Love and Hate
"[. . . E]mblems of mafia gang-land hostility: guns, fast cars, and tattoos [. . .]" (Walker 5) are not the usual images found in a Shakespearean play. Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 production of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is:
[. . .] told in a setting [. . .] that is modern and yet unfamiliar: a world where the youth might conceivably always go armed; a world where love can still be so thwarted and endangered; where the innocence and passion of the protagonists can be so out of step with the current mood. (Hamilton 3)
The original drama and the 1996 movie production have more differences than similarities that can be seen in comparing them both. The scenes and the language in the movie are easier to understand than reading the play because of the modern day setting and the conversational use of Shakespeare’s language. In the movie, the hatred that is held between the Montague and Capulet families and leads to the destruction of the love that is found between Romeo and Juliet is portrayed more clearly than in the play. The feud between the two families can be seen in the characters and the scenes compared in the play and the movie.
In the first act of Shakespeare’s play, Tybalt, who is a member of the Capulet family, is upset at Benvolio, who is a member of the Montague family. Benvolio has drawn his sword in order to "keep the peace" (Shakespeare 1.1). Tybalt’s hatred toward the Montague family can be seen in the following passage to Benvolio: "What, drawn, and talk of peace! I hate the word, / As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee [. . .]" (Shakespeare 1.1). Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggests that "Tybalt is a man abandoned to his passions—with all the pride of family, only because he thought it belonged to him as a member of that family [. . .]" (133). Tybalt’s character in the drama and in the film has more similarities than differences. In both, he is portrayed with plenty of hatred toward the Montague family. In the movie, he is seen wearing a devil costume at the Capulet’s ball. This costume symbolizes his hatred toward the Montague family. After Tybalt realizes that Romeo is at the Capulet’s ball, he is ready "To strike him dead [. . .]" (Shakespeare 1.5). He is enraged when his uncle, Capulet, tells him to be "content [. . .] [and] let him alone [. . .]" (Shakespeare 1.5). Tybalt vows that once the Capulet’s ball is over he will have his vengeance on Romeo. In the movie, Tybalt’s outrage at the Capulet’s ball is seen more vividly than in the play by his violent reaction to Romeo’s presence there. However, in the play, the audience cannot truly see the hatred that Tybalt has toward the Montague family. In the movie, Tybalt’s character is portrayed more violently as a drug lord or mafia gang leader who has hatred for a family he does not truly know. This hatred that Tybalt has will lead to the destruction of the love between Romeo and Juliet.
Another character that is seen with two different personae in the drama is Capulet. In the play he is seen as "a worthy, noble-minded old man of high rank [. . .]" (Coleridge 135). He shows his authority when he tells Tybalt that Romeo "Shall be endured [. . .]" (Shakespeare 1.5), and he asks Tybalt, "Am I the master here, or you? [. . .]" (Shakespeare 1.5). In Luhrmann’s movie, Capulet is portrayed as a "mafia boss" (Hamilton 4) who is dressed as Caesar at the ball. The costume represents "his desire for tyrannical control over [his] wife, family, and company [. . .]" (Walker 2). In both the play and the movie, Capulet has arranged for his daughter Juliet to marry the noble Paris. When Juliet refuses to marry him, her father becomes outraged. His violence can be seen more vividly in the movie than in the play. Juliet then pleads with her mother to have the wedding delayed:
[. . .] for a month, a week;
In that dim monument where Tybalt lies. (Shakespeare 3.5)
In the play, the previous passage does not have the same dramatic effect as watching the same scene in the movie. In the movie and the play, the previous passage is foreshadowing the destruction of the love between Romeo and Juliet.
Romeo is another character who is portrayed differently in the movie. Before he goes to the Capulet’s ball, "Luhrmann [. . .] [has] him pop a pill marked with a red heart [. . .]" (Downing 4). Once he has arrived at the ball, he is "barely in control of his motor skills" (Downing 4). In the play, Romeo wears a mask to the ball; whereas in the movie he is wearing a suit of armor, "a costume suggested to the screenwriters, perhaps, by Montague’s statement that Romeo ‘makes himself an artificial night’" (Downing 4). In the play and the movie, Romeo has a premonition that "Some consequence [. . .] of untimely death [. . .]" (Shakespeare 1.4) will occur if he goes to the ball (Charlton 149). In the movie, this scene is easier to understand because Shakespeare’s language is more conversational than the reading of the play.
