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Discuss Baz Luhrmann’s depiction of the characters in the opening scene of the 1996 film version of Romeo and Juliet. As a director, how would you have portrayed the same characters on Shakespeare’s stage?
In the opening of the play, we are introduced to various characters of both houses; the Capulets and Montagues. We immediately sense the family feud when we see how the boys from each house are fighting with the boys from the opposite house. Both the Capulet and Montague boys are seen in the first scene to use bawdy humour, and this scene is all about machismo and agression.
We sense that the boys of both houses are full of bravado and strutting bravery. There is a lot of sexual innuendo, along with punning and word play. The boys’ sense of humour is based on low, simple, crude jokes, which are very unsophisticated. This was possibly due to the low status of the audience who watched this play being performed during the Shakesperean era.
Furthermore, there is an implication that the Capulet and Montague boys are oozing testosterone in the very primitive idea of male domination, and how each male wants to have his enemy’s female. For example, Samson, who is from the house of Capulet, describes “I will push Montague’s men from the wall, and thrust his maids to the wall.” Moreover, it is clear that the boys are quite young, as they wind each other up over who is the strongest and bravest, and who can dominate females better, which is a rather boyish thing.
Indeed, it is quite obvious how the boys from both houses are so similar in thinking and in humour. From the first scene, we cannot identify any real differences between the boys, other than the fact that they are from different houses. Therefore, it is rather ironic how they extremely hate each other, when they are both very similar in many ways. On the other hand, Tybalt’s entrance highlights a different character. His words are piercing, and he talks about hating peace, unlike the rest of the boys who talk about bawdy humour.
Tybalt’s character in the play is one-sided – he is an aggressive, hot-tempered young man who hates all Montagues. In the first scene of Act 1, Tybalt only speaks five lines, but they tell us a great deal about him. His entrance to the scene is a very hostile one, as he suddenly mocks Benvolio for fighting with servants. In his second line, he draws Benvolio into a fight. However, Benvolio is seen as the peace-maker in this scene, as does not want to fight Tybalt. “I do but keep the peace” were Benvolio’s words. Here, Tybalt talks of the word “peace” and says “I hate the word”, which he then realtes towards his hatredness of “hell, all Montagues, and thee”, referring to Benvolio. These words highlight his extremely agressive and violent character. It is already very obvious how Tybalt dislikes the Montagues. Tybalt’s hatredness drives him to fight Benvolio, and the entrance of the officers and the Prince is what stops this.
Completely contrasting Tybalt’s aggression, there is Romeo, the son of Lord and Lady Montague. He is clever, excelling at the kind of elaborate wordplay that was popular in Elizabethan times. He uses witty puns when he jokes with his friends and elaborate and stylish poetry when he talks about love. At the beginning of the play, Romeo is infactuated with Rosaline and his language is clever but artificial.
Romeo is different to the rest of the boys to some extent, and he doesn’t talk much of bawdy humour. He is a more romantic, poetic soul, who is always seen throughout the play to be in love, whether it’s with Rosaline or with Juliet. He is the complete opposite of Tybalt’s hostile character, who is full of hate and not love, and we sense that Romeo generally likes to keep peace. For example, when Tybalt wants to fight him later on in the play, Romeo tries his best to keep the peace between them, and doesn’t fight Tybalt. He only kills Tybalt when Tybalt kills his best friend Mercutio.
In the opening scene of the 1996 film version of “Romeo and Juliet”, Baz Luhrmann’s depiction of the characters is quite different to that of the original stage version displayed in Shakespeare’s text.
After Luhrmann’s televised introduction to the story, which represents the prologue in the original text, we are introduced to the Montague boys, who are driving in a sunny yellow car with an open-top roof. They are a fairly riotish group of lads, which is suggested by their shaven or pink-dyed heads, their dark shades, their indiscriminant shouting which is rather offensive although they do not use bad words, and finally, the loud, modern, youthful, street-type music, which has a feeling of rap, and is played at their entrance. However, there is nothing so violent or threatening about these boys, which can be supported by their quite soft, Hawa?an style shirts. It can be implied that they are somewhat vulnerable to attack because their shirt buttons are open. We sense that the Montague boys are not as bad as they want to appear to others. The give-aways are the Hawa?an-style shirts, the sunny, yellow car with an open-top roof which may again suggest vulnerability, and the black shades that they wear which are possibly supposed to give them a strong, macho, “hard-cop” image. This was done well by Luhrmann, because he successfully managed to bring out the machismo idea of Shakespeare’s original text to today’s audiences. In the old version of the staged play, the Montague and Capulet Boys would be wearing tights and “short skirts”. I think that Luhrmann updated it because people nowadays cannot appreciate this and the boys’ machismo would not be successfully interpreted or understood by the modern audiences, if the boys were in tights and “short skirts”.
