Adapting Shakespeare: Modernizing 'Romeo and Juliet'

Categories: William Shakespeare

Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet' is a timeless text that continues to be relevant after more than four hundred years, appealing to modern audiences. The play has been successfully adapted for film, television, and novels, demonstrating the powerful message conveyed by Shakespeare that connects with basic human emotions. These adaptations offer proof of both the changes experienced by the text and the motivations behind them. In its modified form, the text highlights Shakespeare's skill in capturing emotions that resonate with human experiences in any setting.

Luhrmann's adaptation of 'Romeo and Juliet' pays tribute to Shakespeare's original script while presenting a modern-day setting, highlighting the significance of his version as a homage. An example is seen in Tybalt's confrontation with Romeo, where his language reflects the contrast between the setting and dialogue. Tybalt insults Romeo by calling him a villain, which would be uncommon for contemporary American gang members represented by Tybalt.

In addition, certain parts of the script are excluded in Luhrmann's adaptation, emphasizing the play's placement in a different context.

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This allows Luhrmann to utilize cinematography as an unavailable tool to Shakespeare during the composition of the play. Through cinematography, Luhrmann can convey atmosphere without solely relying on dialogue, which was necessary in Shakespeare's time due to limited lighting and props in playhouses.

Luhrmann's use of special effects in the scene of Mercutio's death, with dark clouds, thunder, and wind, contrasts with the previously pleasant weather and highlights the immediate shift in mood. Shakespeare had to rely on Romeo and Benvolio's dialogue to inform the audience of what had happened.

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Benvolio exclaims, 'O Romeo, Romeo, brave Mercutio's dead! That gallant spirit hath aspir'd the clouds, which too untimely here did scorn the earth.' Romeo responds, 'This day's black fate on more days doth depend; this but begins the woe others must end.' Luhrmann chooses language such as 'clouds' and 'black fate,' influencing the visual elements he incorporates to establish the atmosphere. Technological advancements are responsible for these textual modifications.

The way texts are communicated to the audience is an expression of society and its technological progress. For example, Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet' was presented as a play, which was a popular medium at that time. The limitations of the playhouse compelled Shakespeare to use language to depict scenes and moods. In contrast, 'West Side Story' represents a more technologically advanced society through its utilization of film. Additionally, it reflects the preference for musicals in movies. Similarly, Baz Luhrmann's 'Romeo and Juliet' takes technological advancements even further by incorporating special effects and vibrant colors.

In West Side Story, the original script by Shakespeare is transformed using 1950s American slang and language. This includes renaming fights as "rumbles" and fathers as "my old man." This change demonstrates how the context can impact a text. In the 1950s, musicals became popular and influential in connecting with audiences. As a result of this strong audience preference for musicals during that era, the songs in the film effectively mirrored societal values that influenced the boundaries of the text.

Religion played a significant role in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, reflecting its importance in Elizabethan society. Throughout the text, there are numerous references to religion, and the Friar is the person Romeo and Juliet seek help from in times of distress. The influence of religion on Romeo and Juliet can be seen in Act V, Scene I when they first meet and fall in love. Romeo compares Juliet to a saint and talks about their lips and hands, saying, "O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do; they pray, grant though, lest faith turn to despair." This suggests that religion was so ingrained in 16th-century life that it couldn't be separated from love. However, it could be detached from violence. The text does not mention religion during the fighting scenes, suggesting that religion was to be set aside during conflicts between men rather than their moral beliefs.

The absence of religious sentiments in the fight scenes in Luhrmann's film is also evident. Religion plays a significant role in the text, but it is also used to contrast the consumerist society. Throughout the film, there is a constant symbolic battle between religious and corporate icons for attention. At the start of the film, we see two large corporate buildings owned by the Capulets and the Montagues separated by a religious statue. In the past, religious structures were typically the tallest in a town or city, but this statue has been overshadowed by the neighboring buildings. This indicates that the society portrayed by Luhrmann valued consumerism and material possessions over religion. This theme is strongly reinforced throughout the rest of the film, particularly in Mercutio's death scene.

The men display religious medallions around their necks and as tattoos on their skin. They also adorn religious pictures on their guns, and religious quotes can be observed in the graffiti on the wall of the boardwalk. If Luhrmann had not chosen to use Shakespeare's script, he might not have incorporated the theme of religion. The script's frequent usage necessitated its presence, compelling Luhrmann to employ it in a manner that aligns with the context. This involved using religion as a contrasting element against today's materialistic society and its alliance with corruption. A prime instance of this contrast can be witnessed in the neon lights prominently showcased within the church premises.

