An examination of the way two 20th Centuary Film Directors have interpreted Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet Essay

Published: 2021-06-29 01:42:17
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Many Film Directors have produced versions of Shakespeare Plays. Some have succeeded some not. This is a study of how Franco Zefferelli and Baz Luhrmann have interpreted and dealt with the problems of presenting William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to a modern audience.
The language that Shakespeare wrote in is known as archaic – old. This was a huge barrier for the Directors and it is interesting how they dealt with it.
Zefferelli sets his version in the 14th Centuary. With the costume and setting in this style you expect the actors to speak in 14th century English and it makes the play/film easier to understand.
Luhrmann uses a lot of imagery to compliment the words. An example of this is during the Ball Scene there is a famous speech between Romeo and Juliet where Romeo pictures Juliet as a saint and himself as a pilgrim wishing to worship at her shrine. Lurhmann has set this scene as fancy dress and Juliet is depicted as an Angel whereas Romeo is a knight as in the crusades or a Knight’s Templar.
Many people nowadays think that Shakespeare is unimportant to modern life. They think that his work is out of date and boring. This is a huge problem to a director. BL overcame this by using very popular actors and actresses, set in a futuristic present day, with black actors in the cast and very radical imagery of gang warfare, a drug culture and relation to the inner city problems of today.
It is possible that Luhrmann was alluding to the huge success of West Side Story, made in 1959, and the only musical version to date. This was street violence of rival gang with the hatred based on race.
Zefferelli gets over this by using younger actors and being (for the era) very radical. There is the inclusion of a sex scene with a subtle but obvious inclusion of nudity, the wedding night, which for the time was shocking and got the film a non-child classification from the Censors. Again earlier in the film Juliet leans very provocatively over the balcony, wearing a low cut corset that would not have been in any original stage direction in the 16th Century.
Act 1 Scene 1
In this scene, servants of both Houses meet in the market place. They start a fight that turns into a civil brawl that grows to involve the whole town. The Prince arrives, declares that if there is another fight the participants will be executed. “If you ever disturb our streets again, your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace”
The Directors have a lot of freedom for this scene as Shakespeare uses only one stage direction – “they fight”
Even though they have a lot of freedom in the way of stage directions the words that Shakespeare uses hold a lot of meaning. There are many important quotes used.
Benvolio shows his peaceful character immediately. His first lines are ‘part fools, you know not what you do!’ and ‘I do but keep the peace’, whereas Tybalt declares his ferocity ‘Turn thee Benvolio and look upon your death’ and his infamous speech ‘What, drawn and talk of peace? I hate the word as I hate hell, all Montagues and thee. Have at thee coward!’
Shakespeare is trying to get across the idea of the childlike brawls, the honour of the Houses and the ability of an “airy word” to escalate into a civil brawl.
Zefferelli
This version is set in the 14th Centuary Market Place, with the hustle and bustle and noise of the time. This noise escalates during the fight and is heightened by the un-orderly clanging of the bells that will alert the watch.
Zefferelli takes a very Normal and clich�d view on the camera work and editing. As the action hots up the camera speeds up, as the action calms down the cameras slow down etc. In addition when Tybalt enters all you see is his feet then the camera slowly rises up his body, then zooms out, a common clich� of the “bad guy” thus giving him a feeling of menace and apprehension showing us that we have something to worry about.
After their fight has been broken up and on the entrance of the Prince, the screams, shouts, bells and chaos that has been the soundtrack for the scene drop to silence as the Prince bellows out his gloomy threats. Zefferelli uses the echo of the buildings in the square to make this more threatening.
When the Prince enters we see the crowd from his point of view – the camera is viewing along the horses back. This makes the characters seem small and insignificant as it he is relating to the fight.
Luhrmann
Luhrmann sets his version in modern day America. He has adapted the ways of Shakespeare’s families and brought them into the 21st century. He again may well be referring back to West Side Story in that the Capulets are Puerto Ricans, but they are not poor having made millions from oil (we know this because the fuel station has Capulet written all over it). Luhrmann also describes them by the way they are: – They drive a very gothic Cadillac and they have strong Catholic/Hispanic roots. The clothes they wear, tight trousers, dark shirts, waistcoats and/or jackets show this. They also wear rosaries and have pictures of the Mother of Christ on the side panels of their guns. Tybalt also has a tattoo of a pierced heart on this chest. This is a very dramatic and religious symbol.
The way they speak is also very unique and very evasive. Tybalt often talks in riddles or plays on words together with john Leguizamos’ (the actor) very husky voice, Tybalt is sly, cocky and over confident, as if he thinks he is better than the Montagues.
The easy-going but troubled Montagues have been depicted as typical Americans – loud, slightly overweight and fun loving. There mannerisms are simple though, this helps to describe them as innocent. Luhrmann has perceived them as the better family.
