“To be or not to be” was not a question asked when Shakespeare released his first play. People knew that his plays would last the test of time and their popularity today is testament to his success. Shakespeare’s work was popular from day one with everyone, from the young to the old, the rich to the poor, the commoner to royalty, with Queen Elizabeth I being an avid enthusiast of his work. There were few forms of entertainment in Shakespeare’s era, but the theatre was by far most popular.
Visiting the theatre was affordable to people of all classes as the price of tickets ranged from just a penny, to much higher prices for those who could afford it and who wanted the luxury of a seat with a good view.
Although Shakespeare did not have stage props, elaborate costumes or the use of music or cinematic devices such as we have today, he used what he had to gain effect.
If a canon sound or gunshot were needed, often a team outside the theatre would create the sound using methods of their time. And in battle scenes, animal innards would have been strewn upon the stage. Stage setting and wardrobe were rudimentary by today’s standards but nonetheless did not deflect from the stage performances. Shakespeare used his gift of language to enthral his audiences and his plays continue to do so today.
Audiences would have to wait another three hundred years before they could see Shakespeare’s work on film, and the love affair between the world’s greatest writer and the world’s most popular art form hasn’t stopped since.
Movies about Shakespeare are numerous – some two hundred and fifty movies have been produced, and have been shown in cinemas and homes throughout the world. In this essay, I will be writing about one such film, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. I will be looking at Luhrmann’s presentation of the balcony scene in his film Romeo and Juliet and comparing it with the play as it would have been originally performed in a sixteenth century theatre. I will also outline the basic storyline surrounding and pertaining to the balcony scene.
Romeo and Juliet is the most famous love story in English history and was written in 1595. It is a play about the love and passion between two young people and their fateful destiny. Romeo is the son and heir of Montague and Lady Montague. He is a handsome, intelligent and impulsive young man, with a passion for life and who loves easily. It is ironic that although this play was written about a love affair between Romeo and Juliet, when we first meet Romeo he is melancholy, lonely and nursing a broken heart over another love, Rosaline. However, when Romeo later meets Juliet at the Capulet Masque Ball he is transformed from a lovesick, moody teenager to a young man driven with over-whelming love. We also learn that Romeo is a passionate young man when he asks Juliet “O wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?” but Romeo is also quick to recognise his ill-chosen words and adds, “th’exchange of thou love’s faithful vow for mine.” Luhrmann chose Leonardo Di Caprio to play the role of Romeo as he had previous experience in acting emotional and romantic roles. Luhrmann also felt that as Leonardo was still quite young, fiery and expressive, his emotions would be demonstrated through his acting, adding to the drama of the film.
Juliet is the beautiful daughter of Capulet and Lady Capulet, and is only thirteen years old. She is of the very religious Capulet family and she aspires to be a nun. Early in the play she is portrayed as rather naï¿½ve with little thought of love and marriage, but then she meets Romeo! Juliet is an intelligent young woman, full of spirit and who enjoys teasing a besotted Romeo! Baz Luhrmann chose the young Clare Danes to play the role of Juliet in his movie because of her youthful and innocent face, and also because she was still a fiery teenager. Luhrmann felt that in acting this role she would act it as if she was living it, and therefore her fiery temperament and her sweet, innocent side would be expressed while filming.
The ‘star-crossed lovers’ first meet at the Capulet Masque Ball in Verona. Shakespeare portrays the ball as a meeting place of family relations, old friends and a time for reminiscing. We also learn that it has been some time since the Capulets have seen some of their family members, as Cousin Capulet says “By’r Lady, thirty years”, indicating that it has been thirty years since their last meeting. The Capulets are also using the party as an opportunity to introduce Juliet to Paris, a noble kinsman of the Prince. Paris has already discussed his desire to marry Juliet with Juliet’s father, Capulet, and has received his approval at a meeting prior to the ball. Lady Capulet is also enthusiastic about the possibility of a marriage between Paris and Juliet, and encourages her daughter to speak to Paris at the ball and says, “What say you, can you love the gentleman? This night you shall behold him at our feast.” Juliet agrees to look at Paris and to try to like Paris to the extent her mother’s consent allows, although she describes marriage as “an honour that I dream not of.”