When we look more closely at the car that the Montagues drive in, we notice a religious icon. This icon is also worn round their necks, but it is not that noticeable because the camera does not focus on it. Maybe Luhrmann wanted this religious icon to be part of our subconscious mind while watching the movie, and it could have been used to subconsciously remind us of the conflict between the Capulets and Montagues.
While the Montagues are busy at the petrol station, the Capulets arrive. Baz Luhrmann successfully managed to bring out a clear contrast between the Capulet boys and the Montagues, which suggests opposition. Generally, the Capulets are much darker, whether it be in skin colour, hair colour, car colour of dress colour. The Capulets appear to be a much more “cool” and sinster gang. Their car is noticeably bigger and slicker than the Montagues’, and its navy blue colour gives the boys a more sophisticated and possibly more dangerous image. Also at the Capulets’ arrival, classic Western music is heard in the background.
At first, Luhrmann does not focuss on Tybalt’s face, so we do not know what he looks like. Insteand, Luhramm decides to focuss on Tybalt’s shoes. This is much more sinister than seeing his whole body, and it somewhat excites the audiences’ imagination, as they wonder who this character is, and how dangerous he could be. Tybalt’s shoes are of a cowboy-style, with metal heels. This goes well with the Western music played in the background. Furthermore, when the camera focusses on Tybalt’s shoes, we see his feet crush and scrape against the ground. This suggests his hatredness and his powerful will to destroy his enemies, the Montagues. Furthermore, the camera makes another close-up on a Capulet boy’s teeth, as they were made of metal and had the word “sin” carved into them. This is a very hellish image, and goes well with the sinister characters of the Capulets.
It is so obvious to the audience that the Montagues can’t even begin to compete with the Capulets. They are speaking with panic, and Baz Luhrmann genuinly interpreted the way in which the repetition of the words “bite your thumb” was meant to be used. It is something we cannot understand immediately while reading the play. Indeed, Luhrmann used this to highlight the extreme panic felt by the Montagues. It is interesting to note how in the original text of the play, it is the Capulets who bite their thumbs at the Montagues, and yet in his production, Luhrmann had the Montagues bite their thumb at the Capulets.
When Tybalt seems to be looking for a fight, Benvolio is seen as the peace-maker, just like in the play. He draws his gun and threatens everyone with it. Here, Luhrmann again updated the sword to a gun because it makes it easier for modern audiences to appreciate this, and to take the idea more seriously. As soon as Benvolio draws his gun, everyone hesitates to do anything, and all the boys go silent, except for Tybalt, who lights a cigar. This is seen as a “cool” gesture. Luhrmann managed to portray to us Tybalt’s more dangerous personality. He doesn’t seem worried about what is going on.
Luhrmann does a lot of camera close-ups, and they are very useful for the audiences’ imagination. Close-ups are done on Tybalt’s teeth, for example, to point out their sharpness and how they are so pointed. This is a very devilish image. Tybalt then speaks his words “What, drawn and talk of peace? I hate the word…” He speaks these words so slowly, and emphasizes on almost each syllable. This shows his fiery temper and his extreme hatredness and disgust towards peace. He then continues saying that he hates peace “As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee,” referring to Benvolio. It is very clever how while Tybalt says the words “all Montagues”, Luhrmann decided to close-up on Tybalt’s shoes as he crushes the match which he used to light his cigar with. This image is very cruel and violent. It relates to the idea of his hatredness towards the Montagues, and it is almost as if he is crushing them.
Suddenly, we are introduced to a very theatrical gun play by Tybalt. He is also seen to threaten a child with his gun. Baz Luhrmann did this cleverly because the child here is seen to represent innocence, therefore that action by Tybalt shows us how he is a very dangerous character. Moving further into the scene, when the fuel is seen to burn at the station, a church-like music is heard in the background, which sounds like music from classic horror movies, such as The Exorcist. This suggests hell, and reminds us of the religious icons that are worn by the Capulets and Montagues. We sense that the Christ figure is omnipresent, but the devilish idea is lurking with evil.
Extremely contrasting all this violence, we are later introduced to young Romeo, who seems to be the complete opposite of Tybalt. Baz Luhrmann successfully manages to show the contrast between them. Even in the car scene, with Lord and Lady Capulet and Benvolio, as soon as Romeo is spoken of, a sad, calm, soothing clarinet tune is played. It has a sense of melancholy in it. When we are introduced to Romeo himself, the music changes into a more modern and soul free tune.
When we are first introduced to Romeo, he is sitting in front of something that looks like a ruined stage. This element could suggest two different things. It could remind us how the play, Romeo and Juliet, was originally written for stage. It could also suggest Romeo’s thoughtfulness and poetic character. Luhrmann is very successful in using subliminal imagery like this, a previous example being the religious icon worn by both the Capulets and Montagues, which reminded us of an opposition of beliefs and the family feud between them.
