In 1596, William Shakespeare published the tragic tale of two star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. The origins of this story are uncertain but Shakespeare’s chief source for his adoption of the story was from “…The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet, a poem by Arthur Brooke (1562). He also knew the story from Palace of Pleasure, by William Painter, which appeared in several editions prior to 1580.”(Boyce 563) Shakespeare’s classic tale is about “two young lovers caught in the crossfire of a senseless family feud.”(Shakespeare 3) This feud between the two families ultimately is the cause of the two lovers untimely demise. In 1996, Baz Luhrmann produced a modern film of the classic tragedy entitled William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. Adding familiar images and common ideas, Luhrmann brought the classic story to modern times. Though Romeo + Juliet has many differences from the original version from Shakespeare, it supports the original characters, themes, dialogue, and key issues of the classic tale of the star-crossed lovers.
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There were many differences among the two stories, among these differences were setting, weapons, the classic “Balcony Scene,” other new adoptions to the film, the concentration on the main characters of Romeo and Juliet, and the implementation of imagery to the storyline. First, the setting of the story is probably one of the biggest differences between the two stories. The original version of the tale is set in Verona, Italy. The newer version is set in a fictitious Verona Beach, California, a city with the appearance of modern day Los Angeles after a riot. The new environment gives familiarity to the viewer, allowing them to relate to the situation at hand, bringing it to a modern time. Another change to the story was the weapons used within the story. The original story used daggers as weapons whereas the newer version uses guns (appropriately titled sword, dagger, etc.). The famed “Balcony Scene,” where Romeo and Juliet avow their love to each other was dramatically changed in many aspects. In the original version, Juliet appears on the balcony and utters the famous words “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” (Shakespeare 45) Juliet then goes into the speech about names, asking Romeo to deny his fathers name. Romeo is hiding in the shadows below and hears the words of Juliet. After hearing Juliet’s speech Romeo steps into the light. Romeo and Juliet profess their love for each other and they plan to get married in secrecy. This is a very romantic and heart-filled scene. The new version, on the other hand, takes place in the pool of the Capulet’s home. The same dialogue is spoken between the two lovers but the sexuality of the film takes away from the true romanticism of the original play. Only part of the scene takes place on the balcony. Only where Juliet is telling Romeo goodnight takes place on the balcony. This, in part, takes away from the story. Many things in the new version were changed to make the transition from old times to new. Guns, letter courier services, cars, drugs, and policemen all replace swords, messengers, Monarchs, and the Watch. These modern elements neither take away nor add to the storyline. When the character’s fight with swords in the original play, the audience understands the magnitude of the hatred between the two families. This same magnitude is conveyed when the characters fight with guns. Because the play focuses on the feuding families and the desires Romeo and Juliet have for each other, time changes, props changes, and slight dialogue, action, and scene changes does not make a substantial difference in the overall plot of the story. One aspect of the play that really bothered many Shakespeare fans was the change of the meaning of Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech. Mercutio’s long speech about Queen Mab in the original version, according to Robert Evans, “presents what were the main reasons for marriage- money, place, and love- and then presents what in the milieu of Romeo and Juliet was a principle destructive force- violence.”(Evans 79) In the new version, Mercutio is merely referring to a mood-altering drug called Ecstasy. Also, in the new version, the two house’s loyal servants were portrayed more as gang members.
Among some of the other changes in the story, there was also a great deal of concentration over the main characters of Romeo and Juliet. The original story has many scenes where other people have conversations. In the new version, most of these scenes have been omitted, probably to keep the focus on the main story. Imagery is also a big difference between the original and new versions. The new version of the story has strong images to support main ideas and help the viewer keep up with story whether they understand the dialogue or not. The old version leaves the reader with a lot to figure out and often confused.
