to the students who each character is and which house hold he belongs to. How does he do this? Freeze frames, this useful technique engrains the names of the characters on screen while also showing a still camera shot of them. Conversely, a weakness in this version is that the tone of the fight is slightly comical; small details such as naming Tybalt ‘prince of cats’ and playing ‘wild west’ music while the Capulets leave their car, are quite unnecessary and perhaps detracts some of the quality from this version of this scene.
Zeffirelli’s version of the public brawl scene is also excellently portrayed; the key ideas that Zeferelli assists GCSE students to understand in this scene are the brutality and scale of the conflict between the two families, the pugnacious nature of Tybalt and the influence that the households have upon ordinary people and everyday life. During the brawl almost the entire city is involved even the ordinary people; Zeferelli has spent a large proportion of his budget on extras rather than special effects, enabling him to clearly convey to the audience the scale of the conflict. The fight is portrayed in a much more serious nature than the Luhrman film; several people in this version are killed or seriously injured, the market place is being torn apart and women and children are screaming. All of this in conjunction exemplify a sense of brutality that appears to be absent in Luhrman’s version. Furthermore, through the use of close combat weaponry such as swords the viewers get the impression of a more meaningful ‘personal’ battle. Tybalt in this scene is brilliantly illustrated by the actor Michael York; he is shown as the main cause of the melee because he leads a band of Capulets into the fight and he is the one who cries “Capulet!” as if he was urging on the conflict because of the portrayal of his violent nature the audience are likely to suspect that he will be the origin of a major incident later on in the play.
I found that the rest of Act I Sc 1 in Luhrman’s film is perhaps the strongest point in his adaptation. When Romeo’s parents are describing the problem with their son to Benvolio, solemn music is played in the background giving a sombre mood to the scene. Additionally the set in which Romeo is seen, is calm and peaceful with the sounds of gentle waves adding to this effect, also Romeo is in a distinctly different costume to the rest of the Montagues, all this immediately contrasts Romeo from his family and the conflict of the previous scene. Luhrman uses a simple but excellent cinematic prop- a book, Romeo before being greeted by Benvolio, has a book in which he writes the phrases of oxymoron (“serious vanity” “loving hate”) which appear later on in the scene, this perfectly conveys to the audience that Romeo’s grief is rehearsed and he is merely wallowing, a point which you perhaps have spent several lessons trying to get across to your students. Moreover the director uses a close up image of the book which gives the GCSE audience what the phrases look like in a written form. Another excellent feature that this film has is that Romeo’s mystery love is made very clear to the audience while in a pool house Rosaline’s name is written on a board and a speaker on the television mentions her name, it is apparent to the audience that the love is not for Juliet.
Conversely the same scene in Zeffirelli’s version is perhaps the weakest point in the film. The meeting between Benvolio and Romeo is very brief compared to Luhrman’s film, Zeffirelli cuts out most of the dialogue from the original play, including key sections which contain aspects of language that are quintessential to understand Romeo’s character. For a general audience it is quite acceptable; however for a GCSE audience this is very unhelpful. How frustrating, all that time spent teaching the pupils about this part of the play without being able to show it to them in a visual form. However where Zeffirelli’s film really shines is in its portrayal of Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, Zeffirelli through this speech shows a vivid illustration of Mercutio as a character. Initially while Mercutio is reciting the speech he is very light hearted and a band of friends are following him laughing and responding to his jokes, giving a preliminary impression of a humorous leader figure. However for the last part of his speech, he runs out into the empty courtyard and begins to shout and he becomes very disturbed by what he is saying. Zefferelli effectively conveys to audience an oddity in Mercutio’s character and it explains the way he behaves later on in the play, something which that may have been difficult to explain before to your pupils.
Luhrman’s version of this scene has both advantages and disadvantages. Luhrman excellently emphasizes the role of fate in the play; while Romeo says the line “some consequence yet hanging in the stars” the screen flashes forward into the future and we see a glimpse of an important scene near the end of the play. This is an outstanding way of illustrating to the audience the theme of fate and clearly conveys that Romeo believes that his life is predetermined. The scene however also has a weak point, Luhrman portrays Queen Mab as a drug, this alone is not too bad (perhaps an interpretation of the line “no bigger than an agate stone”), but the oddity is that Romeo then takes the. Personally I think that this gives the wrong impression to a GCSE audience it almost leads us to believe that Romeo is not fully aware or conscious of the decisions that he makes in the next scene.
In conclusion both films have advantages and disadvantages. However I would like to recommend the use of Luhrman’s film in order to assist GCSE students with their appreciation of the play. Primarily because of Luhrman’s use of contemporary to modern day setting and the use of fresh parallels that appropriately replace some on the events in the original play without any losing any of the meaning; I think that this will really help GCSE students to comprehend and value Shakespeare’s play. Another decisive factor was Zeffirelli’s omission of key aspects in Act I sc 1 that are absolutely essential for GCSE students. Thank you very much for taking time to read my comments about this topic and I hope you take this into consideration when you decide which film of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to show your pupils.