Meanwhile, a rather despondent Romeo arrives with friends at the Capulet Ball, hoping that Rosaline will also be there. Romeo, Benvolio, and their friend Mercutio, all wearing masks, are playing with fire as the Montagues and Capulets are sworn enemies and in no way would these young men be made welcome at the ball if their true identity were known. Both families have been enemies for so long that they even have forgotten the reason for their hatred. And it is this enmity between the two families, coupled with the emphasis placed on family loyalty, which will later create profound conflict in the relationship of Romeo and Juliet.
In Luhrmann’s version of Romeo and Juliet, the commencement of the Capulet Ball is marked with an impressive fireworks display. There is a great sense of excitement and a sense that something special is imminent. Both Romeo and Juliet are filmed separately in different locations but they are almost in unison as they both gaze dreamily at the magnificent display of fireworks. There is a sense of foreboding, as just as fireworks are magical, exciting and explosive, so is the relationship, which will later develop between Romeo and Juliet. Fireworks, although pleasurable, are also dangerous, and again this emulates the relationship that will soon develop between Romeo and Juliet. Just as fireworks explode and light up the dark night sky, the pleasure they give is short-lived and they quickly fade into darkness and die. And so the pleasure of forbidden love between Romeo and Juliet will also fade and die.
In Luhrmann’s movie the scene at the Masque Ball is a cocktail of excitement. Set in the opulence of the Capulet mansion, there is a carnival atmosphere and a real sense of frivolity. Ostentatious and colourful costumes, lively music and dance, all contribute to the ambience of the party. In contrast, Shakespeare would have portrayed this scene in his theatre with two or three actors dancing on stage and wearing masks. There would have been no ornate costumes and no special lighting effects. And there would have been no music in the Globe Theatre, so people had to use their imagination to interpret the scene to its best effect. Shakespeare’s portrayal of this scene would have been very simple, using only basic props, and the success of the play would have relied solely on the performance of the actors.
The moment arrives in Shakespeare’s play when Romeo and Juliet meet for the first time. From the moment Romeo sees Juliet, he is completely transfixed, and all thoughts of Rosaline vanish from his mind. He declares that he has never been in love until now “did my heart love till now?” Romeo approaches Juliet and touching her hand, tells her, “If I profane with my unworthiest hand this holy shrine, the gentle kiss is this; my lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand to smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.” Throughout this dialogue, religious metaphors are used which describe Juliet as a saint and Romeo as a pilgrim. He wishes Juliet to kiss him and to erase his sin. Juliet is slightly shocked by the boldness and forwardness of this handsome young man but she is also mildly intrigued and is swayed by his handsome figure. Juliet, although she fights against his persuasive words, does not refuse his request when he leans in for a kiss; their love is sealed with love’s first kiss.
Just as a second kiss ends, Nurse arrives and tells Juliet that her mother wants to speak to her, and so Juliet is drawn from her love. As Juliet unwillingly goes to her mother, Nurse is left with Romeo. Romeo asks the Nurse who Juliet’s mother is. On hearing Nurse’s response that she is a Capulet, he feels pain like a knife stabbing through his heart that fate has dealt him such a hard blow. After Romeo and company depart, Juliet asks Nurse for the name of the mysterious young man whom she kissed. She learns that he is Romeo and that he is a Montague, “His name is Romeo, and a Montague, the only son of your great enemy.” Juliet is overcome with anguish and says, “My only love sprung from my only hate.”
In Luhrmann’s version, Romeo and Juliet first see each other through a glass fish tank, with the song Kissing You, by Des’ree playing in the background. They do not speak but through their facial expressions and the way they act, you can sense a connection of love between them. It is an extremely emotional and romantic scene, and Luhrmann uses many cinematic devices to show the emotion felt in the scene. He uses the effect of silence to show how they are distracted by each other’s looks. He uses the water in the fish tank to represent a connection between them and show them as one. At this point, when they are flirting with each other through the glass, Nurse comes along and Juliet, who is dressed as an angel, is whisked away to dance with Paris. Romeo, dressed as a knight in shining armour, follows Juliet, and as Juliet and Paris dance to the song Kissing You, Romeo and Juliet remain in eye contact at all times.