Though there were many differences between the two stories, the likenesses outnumbered the differences. The film, in fact, is just a modernized version of the original tale. The new version contains all the original main characters. Romeo is the only son of the Montague family. He falls in love with Juliet and proceeds to marry her. He is a tragic character. He is young, hasty, and emotional. These qualities ultimately lead to his death. Juliet is the daughter of the Capulet family. She falls in love with Romeo. She believes that marriage should be out of love not out of necessity. She is also can be characterized as hasty and young. Lord Capulet is Juliet’s father. He is a strict, harsh, non-understanding man. He wishes Juliet to marry Paris and arranges so. Lady Montague is Romeo’s mother. She is very busy and strict. Lord Montague is Romeo’s father. He is very stubborn and not willing to forgive and end the feud. Paris is a kinsman to the Prince. He cares about Juliet and wishes to marry her. The Prince is the prince of Verona. The Prince is fed up with the constant quarrels between the two families and wishes to call a truce between the two families and end the feud. Friar Lawrence is the priest in Verona. He marries Romeo and Juliet in secrecy hoping it will unite the two families, instead it causes more turmoil. He also gives Juliet the sleeping potion. Juliet’s Nurse cared for Juliet throughout her childhood. She just wants Juliet to be happy. Mercutio is Romeo’s best friend. Mercutio isn’t for either of the houses and at the time of his death curses both houses.
Both stories support the same central themes as well. Themes play a strong part in the original story as well as the movie. Most notable are the themes of love and fate. The play develops the theme of love through contrast. On one hand, there is Romeo’s infatuation with Rosaline and the arranged marriage of Paris and Juliet. On the other is the “pure” true love of Romeo and Juliet. The play shows this primarily through their actions and their romantic speeches to one another. The movie develops the theme of love the same way, but with the additional twist of incest (Tybalt and Lady Capulet) and homosexuality (Mercutio). The theme of fate almost disappears, however. The play shows many premonitions of tragedy to Romeo, Juliet, and the Friar. There are also several events beyond their control, such as the feud between the two families, the plague, and the arranged marriage of Paris and Juliet. In the movie, Romeo fails to notice the receipt of the letter from Friar Lawrence. Near the end of the movie, Romeo fails to notice that Juliet is moving and that she is still warm. Therefore fate is mistaken through sheer ignorance to the obvious. There were many key issues in both versions thatplay a significant part in the events of the story. Feuding is one of the key issues that lead to the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Had the two families not been feuding, the situation never would have existed. Dreams were also a big issue in the story. Had Romeo heeded the warnings of his premonitions he could have avoided his death. There were also the issues of decisions, sacrifices, stereotypes, and fate.
Over 400 years ago Shakespeare wrote a classic story that has been retold for centuries. This new version is just a modern adoption of the classic tale of the two star crossed lovers. The actors featured in Luhrmann’s film did an excellent job in portraying the two young lovers. Throughout the film, Shakespeare’s poetic language is spoken nearly verbatim. But the terrific cast, led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, follows the well-known dialogue with nary an English accent. Nonetheless, DiCaprio and Danes on-screen chemistry transcends the antiquated language to produce the beautiful and tragic love story for today’s movie going audiences. According to George Bernard Shaw playing the parts of Romeo and Juliet is “almost impossible, except to actors of pure genius, skilled to the last degree in metrical declamation, by the way in which the poetry, magnificent as it is, is interlarded by the miserable rhetoric and silly logical conceits which were the foible of the Elizabethans. When Juliet comes out on her balcony and, having propounded the question, “What’s in a name?” proceeds to arguer it out like an amateur attorney in Christmas-card verse of the “rose by any other name” order, no actress can make it appear natural to a century which has discovered the art of giving prolonged and intense dramatic expression to pure feeling alone, without any skeleton of argument or narrative, by means of music. Romeo has lines that tighten the heart or catch you up in to the heights, alternately with heartless fustian and silly ingenuities that make you curse Shakespeare’s stagestruckness and his youthful inability to keep his brains quiet.” (Bloom 37) Though certain aspects are changed, the story remains beautifully sound and serves as a classic example of the power of love. The new version, in my opinion, is the better version of the story. Not only does it depict the original tale, it adds visual stimuli to help draw the reader in. But the stories still have their similarities. Though Romeo + Juliet has many differences from the original version from Shakespeare, it supports the original characters, themes, dialogue, and key issues of the classic tale of the star-crossed lovers.
Romeo and Juliet: From Play to Big Screen
Bloom, Harold. Bloom’s Reviews: William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Broomall,
PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 1998.
Critical Essays on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Ed. Joseph A. Porter. New York:
G.K. Hall & Co., 1997
Evans, Robert O. The Osier Cage. Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 1966.
William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. Dir. Baz Luhrmann. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio,
Claire Danes. Twentieth Century Fox, 1996.
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Ed. John E. Hankins. New York: Scholastic