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Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, West Side Story and Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo and Juliet” Essay

A text that embodies the values and beliefs exclusive to one niche in time would be difficult to adapt to any other context, unlike Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. This text contains universal values that have proven to be relevant to generations over four hundred years and is still continuing to appeal to audiences today. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a timeless story that has been adapted from the stage to film, television and novels, which demonstrates the strength of the message conveyed by Shakespeare that appears to tap into the most basic of human emotions and feelings. The evidence provided by the by the adaptations give us insight into both the way the text has been transformed and why it has been transformed. The text in its altered state shows the audience what emotions Shakespeare was able to lock into his play that are so rudimentary that they relate to humans in every context.

Luhrmann retains Shakespeare’s script in his version, providing a stark contrast to the contemporary setting of the movie and acknowledging that his adaptation is paying homage to that of the original composer. The contrast between the setting and the language in Lurmann’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ can be seen in the last fight between Tybalt and Romeo. Tybalt says to Romeo- ‘the love I bear thee can afford no better term than this: thou art a villain’. The language Tybalt uses to insult Romeo would be difficult to find in the vocabulary of a modern day American gang-member that Tybalts character represents. Another indication that the script has been placed into a different context is evident through the absence of much of the script. The reason for this is that Luhrmann can replace the script with tools that were not available to Shakespeare at the time of the composition of the play. Cinematography allows for the removal of speech designed to set the atmosphere for the audience of Shakespeare’s time when there was no other way to convey it in a playhouse with limited lighting and props.

This is evident in the scene of Mercutios death when Luhrmann uses special effects to create dark clouds, thunder and wind in comparison to the previously pleasant weather to convey to the audience that the mood had changed immediately after Mercutios death. Shakespeare had to use Romeo and Benvolios speech to tell the audience what had occurred. Benvolio- ‘O Romeo, Romeo, brave Mercutio’s dead! That gallant spirit hath aspir’d the clouds, which too untimely here did scorn the earth. To which Romeo replies ‘This day’s black fate on more days doth depend; this but begins the woe others must end.’ Luhrmann has used the words here, such as ‘clouds’ and ‘black fate’ to dictate the visual tools he would use to create the atmosphere. Technological advancements are the reasons for these changes in the text.

Technological advancements also relate to the way the texts are conveyed to the audience, which is a strong reflection of the society. Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is in the form of a play, which was highly popular and also one of the only ways to portray the story. The restrictions of the playhouse can be seen by Shakespeare’s use of language to describe a scene and a mood. West Side Story shows that society has become more technologically advanced and the use of film was popular. West Side Story also mirrors the preference of musicals in the films. Baz Luhrmanns ‘Romeo and Juliet’ shows even further advancements in its use of special effects and colour.

West Side Story has replaced Shakespeare’s original script with language and slang common to America in the 1950’s, calling fights “rumbles” and referring to their fathers as “my old man”. This alteration indicates the way a context can shape a text. In the 1950’s, when West Side Story was made, musicals had come to be popular and an effective way of relating to the audience. The songs in the film were able to convey the values of the society that had set the parameters of the text because the audience responded to musicals so well at that time.

Religion had provided an important backdrop for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, reflecting its importance for society in the Elizabethan era. Constant references to religion occur throughout the text and it is to the Friar whom Romeo and Juliet turn to for help during their times of distress. The effect of religion on Romeo and Juliet can be seen in Scene I, Act V, where Romeo and Juliet first meet and fall in love. Romeo refers to Juliet as a saint and makes comparisons between their lips and saint’s hands- ‘ O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do; they pray, grant though, lest faith turn to despair.’ This could be implying that religion was so much a part of life in the 16th century that they could not separate it from love. It could, however be separated from violence. There is no reference to religion during the fighting scenes in the text, perhaps saying that religion was to be forgotten at times of events between men and men, not men and their morals.

This absence of religious sentiments during the fight scenes can also be seen in Luhrmanns film. Religion again has a large part to play in the text, but this time it is also used in a way to contrast against the consumerist society. Religious and corporate icons are in a constant symbolic fight for attention throughout the film, the most striking being at the beginning of the film when we see two large corporate buildings belonging to the Capulets and the Montagues separated by religious statue. Traditionally, religious structures were the tallest in a town or city. This statue has been dwarfed by the two next to it, indicating that the society Luhrmann was portraying valued consumerism and material goods over religion. This is strongly supported through the rest of the film. In Mercutios death scene, the theme of religion is constant.

The men wear religious medallions around their necks and have them tattooed on their skin, as well as religious pictures on their guns, and religious quotes can be seen graffitied on the wall of the boardwalk. Luhrmann may not have included the theme of religion if he had not chosen to use Shakespeare’s script. Its frequent use in the script did not allow for its absence, which may have forced Luhrmann to use it in a way that would be fitting for the context- that is, using it to contrast against the materialism of today’s society and its blending with the corrupt. An example of this is the neon lights that feature inside the church itself.