Although Juliet is dancing with Paris, her heart and soul are with Romeo, and throughout the dance she avoids looking directly at Paris. At this point Luhrmann introduces comedy to the scene as Paris commences to perform some rather strange dance moves. Juliet is amused by his antics and tries helplessly to contain her laughter, while Paris mistakenly thinks that he is impressing Juliet. Later, an oblivious Paris is filmed talking to Juliet’s mother while Juliet and Romeo converse secretly in the background. Juliet is standing at a pillar looking mildly bemused by the experience of dancing with Paris, when suddenly someone grabs her hand. To her delight she finds it to be Romeo who hides behind the side of the pillar so as not to arouse rumour with her family. It is at this point that Romeo and Juliet speak for the very first time, and throughout this dialogue Romeo persuades Juliet into allowing him to give her a kiss.
After some flirtatious teasing, Juliet gives in and Romeo and her slip into a lift where they kiss. As the lift doors open, Romeo and Juliet step out on to another floor where Juliet spies her mother and Paris coming up some stairs. She promptly drags Romeo back into the lift with her where they indulge in yet another kiss. As the lift doors open again, a less than amused Nurse pulls a reluctant Juliet away. Regardless of the trouble that she may be in for being caught with another young man, Juliet cannot take her eyes off Romeo who again is seen running after her. Luhrmann uses the Kissing You instrumental in the movie until the scene where Romeo sees Juliet with her mother, Lady Capulet. Nurse mutters to Juliet that Romeo is a Montague, an enemy of her family. As both Romeo and Juliet realise that they are of families who hate each other, the music changes to a dramatic and sad instrumental.
Shakespeare now moves the scene from within the Capulet mansion to outside in its grounds. Romeo after departing the ball longs to be with Juliet and is quick to leave his friends and search for his love Juliet, who he can’t endure to be away from. Determined to see her again, he climbs a wall bordering the Capulet mansion and leaps down into the Capulet orchard. Benvolio and Mercutio appear on stage calling for their companion Romeo, but eager to find Juliet, Romeo doesn’t answer them. Mercutio who is exasperated with Romeo’s behaviour, begins chiding Romeo and mocking Romeo’s love for Rosaline. He departs when Romeo doesn’t respond and assumes that Romeo doesn’t want to be found. Romeo exalted by his love for Juliet, is not bothered by Mercutio’s jibes, and jokes to himself, “He jests at scars that never felt a wound”. Juliet suddenly appears above Romeo on the balcony, much to Romeo’s delight. Romeo, who is in awe of her beauty, compares her to the morning sun, which he describes as “rising to kill the envious moon.”
But Juliet is unaware of Romeo’s presence and begins to have a conversation with herself about her love, Romeo. She has a debate with herself as to whether it is risking further warfare between the Capulets and Montagues all for the love of Romeo. She says that if he would refuse his Montague name, she would give herself to him willingly, or if he professed his love for her, she would refuse her name of Capulet. Romeo responds to Juliet’s ponderings much to her surprise, as she thinks that she is alone. She inquires as to how Romeo found her, to which he responds that love led him to her. Shakespeare’s uses very long romantic verses here of elaborate language. Audiences in the Shakespearian era loved such romantic speeches whereas nowadays, modern audiences would be likely to lose interest very quickly and would be begging the actors to get to the point. Juliet is aware of the hatred between the Montagues and the Capulets, and worries that Romeo will be killed if found at the Capulet Mansion.
But Romeo insists on staying, claiming that his love for Juliet will make him immortal. Juliet is anxious as to the fidelity of Romeo’s love for her, to which Romeo begins swearing his love for her upon sun, moon and stars. However, Juliet refuses these vows and the two profess their love for each other again before Nurse intrudes and calls upon Juliet. Juliet retreats to the house for a moment but reappears to tell Romeo she will send someone to him next day to see if his love is honourable and if he intends to wed her. Yet again Nurse calls for Juliet and again Juliet withdraws to the house. She appears at the window of the balcony again to arrange a time when her emissary should call on him. They speak romantically and passionately for a few more moments before parting company again.