It is immediately obvious how Romeo’s dressing is completely different to any of the other boys, whether a Montague or Capulet. He is not scruffy and riotish, like the rest of the Montague boys who have shaven or dyed heads, and wear open Hawa?an style shirts, and he is not sinister and slick like the Capulet boys. His style is very unique. Generally, he is well dressed, and wears a dark, navy blue suit. He looks like a decent young man who is rather stylish, but not formal. This can be seen in his open neck shirt, and in the fact that he is not wearing a tie. His clothes are unagressive. Luhrmann does some close-ups on Romeo’s hands, while he writes in his diary and smokes. I think Luhrmann wants to point out to us how Romeo lets his cigarette burn down to his fingers, suggesting a more unconscious, dreamy character. This relates well with the idea that he is in love.
Finally, in the background, Luhrmann included drunk men and some prostitutes. I think he did this to highlight the contrast between Romeo’s rather pure character, and how he is innocent to some extent, compared to everyone else. Baz Luhrmann managed to bring out the characteristics of Romeo, Tybalt, and the Montagues and Capulets in general, in a rather polished style.
As a director, I would have conveyed the characteristics on Shakespeare’s stage very differently to Baz Luhrmann’s depiction of them. Focussing on the setting, I would set the opening scene in a crowded market square, resembling an Italian piazza, since the real play is meant to be set in Verona, Italy. There would be several groups of people standing together in different areas of this piazza. This would help evoke the idea of gangs, which relates well with the opposition between the Montague “gang” and the Capulet “gang”. The piazza would generally be crowded with males, because the women weren’t encoutraged to stand around the streets in those days. The men would be gossipping amongst themselves about the latest issues. Furthermore, I think that having a gesture in the crowd would liven up the whole scene, and would contrast well with the argument that is going to start between the Montague and Capulet Boys. Moreover, during the Shakespearan era, the public enjoyed gestures, so this would hopefully impress our audience.
One one end of the market square, I would have the Capulet servants, Gregory and Sampson, enter at first. At Abra’s entrance, who is the first person to appear from the Montague house, I think it would be a good idea for him to enter the scene from the other end of the market square. This visually aids the audience to notice the separation between the two houses, and it would remind them of the family feud. On one end of the piazzan, I would have the Montague boys joking and laughing together, possibly even attempting to imitate or mock the gesture in the crowd. This would make them seem like a young, carefree group of boys. To support this idea, the Montague boys could be wearing rather colourful clothes. Contrasting this, I would have the Capulet boys, who would be standing on the other end of the piazza, look much more serious, and they would generally be wearing much darker clothes than the Montague boys. Their hairstyles would be of a more fixed style, and their hair would be shorter than the Montague boys, who’s hairstyles would be rather long and slightly scruffy.
Generally, I think that the Montague boys should appear to panic more than the Capulet boys. At Tybalt’s entrance, the crowd could generally go quieter, so the audience sense that someone “dangerous” has arrived. I think he should appear to be stronger than the rest of the Capulet boys, with a more defined hairstyle, and a fancier sword. This would make him stand out more, and would give him some form of importance. I have considered the fact that he is a key figure to the rest of the play, because it is in fact Tybalt’s death which leads to Romeo’s banishment from Verona later on in the play, which umtimately leads to the suicide of both lovers, Romeo and Juliet. Tybalt could also be wearing black, as this would associate him well with the idea of death, and his hatredness of peace. When Tybalt speaks his lines, he would act violently, and his facial expression would be one of agression and revenge. This helps bringing about his hostile nature. His words should stand out more than what the others are saying, because in this scene, he talks about hating peace, which is a very strong emotion, whereas the rest of the boys talk about bawdy humour.
On the other hand, Romeo should appear to be a complete opposite of Tybalt. He would be wearing soft white clothes, which would symbolize his serene, romantic character. He could also be wearing a chain with a cross on it which would symbolize his na?vety or innocence to some extent. When Romeo speaks his lines, his voice would be dreamy and his face would be tilted upwards, so that he is looking into the sky. This would symbolize his deep thoughts in search of answers to his unanswered questions. When he looks into the sky, it is as though he is trying to go far beyond what man can see or possibly feel, and it would help bring out Romeo’s philosophical mind and feelings. Moreover, the fact that he is madly in love with Rosaline, and the idea that she doesn’t want him because she plans to be a nun, hurts him a lot. When he talks about Rosaline, and how he is “out of her favour where I am in love”, he could sound a bit sorrow and unhappy. This would help point out to the audience Romeo’s romantic, philosophical character, which contrasts greatly with the violent Tybalt.
Considering the fact that I would be a director on Shakespeare’s stage, which therefore means I can’t use modern props or clever camera angles, I think that it would be necessary for all the characters acting on the stage i.e. Tybalt, Romeo, Benvolio etc. to face the audience. This is so that the audience would be aware of what was going on, and would be able to follow the story. The actors would also need to speak in a clear, rather loud voice to be heard by the audience.
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