The idea that neon lights and inexpensive, flashy items symbolize our modern consumerist society can be linked to the concept of the church transforming into a consumer-driven institution instead of competing with materialism for prominence in society. In Luhrmann's adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, the deep love shared by Romeo and Juliet remains unchanged. Romeo's lips are compared to two pilgrims while Juliet's are likened to a holy shrine. Romeo is portrayed as Juliet's idolatrous god. Later in the play, Juliet expresses her longing for Romeo by saying, 'give me my Romeo; and, when he dies, cut him out in little stars so that his face will beautify heaven and make the whole world fall in love with the night.' This quote references idol worship.

The substitution of religion with racism is evident in West Side Story. Throughout various texts, there is a recurring pattern of utilizing the adaptable contextual elements of Romeo and Juliet to depict the pertinent societal issues during their composition. In Elizabethan England, religion played a significant role, whereas racism and the influx of immigrants were pressing concerns in 1950s America. By the late 1990s, society's general corruption due to consumerism became prominent. West Side Story effectively demonstrates this shift, as it replaces the Capulets with the Sharks—an Hispanic male street gang—and the Montagues with the Jets—a local boys' gang opposed to foreigners infringing on their territory. This transition reflects the change from Shakespeare's emphasis on family loyalty to loyalty towards one's gang or peer group. The societal emphasis on peer relationships during this time period explains this transition.

The lyrics of the song 'America' depict the sentiments about immigration. Anita illustrates the attractive aspects of American society that pull in immigrants from Puerto Rico. America was perceived as the 'Land of Opportunity', resulting in a wave of mass immigration from poorer nations, as people hoped to find success in this promising new country. In the first chorus of America, there is an example in the lyrics that highlights this notion: 'Ev'rything free in America, For a small fee in America!' The movie also brings forth the theme of racism, which is evident right from the start when Officer Krupke favors the Jets over the Sharks. This reflects a prevalent issue in American society where immigrants are rejected, leading to disillusionment and tying somewhat to the concept of the 'American Dream'. This particular aspect of American society during the 1950s forms the backdrop and storyline for West Side Story.

The location of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet played a significant role in how society viewed itself during that era. Shakespeare intentionally chose Italy as the setting in order to depict fighting and chaos in the play. This was done to cater to the preferences of Elizabethan audiences who were intrigued by violence and tragedy, yet preferred not to associate it with their own civilized country.

The American setting in West Side Story demonstrates a resurgence of these sentiments and the audience's capacity to confront and recognize issues within their own environment. The level of violence portrayed in West Side Story is moderate compared to what a modern audience is accustomed to. During its time, the weapons and language used were seen as threatening and scandalous, highlighting the contrast between the sheltered audience of the 1950s and today's desensitized society. It is evident that West Side Story emphasized the themes it brought to light, such as love and hatred, rather than focusing solely on the violence depicted in the text.

At the end of the film, Maria's survival deviates from Shakespeare's original ending. The alteration presents a moral viewpoint and eliminates an unnecessary death according to the filmmaker. This change may have unsettled viewers who were not used to violence in movies, as gentle and non-violent films were more common during that time.

In Luhrmann's 'Romeo and Juliet,' violence plays a significant role, with guns replacing swords. The clever naming of these weapons as 'long swords' and 'rapier' pays homage to the original concept while highlighting that violence ultimately leads to death, regardless of the weapon used. Compared to 'West Side Story,' the film portrays violence more directly and boldly, providing insight into how American society has become desensitized from the 1950s to the late 1990s. The media coverage of wars after Vietnam War has caused society to view death and tragedy with relative indifference—a problem that Luhrmann addresses through his depiction of violence. While the fight scene leading to Mercutio's death would have shocked a 1950s audience due to its graphic nature, contemporary viewers approach it with prior exposure and experience.

Luhrmann effectively incorporates Shakespeare's themes and motifs in his adaptation of the script, demonstrating their relevance to contemporary society. One notable example is his modernization of Queen Mab, depicted as an LSD tablet. In Shakespeare's play, Mercutio describes Queen Mab as "no bigger than an agate stone on the forefinger of an alderman." However, Luhrmann's Mercutio presents the tablet on his finger while delivering his speech. While Shakespeare's Queen Mab symbolized a fairy that brought dreams, Luhrmann's interpretation also serves the same purpose of inducing dreams but with a focus on the illegal drug use prevalent among today's teenagers. Through these alterations, Luhrmann conveys that although our context may change, the essence of the story remains timeless and true to Shakespeare's original vision.

"The significance of Romeo and Juliet transcends time and is adaptable to various societies, preserving its initial essence and effectively communicating its message within alternative contexts. Shakespeare's original play, as well as adaptations like 'West Side Story' and Luhrmann's film interpretation, have all been influenced by the prevailing societal values of their respective eras."

Updated: Feb 16, 2024
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Adapting Shakespeare: Modernizing 'Romeo and Juliet'. (2016, Jul 11). Retrieved from

Adapting Shakespeare: Modernizing 'Romeo and Juliet' essay
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