In comparison to Zefferelli this is incredible but in after thought Zefferelli couldn’t do this in his era. This was too radical, even for him.
The camera work in this scene is also very good. Lurhmann takes the typical clich�d speed shots and takes them to higher levels. He takes on a distinctively western theme with all the clich�s of a spaghetti western.
In the beginning, we see the Montague boys teasing a bunch of nuns. Then the Capulets enter. Abra (Shakespeare’s Abraham) is filling the car but then Tybalt comes out of the shop, like Zefferelli, you see his feet first, his cowboy boots stubbing out a match – a western clich�. Just before the fight begins you see a western style moment:- a build up in tension leads to them all stopping, waiting for the slightest moment or object to start off the fight. You see a series of very close-close ups that make it more obvious about the fact that they are all thinking:
For the Capulets – victory, death of the Montagues. For the Montagues – peace, talking their way out of situation and for all – knowing that chaos is imminent
The fight itself is very stylized. The Montagues shooting at any thing and missing. Sampson illustrates this point by repeatedly shooting at a row of cans and a sign that spins around when hit, the scene is full of western clich�s.
The Capulets on the other hand dive around all over the place very dramatically. Very like the popular computer game “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”.
To illustrate that the brawl contains the whole city, Zefferelli uses huge crowds of people whilst Luhrmann uses a range of people, old ladies, nuns, and a little boy.
The little boy describes Tybalt’s ruthlessness, after shooting at Montagues; he turns round, restrains from pulling the trigger but says ‘bang’ to scare him.
Slow motion is used a lot in this scene, at the end when Tybalt drops his cigar in the petrol. This gives him a sense of power and surrealism.
At the end of scene when the Prince enters Luhrmann uses same techniques as Zefferelli but instead of placing him on a horse to look more in charge he is in a helicopter.
Act 1 Scene 5
In this scene, Old Man Capulet throws a party; Mercutio (being kin to Paris) is invited and in turn invites Romeo and challenges him to find a girl. Romeo declines because he is in love with Rosaline but goes anyway. Ro meo meets Juliet, they fall in love. Tybalt sees them and swears revenge. At the end of the scene they learn to their horror who the other is.
Zefferelli sets his version in the Capulets’ manor as a masked ball. The costume that is worn is that of the best party clothes that they would have worn in those days.
The camera work in this scene involves a lot of revolving and spinning. This is used when we see the couple together; it ties in with the idea of dizziness in love. Also
used are many close ups which gives a very intimate feel.
Zefferelli goes back to his spaghetti western routes in his version of this scene. When all is happy the camera is panoramic but it zooms in when bad things are about to happen. When Tybalt finds out that Romeo is a Montague the camera fills the screen with his evil eyes, focusing our attention on his anger. He says
” Patience perforce with willful choler meeting
Makes my flesh tremble in their different greeting.
I will withdraw, but this intrusion shall,
Now seeming sweet convert to bitterest gall.”
Music is also used to compliment the actions. It starts very jolly and happy during the party and slowly builds up as the couple fall in love, finally crescendo as they kiss. The opposite happens at the end of the scene when they realize who the other is. The music grows dramatic and doom laden.
The acting is very good in this scene. Juliet’s stage direction is that of a very young girl, Shakespeare intimates that she is about 13 and Romeo 16. . She is a debutant at her first ‘party’; this makes her very questioning, and she is directed into lots of puppy like head tilting. Romeo has just forgotten his plight with Rosaline and has fallen in love with Juliet. This causes him to act like a lovesick teenager (which he is!). This leads to lots of eye contact and prolonged silences.
Zefferelli is trying in this scene to put across the innocence of the couple and add to the evil of Tybalt’s temperament. I think that he is successful
Luhrmann sets his version in the Capulets mansion, but as a fancy dress party. There is much imagery in the costumes reflecting the decadence and corruption of the world in which Romeo and Juliet live. Old Man Capulet is dressed as Baccus the God of Wine, and to keep the part he gets very drunk and ‘mooons’ at the guests. His wife is Cleopatra, a sexual icon, and Mercutio goes as a transvestite who makes a decadent entry with a Busby Berkley type entourage. Tybalt dresses as a devil and his Puerto Rican henchman dress as a1920’s gangster heavy. Incest is depicted by Romeo visions where he sees Tybalt in a clinch with his Aunt, and hooligan behaviour by the Montague Boys (Benvolio etc) acting as a football crowd might behave.
Like Zefferelli, this version has a lot of intimate camera work, when in the lift, the camera is rotating, but as they kiss it speeds up, along with the music. Like other scenes Luhrmann uses a lot of slow motion. In this scene he uses it to show the effect that the drugs and drink have on Romeo. He uses close ups too to show the emotion on the character’s faces, for example Romeo and Juliet in the lift and Old Man Capulet and Tybalt when they realize what is happening.