We relate neon lights to cheap, flashy objects that can almost wholly represent the contemporary consumerist society. This could relate to the idea that the church, rather than fighting with materialism for priority in society, will in itself become a consumerist driven organisation. The holy love still exists between Romeo and Juliet in Luhrmanns version, Romeo’s lips were two pilgrims and Juliets a holy shrine, Romeo was Juliet’s idolatrous god, and later in the play Juliet says ‘give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine, that all the world will be in love with the night’ this quote is a reference to idol worshipping.

Religion has been replaced in West Side Story by racism. A pattern that has developed through the different texts is their tendency to use the flexible contextual components of Romeo and Juliet to convey the issues important to society at the time of composing it. Religion was a major part of Elizabethan England, racism and immigrants an important issue for America in the 1950’s, and the general corruption of society by consumerism in the late 1990s. West Side Story shows the Capulets replaced by the Sharks, a street gang made up of Hispanic males and the Montagues replaced by the Jets, a gang of local boys who dislike the idea of foreigners intruding on their ‘turf’. This shows the transition from Shakespeare’s text of loyalty for the family, to loyalty for one’s ‘gang’, or peers. Society at this time had placed more emphasis on strength of relationship with the peers, which explains the transition.

The sentiments about immigration can be seen in the song ‘America’. Anita describes the aspects of American society that attract immigrants from Puerto Rico. America was seen as the ‘Land of Opportunity’ and mass immigration had occurred, with people from poorer countries hoping to succeed in a promising new country. An example from the lyrics of America is the first chorus ‘Ev’rything free in America, For a small fee in America!’ Racism is an ongoing theme of the movie, shown at the start when Officer Krupke shows preference of the Jets over the Sharks. This is reflecting a major issue in American society of the rejection of immigrants by America, which led to disillusionment and related somewhat to the concept of the ‘American Dream’. This aspect of American society in the 1950’s moulded the setting and plot for West Side Story.

The setting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was an important aspect of society’s self-perception at the time. Shakespeare deliberately placed the play in Italy to allow for fighting and disruption to occur in the play because although fighting and death appealed to Elizabethan audiences, they generally did not like to think it could happen in their civilized nation.

The American setting for West Side Story shows a renewal of those sentiments and an ability developed over time to accept and acknowledge problems within an audience’s own environment. The violence in West Side Story is relatively tame, viewed by a contemporary audience. At the time the weapons and language used were considered dangerous and shocking, showing the contrast between the 1950’s sheltered audience and today’s desensitized society. It can be seen that West Side story focused not on the violence of the text but the issues it raised, such as love and hatred.

This is strongly supported by the end of the film when the plot has changed from Shakespeare’s original ending to see Maria living. This is to provide a moral voice for the film and eradicate what the composer considered an unnecessary death. The audience may have found her death too confronting and shocking, not being used to seeing violence so much in the movies as we can see by the gentle non-violent films that were around at that time.

Violence is a prominent aspect of Luhrmanns ‘Romeo and Juliet’, with swords replaced by guns. Luhrmann gives the weapons names such as ‘long swords’ and ‘rapier’ to pay homage to the original idea, and to show his audience that the general idea remains the same: violence kills whether it be by sword or gun. The violence is much more confronting and brazen than West Side Story, providing information on how American society has been desensitized between the 1950’s and the late 1990’s. The media coverage of the wars after the Vietnam War has allowed society to view death and tragedy with relative indifference, an issue Luhrmann addresses through his use of violence. The fight that occurs in Mercutios death scene would have shocked an audience of the 1950’s with graphic, detailed nature, but contemporary audiences will view the scene with much previous experience.

Luhrmann uses many of Shakespeare’s themes and motifs that come along with the script and was successfully able to alter them to relate to today’s society. An example of this is his modern interpretation of Queen Mab as a tablet of LSD. Where Mercutio speaks of Queen Mab being ‘no bigger than an agate stone/ on the forefinger of an alderman’, Luhrmanns Mercutio holds out the tablet on his forefinger as he makes his speech. Where Shakespeare’s Queen Mab was a fairy that brought dreams, Luhrmanns Queen Mab serves much the same purpose, to induce dreams and also plays on the idea of illicit drug use by today’s teenagers. Luhrmann gives us each of these changes, yet retains the story as Shakespeare wrote it, implying that even though our context may change, the story itself is timeless.

Romeo and Juliet has proven to be a text that can be changed and reshaped by different societies at different points in time and is still able to retain its original meaning and convey it to the audience through a different context. Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘West Side Story’ and Luhrmanns ‘Romeo and Juliet’ have all been shaped by the values held by society at that time.


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