There are several scenes in the movie that differ from the same scenes in the play. Shakespeare has the chorus in the play narrated by the citizens of Verona; whereas in Luhrmann’s film the chorus is seen on a smaller screen where a "television [. . .] newscaster [. . .] delivers the prologue in the same calm tone, [. . .] [that] we are accustomed to hearing the news of modern life tragedies" (Walker 2). Because Luhrmann uses modern technologies to relate the seriousness of the feud between the Capulet and Montague families, people who are not familiar with Shakespeare’s language are able to understand the film.
Another difference can be seen at the beginning of the drama when the servants are fighting in the first act. In the play, the servants of the Capulet family are provoking the Montague servants to a fight without starting the fight. Sampson bites his thumb at the Montague servants "[. . .] which is a disgrace to them, if they bare it" (Shakespeare 1.1). Because Sampson has disgraced the Montagues, a sword fight is started. On the other hand, in the movie, the "Montague Boys" (Luhrmann) are at a gas station refueling their convertible low-rider truck. The "Capulet Boys" (Luhrmann) have pulled into the gas station while the "Montague Boys" are making sexual gestures to a van of Catholic girls and nuns while rock music is heard in the background. Abra Capulet jumps toward the Montague Boys and scares them. The Montague Boys are now nervous and humiliated. They bite their thumbs at the Capulet Boys, and this act begins a gunfight. In Luhrmann’s modern settings, "the weaponry: the rapiers, swords, and longsword of Shakespeare’s text becomes guns with the words ‘rapier,’ ‘sword,’ ‘longsword’ recast as trademarks" (Walker 3). The fights in the text and film show the hatred of the feud between the two families. In the movie, the gunfight is portrayed more violently than the swordfight in the play.
Another difference that is seen between the play and the movie is the famous balcony scene. In the play, Juliet is seen on the balcony, and Romeo is on the ground below. The traditional balcony scene allowed "the poetry to dominate and [. . .] the lovers never touched" (Hamilton 5). On the other hand, Luhrmann has transformed the balcony scene to "the Capulet swimming pool [. . .]" (Downing 4). In the play, Juliet warns Romeo of the danger he is in by being in her orchard: "If they see thee, they will murder thee" (Shakespeare 2.2). The same tension is seen in the movie through the surveillance cameras on the Capulet’s pool. In both the play and the movie, Romeo’s life is in danger because of the feud between the Montague and Capulet families. In the movie, the modern technologies, such as the surveillance cameras, reveal the danger that Romeo is in more vividly than the balcony scene in Shakespeare’s film.
Another significant difference between the play and the movie occurs after Juliet drinks the sleeping potion. In the play, Friar John has been sent to Mantua to inform Romeo of Juliet’s phony suicide. He is unsuccessful in getting the message to Romeo due to being quarantined because he has been "in a house / Where the infectious pestilence did reign [. . .]" (Shakespeare 5.2). In the movie, the message from Friar Lawrence to Romeo is sent through a delivery service called "poste haste." The message is "blown away in the dust-laden wind" (Downing 5). In both the play and the movie, Balthasar goes to Mantua to tell Romeo that Juliet is "laid low in her kindred’s vault" (Shakespeare 5.1). Balthasar is unaware of the fake suicide and believes that Juliet is truly dead. Because Balthasar reaches Romeo before Friar Lawrence can get word to him, the love between Romeo and Juliet is doomed. In the movie, when the letter does not get delivered to Romeo, the audience can see how important the letter is by how upset Friar Lawrence is when he learns that the letter has been returned. On the other hand, the reading of the play does not reveal Friar Lawrence’s reaction as vividly as the movie does.
There are a few differences in the play and the movie when Romeo reaches Juliet’s tomb. In the play, Juliet awakens after Romeo has drunk the poison and dies. However, in the movie, "Luhrmann [. . .] has Juliet wake up in order to watch Romeo die, [. . .] allowing [her . . .] to hear Romeo’s last words" (Downing 5). In Shakespeare, the two fathers have vowed to put their hatred behind them by building golden statues in honor of their children. Luhrmann, on the other hand, does not have the two families end their feuding. The movie portrays how nothing, even death, will stop the feuding between the two families. The play and the movie differ dramatically in this last scene.
From the beginning we are told, "Verona was being torn by a terrible, bloodthirsty feud which no human endeavor had been able to settle [. . .]" (Charlton 147). In the play and the movie, Romeo and Juliet are similar to all victims of tragedy. Both characters "are isolated—even from each other—before they are destroyed" (Goldman 167). In the play and the movie, their families’ names, Romeo’s banishment from Verona, and the poison separate them. The feud "was the direct cause of the death of the lovers, and but for those deaths it never would have been healed" (Charlton 147).
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Christy Andrews-Mulinix, at the time of this writing a sophomore in Computer Science, wrote this essay for Dr. Barbara Murray’s ENGL 1102 class during Spring 2001 semester.