Yet again, like Zefferelli, Luhrmann uses music to compliment the action. As the couple finds out more about each other and their admiration grows so does the music, becoming faster, louder and more romantic. At the end of the scene when the horrible truth dawns the music become harsh, discordant and dramatic.
Throughout both films the music has repeating themes, which reoccur for good and bad times. This technique appears here picking up on ‘bad’ music from earlier in the film.
Luhrmann uses Mercutio to show the effect of the drugs. He interprets his speech when he is trying to cheer Romeo up and alludes to Queen Mab as if the Queen of the Fairies is in fact the drug he has in his hand. This is because the legend is that Queen Mab enters peoples’ minds and gives them dreams, as do hallucinogenic drugs. Taking into consideration that Luhrmann made his film right at the height of the ‘rave scene’ where Ecstasy was the height of fashion this twist brings the action right up to date and may well shock and surprise viewers who are not of that crowd.
Both films use a single singer to bring more atmosphere to the end of this scene. In keeping with the period Zefferelli uses a Castrati, but to be thoroughly 20th Centuary Luhrmann has a black soul singer in this place.
Act 5 Scene 3
This is the final and famous scene where they both die. Friar Laurence’s plan to fake Juliet’s death and send word to the exiled Romeo so that they can escape to a new life together is thwarted by Friar John’s delay at the Boarder. Romeo instead receives word from Balthazar (who has no knowledge of the plan), to say that Juliet is dead. Romeo, in his grief, hurries to Verona with the plan to die with her. He commits suicide by Juliet’s body, she then recovers consciousness, sees Romeo dead beside her and therefore takes her own life.
In this scene Shakespeare changes the story from a love story to a tragedy. The hatred, long established, between the elders of these two young lovers, has forced them to conceal their love, and undertake a risky plan to have a life together. The plan backfires causing loss, sadness and grief to both families. In this Shakespear is showing how minor arguments can turn to great hatred, and the waste of life. He also enforces the idea that it may take a massive tragedy to bring warring parties to their senses and bring peace too late for the victims.
Franco Zefferelli uses every technique current at the time to make the death scene as sad a possible. The horror and shock shown by the people who find the bodies, the music and the slow, lingering camera work, together with misting of some of the shots all work together to emphasize the pathos and grief. He uses techniques that might seem outdated in the current age but were drawn from the golden age of cinema in the 1950’s and 60’s when a ‘good cry’ was seen to be a requirement of a good film.
The scene is, however, very sterilized. Although Romeo has taken poison, and Juliet has stabbed herself there is nothing ugly and very little blood. The film leaves an impression only of sadness, and not the horror that such a scene would give in reality.
Lurhmann however goes out of his way to shock in this scene, which is not his usual style. Romeo arrives as part of a police chase, and takes a hostage as part of his desperation to get to the chapel. The Prince is chasing Romeo in a helicopter, with aggressive music and much background noise. When he gets to the Chapel and shuts the door the sound is muffled. Lurhmann uses light to great effect. The chapel is full of thousands of candles, with white material to emphasis light and innocence. This is referring to Shakespear’s own words in that he gives Romeo the lines ‘she does make torches to burn bright’ when he is first describing Juliet.
In increase the sadness Lurhmann makes fine adjustments to Shakespear’s stage direction. The author intended that Romeo was already dead when Juliet regains consciousness. In this version he has just swallowed the poison as he realizes that Juliet is still alive, and for a split second they are both aware of what has happened. The Director shows his talent in that there is no deviation from the original text, just the use of body language, close ups and facial expressions, and makes the whole scene far sadder than versions that stick to the original stage direction. The audience is left wishing that Romeo had arrived just a few minutes, even seconds later, and the tragedy would have had a happy ending.
At the start of the scene, it is like an action movie. The camera work is fast and furious, with all the clich�s of a police chase. This action adds to the feeling of desperation and need for speed that Romeo is suffering. This camera work stops and goes to the same camera long shot as he slams the door of the chapel. The contrast from many cameras, view angles and intensity to the single view, where it is the actor not the camera that moves, is used the show the feeling of relief and achievement that Romeo has in that he has made it to the chapel.
The contrast is so strong that it is almost like a computer game, where he has achieved one level and has a distinct break before the next and hardest level.
Conclusion.
I believe that Shakespeare, if he was alive now would have liked parts of both. The Zefferelli version is much less of a culture shock but Lurhmann’s is such a twist on the classic story that he would have appreciated it in a sort of “why didn’t I think of that!” way.
In its time Zefferelli’s version was a masterpiece, and still is, for the classical Shakespear scholar. However with the capabilities of modern television, and the understanding of modern life that the audience has, it appears dated.
My personal preference is that of Lurhmann’s. You as an adult may think that this is typical of a teenager, but I believe that it is because his version brings the emotions alive whereas Zefferelli’s version did that in its day but does not with a modern audience.

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