Luhrmann’s version of the balcony scene begins almost as a comedy. Romeo, who has made his way into the pool courtyard, stumbles and clumsily knocks over poolside furniture and triggers off security lights. He clambers his way up some wall trellis to find who he expects to be his beloved Juliet, but is instead horrified when a less than beautiful Nurse appears at the window! Juliet then enters through a door and begins to talk dreamily of her love for Romeo, not realising that he is desperately clinging to a wall just beside her, and listening to her every word. As Juliet walks along the poolside gazing into the distance, she bares her soul, revealing her frustrations over the plight of their family names. Romeo, who meanwhile has been apprehensively waiting in the background, makes his presence known. A shocked Juliet screams and losing her balance grabs Romeo to stop herself falling into the pool, but inadvertently pulls Romeo in as well! Juliet, who realising that she has aroused the attention of the security guard, pushes Romeo’s head under water to prevent him being seen.
It is at this point that Luhrmann turns this scene into a passionate love scene. Romeo rises out of the water gasping for air and bursts into romantic verse to Juliet. There are several passionate embraces and one can sense the sexual tension that is between these two young lovers. The use of water is most effective in this scene and creates a scene, which is exquisitively alluring and where Romeo and Juliet consummate their love for each other. The two young lovers are interrupted when Nurse calls Juliet. Juliet remains with Romeo for a few more moments to arrange when she should send her messenger to discover whether Romeo’s intentions are honourable, and if he intends to marry Juliet. After, embracing each other again Juliet goes inside but to Romeo’s delight she comes out onto the balcony and calls him back. Romeo speedily climbs the wall to receive Juliet’s gift of a crucifix necklace, and then they finally part for the night.
The balcony scene is the only scene in Luhrmann’s film, which in anyway resembles classical Verona. Much of the film, which was filmed in contemporary Mexico City, is modern, loud and garish. The balcony scene however, is more muted than the other scenes in the movie. Luhrmann cleverly used gentle lighting within the wall climbing plants to soften the scene and add to the romance. Also, the use of lights within the pool and background music helps to set the scene for a romantic interlude. But for the lighting, the swimming pool and CCTV cameras, this scene could easily be mistaken for a scene from Shakespearian times. In contrast, Shakespeare’s version of the original scene would have been performed merely with Romeo on stage and Juliet in a balcony above him.
Throughout the film, Luhrmann has used different elements to interpret love. The element water is found in many scenes including at the ball, Romeo and Juliet’s first encounter and more importantly it is a central theme in the balcony scene. When we first meet Juliet in the movie, her face is completely submerged in water and in an almost identical film shot, Romeo is later filmed with his face completely submerged in water, as he tries to refresh himself at the Capulet Ball. When Romeo and Juliet first meet, they are looking at each other through a fish tank full of water. The glass tank acts as a barrier and stops any bodily contact, but when the two lovers later meet and fall into the swimming pool, there is nothing to separate them. Luhrmann chose water as a main element in his film, to represent connection and love and unity between Romeo and Juliet. He believed water was symbolic of the love that existed between Romeo and Juliet; its purity represented the purity of their love and its clarity represented the transparent bond that existed between them. It is also possible that he wanted to show that blood is not always stronger than water.
One significant difference between the original play and Luhrmann’s film is the use of costumes. In this section I am going to analyse the significance of the costumes worn by Luhrmann’s characters in his movie. Throughout the film there is a clear division of style of dress into two main groups – the Capulets and the Montagues. The Capulets are always seen to be over-dressed for every occasion in stylish, flamboyant costumes, illustrating their supercilious and materialistic identities. Their garments often bear religious symbols or are adorned with crucifix jewellery, which also demonstrates their deeply religious beliefs. In contrast, the Montagues are generally dressed in more casual clothing, particularly Hawaiian shirts and shorts, indicating a more secular and informal attitude to life. The Montague servants are also dressed in rather outgoing costumes to demonstrate their extrovert, bubbly and non-religious personalities.
At the Capulet Ball, Luhrmann takes costume metaphors to an all-new level, as each character has been given an outfit to resemble their individual personality and how they are seen in the eyes of others. The main characters, Romeo and Juliet, wear costumes that were chosen to show how they seen each other in their respective eyes. In the original play, Juliet is described as an “angel” and so Luhrmann chose this costume for her character. Luhrmann believed that Romeo saw Juliet as his guardian angel, and Luhrmann wanted to emphasise Juliet’s innocence, purity and naivety through her costume. In the film, Romeo is dressed as a knight in shining armour, which demonstrates to a modern day audience his superiority over Paris and why Juliet chose Romeo over Paris. The costume also portrays Romeo as a peacemaker rather than an aggressor. It also signifies how Juliet, who was being pressurised into a relationship with Paris, is rescued her from this fate by Romeo, ‘her knight in shining armour’. At the Masque Ball, the over-confident Paris is dressed in an astronaut costume. In the film interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, Paris performs some questionable dance moves and still feels confident around Juliet, demonstrating his self-confidence and his rather vain side. Luhrmann has cleverly matched the astronaut costume with the character, Paris, who views himself as a super hero or action figure.
