Shakespeare on the Scene

Essay by Anonymous UserCollege, UndergraduateA+, December 1996

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Sex, drugs, and violence are usually a potent combination, and only William

Shakespeare could develop them into a masterful, poetic, and elegant story. In the play,

'The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet,' all these aspects of teenage life absorb the reader or

watcher. It is understood that Hollywood would try to imitate this masterpiece on screen,

and it has done so in two films: Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 'Romeo and Juliet' and Baz

Luhrmann's 1996 'William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.' The updated Luhrmann

picture best captures the essence of Shakespeare for the present-day viewer. Through the

ingenious use of modernization and location, while preserving Shakespearean language,

the spirit of Shakespeare emerges to captivate a large audience.

Shakespeare's plays were designed to adapt to any audience: with this in mind, Baz

Luhrmann created a film that applies to the modern audience through this updating.

Luhrmann modernizes 'Romeo and Juliet,' through constant alterations of the props,

which entice the audience into genuinely feeling the spirit of Shakespeare.

First, the movie

starts with an prologue masked as a news broadcast on television. This sets the scene of

the play by illustrating the violence occurring between the two wealthy families, the

Montagues and the Capulets. In Zeffirelli's film of 'Romeo and Juliet,' the prologue takes

the form of a dry narrator relating the story of the Montagues and Capulets over a

backdrop of an Italian city. For most modern viewers (especially teenagers), the

Luhrmann picture is fast-paced, keeping the spectator intrigued, while the Zeffirelli picture

is dreary and dull, an endless maze of long and boring conversations, foreshadowed by the

prologue. In Luhrmann's film, the actors, instead of carrying swords with them, hide guns

in their shirts and wield them expertly. The death of Romeo and Juliet is (as always)

blamed on the post office, for not delivering the letter properly. And, to be politically

correct, Mercutio appears at the Capulets' ball dressed as a large woman. The actors in

Zeffirelli's version of Shakespeare wear colored tights and bulging blouses; thus they

appear more comical because they are outdated. By modernizing these aspects of the

play, and reconstructing the prologue, Luhrmann creates a movie that is more interesting

to the modern viewer, and captures the essence of Shakespeare's writings. Evidencing this

viewer-friendliness, the 1996 'William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet' made almost

twelve million dollars in the month of November alone due to its clever alterations.

As well as updating Shakespeare's play to the present decade through props, Baz

Luhrmann's film is more enjoyable because of the vibrant settings. The Zeffirelli's 'Romeo

and Juliet' occurs in an ancient Italian city, with cobblestone streets and Roman mansions.

Although the original play was meant to be performed in this setting, the modern viewer

cannot relate to the environment, and thus has a hard time understanding the plot.

In Luhrmann's version of the play, the Capulets and Montagues first meet in a gas

station, where they exchange insults. In the older version of 'Romeo and Juliet,' the

Montagues and Capulets meet in the narrow streets of their city. For a modern teenager,

a gas station is a more believable location for a fight, for many gang wars (in life and in the

theater) actually take place in this sort of turf. This location helps to describe the extreme

situation of the fighting families. Also, the masquerade ball of the Capulets occurs in a

believable location: a giant dance hall, reminiscent of many New York night clubs and

discos. With a soaring ceiling and a wall-long tropical fish tank, Romeo and Juliet meet,

as if attending a fantastic high school dance. In Zeffirelli's version of Shakespeare,

however, the two lovers meet in a dismal costume ball, while watching a minstrel sing a

doleful acappella tune. This 1968 version of the great celebration seems to have no style,

action, or romance. The 1996 version, however, has wild yet graceful camera angles and

loud music, to keep the average teenager from leaving the theater.

The last setting change that creates a radical experience is the most famous

balcony scene. In the latest rendition of the play, though, the balcony is skillfully

interchanged with a pool. This produces an intense scene (in which the actors are fully

clothed) that is more interesting than the traditional balcony scene of the Zeffirelli film

because it is more extravagant and revolutionary.

The setting change and the constant updating in Luhrmann's film is only enhanced

by the use of the original Shakespearean language to create the ultimate 'Romeo and

Juliet.' For example, in order to preserve the Elizabethan language, the guns of the rival

factions are labeled 'Rapier,' or 'Dagger.' Thus, when a character asks for his long

sword or knife, he is not being anachronistic. Also, to avoid changing the Shakespearean

language, Tybalt wears a jacket with the logo 'King of Cats,' which is his nickname. In

Zeffirelli's version of the story, however, the audience must know the origin of this name

to be able to understand its connection to Tybalt. The actors do not wear any identifying

marks (such as the mark on Tybalt's jacket) to help the observer understand the play.

Baz Luhrmann's 'William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet' is a film that

transforms Shakespeare's writings into a contemporary location, with modern concepts,

yet keeps the language of Shakespeare alive. Compared to Franco Zeffirelli's 'Romeo and

Juliet,' Luhrmann's picture is easier to understand for a modern audience, and more

relevant to a modern viewer. The 1996 version of the play consequently captures the

spirit of Shakespeare's writing: to entertain any audience. Said the director, Baz

Luhrmann of the film:

The idea behind the 'created world' was that it's a made up world composed of 20th

century icons, and these images are there to clarify what's being said, because once [the

viewer understands] it, the power and the beauty of the language [work] its magic.