As there is little dialogue involving Capulet and Lady Capulet, Luhrmann felt it was particularly important for their costumes to be accurate to their personalities. Capulet is portrayed as the invincible Augustus and Lady Capulet as the divine yet materialistic Cleopatra. Capulet is depicted as Augustus to show him as an omnipotent, stubborn, egocentric man who is also very ostentatious in his manner. Lady Capulet is equally matched to her costume character. When dressed as Cleopatra, Lady Capulet is in her element as a vain, manipulative woman, who like her husband enjoys being centre of attention. Lady Capulet also relished the idea of men falling at her feet, just as Cleopatra had enjoyed this attention too.
At the Masque Ball, Tybalt and his cronies are aptly dressed in rather sinister outfits in satanic colours of red and black. Tybalt wears a head adornment similar to devil horns or cat ears, which adds to his connection with evil and his reputation as Prince of Cats. His hellish costume also illustrates his fiery temperament and his ability to combust at any time. Tybalt’s companions are also dressed in rather sinister, satanic, skeleton guises to resemble their fiery temperament, and their obsession with killing and death.
Luhrmann’s use of costumes in the movie is highly effective. His conversion of Shakespeare’s characters into modern archetypes makes it easy for viewers to empathise with the individual personalities of each character.
One key difference between Shakespeare’s original play and Luhrmann’s version of Romeo and Juliet is the dialogue. In Shakespearian times, the theatre was predominantly an aural rather than a visual experience. Audiences loved Shakespeare’s long, romantic and poetic speeches. Characters described the settings through their speeches instead of through backgrounds and props. Actors had to convey all necessary information regarding plot, characters and settings, as the plays would have been performed on a bare stage with few props and limited costumes. Shakespearian playhouses didn’t have the benefit of lighting, background music or special effects to add to the drama within the play, they relied solely on the ability of the actors. To demonstrate time of day, references to sun, moon and stars would have been emphasized, and they would also have used torches to create a sense of nightfall.
However, Luhrmann realised that modern day audience would desire a more visual interpretation of Romeo and Juliet and so he used all devices available to him to add to the ocular effects. In the balcony scene, Luhrmann realised that the modern public would become bored too easily with lengthy sections of dialogue and would quite simply be screaming, “Get to the point!” And therefore, Luhrmann felt it was necessary to cut some of the dialogue in his movie. Luhrmann realised that there was a significant language barrier and therefore, relied on facial expressions, vocal effects and cinematic devices to bring the play of Romeo and Juliet to life for the modern audience. Although Luhrmann did cut the dialogue, he faithfully adhered to it throughout his movie.
Overall, Luhrmann has taken Shakespeare’s wonderful scripts and interpreted them to be comprehensible for a modern audience. Luhrmann appreciated Shakespeare’s work and therefore did not attempt to alter the dialogue but only shortened it in areas for the enjoyment of the modern day public. I feel that his decision to use the original dialogue, adds to the authenticity of the film and to the romance in parts. In areas where dialogue was removed, Luhrmann has used lighting, music, costume and other cinematic devices to gain full effect, without taking away from the beauty of Shakespeare’s language.
There is undoubtedly an unmitigated contrast between Shakespeare’s original play and Baz Luhrmann’s movie. Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation is colourful, bold, full of energy and almost psychedelic in parts, and may not appeal to the traditionalist. However, I do feel that the movie breathes life into the play and brings Shakespeare’s work to an audience who otherwise would be disconcerted by the complexity of the language. Luhrmann’s contemporary version of Romeo and Juliet is controversial but I believe that it captures the essence of Shakespeare for the present-day viewer. Personally, I prefer Luhrmann’s version, because it is in a context, which is more understandable and enjoyable to me.