With Valentine’s Day this month, it sometimes felt like we couldn’t get away from romance, but since it’s also the 400th Anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death this year, we thought we’d have a look at a play that is sometimes considered the greatest love story of all time (as well as the most tragic).
Romeo and Juliet has been adapted many times in many different ways, through opera, ballet, musicals, paintings and novels (as well as being referenced in every story where two people from different backgrounds fall in love, often with a happy ending tacked on). However, a much smaller number use Shakespeare’s original script, and we’re going to look at three of them in this blog post (as we did with Henry V last year).
Verona is a city divided between two warring families: the Montagues and the Capulets. Despite the Prince of Verona’s best efforts, the young members of both families duel in the streets and take every opportunity to undermine one another. Romeo of House Montague and Juliet of House Capulet meet by chance and fall deeply, and tragically, in love. Their warring families will never let them marry, and further tragedy comes when hotheaded duelling in the street leads to the deaths of both Romeo’s best friend Mercutio and Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, and Romeo’s banishment. Meanwhile, Juliet’s parents have arranged her marriage to a nobleman called Paris. This story of star-crossed lovers can only end in tragedy.
Romeo and Juliet (1968 – NORFOLK HOUSE 822.33), directed by Franco Zeffirelli, is a lush and beautifully-filmed version of the play, set in 14th-century Italy. It was one of the first versions to use actors for Romeo and Juliet who were close to the same age as the characters in the play, with Olivia Hussey as Juliet and Leonard Whiting as Romeo. Zeffirelli filmed scenes in cities across Italy and the beautiful costumes surrounded by Renaissance architecture make this version of Romeo and Juliet a feast for the eyes. Despite being fairly new to acting (though Hussey would go on to star in many films), both of the leads managed a challenging play with sensitivity. Olivia Hussey is brilliant as Juliet, managing to show the character growing from a shy teenager to a woman dealing with the knowledge that she must hurt her family in order to be with the person she loves. While at times it can be a little stagey, Zefferelli brings out the tragedy of young love destroyed by circumstances beyond their control, and when it came out (as with all three of these adaptations) it was popular with teenagers, who sympathised with the two young lovers. This is the oldest of the three adaptations here, but it’s well worth a look.
William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996 – NORFOLK HOUSE 822.33), directed by Baz Luhrman (of Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby fame) changed the way people thought about screen adaptations of Shakespeare. Luhrman made the controversial decision to use Shakespeare’s script (though heavily edited down) and pair it with aggressively modern visuals inspired by MTV and a Miami-like setting with warring business families. It works for the most part but sometimes it feels a little stretched, as when Luhrman justifies the use of the word ‘sword’ in the play by having the make of gun be ‘sword’. However, Romeo + Juliet is very different to the lyrical Zefirelli adaptation and, especially with rising stars Leonardo di Caprio and Claire Daines as Romeo and Juliet, it introduced a new generation to Shakespeare by showing that the stories were entertaining, even if the words were difficult, as well as bringing a raw power to a play that’s often a bit staid and genteel.
The most recent version of Romeo & Juliet (2013 – NORFOLK HOUSE 822.33) is written by Julian Fellowes and directed by Carlo Carlei and features Hailee Steinfeld (recently lauded for her role in True Grit) and Douglas Booth (who came to attention in a biopic of Boy George). This adaptation was controversial for cutting Shakespeare’s text heavily and adding a large amount of text written by Julian Fellowes. To my mind, he does a pretty good job, but to anyone who loves the play, it’s a bit jarring. However, the film does do a lot to flesh out the characters in a more modern way – Romeo is shown in his everyday life as a sculptor rather than just swaggering about the place with his band of Montagues. This version is not exactly revolutionary – it didn’t challenge any norms of Shakespeare adaptation. The question of whether it succeeds at making the story more accessible for the Twilight and Gossip Girl generation is not conclusive, but it is very pretty and the efforts made to flesh out the characters beyond the layered but sometimes difficult presentations they have in the text are valiant. Unlike Zeffirelli and Luhrman, Carlei’s version won’t set the world ablaze and pave the way for a new generation of adaptations, but maybe that’s OK if it gets even a few people interested in Shakespeare’s epic stories.
Romeo and Juliet has been adapted hundreds of times and the story used as an archetype for every tale of star-crossed lovers. Here are a few that referenced the formula without being direct adaptations:
High School Musical (DVD LOBBY 791.436)– a Disney film that catapulted Vanessa Hudgens and Zack Efron into stardom and kick-started a franchise, High School Musical is a well-worn story (nerdy girl meets handsome jock, they are divided by their social circles but eventually triumph through the power of love…and song). However, many people noted the similarities with the story of Romeo and Juliet, with a far less tragic ending. High School Musical may be the popcorn version of Shakespeare, but it’s surprisingly fun!
West Side Story (DVD LOBBY 791.436) – another musical version, West Side Story is a direct adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, the story of a couple from rival gangs in 1950’s New York. There’s a lot going on here, and it’s clear why this is one of the most respected updates to Shakespeare’s classic play: reflections on the tragedy of gang violence, especially when there is no clear reason why the Jets and the Sharks hate each other, satire of the American wealth gap and the tensions that can arise when people from different cultural backgrounds have to live with each other. Tony and Maria (Romeo and Juliet, as played by Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer) might be the main couple, but for once the true stars of the show are Tybalt (Bernardo, played by George Chakiris), Mercutio (Riff, played by Russ Tamblyn) and the Nurse (Anita, played by Rita Moreno). Filled with fantastic song and dance numbers with very dark undertones, West Side Story packs the punch of the original story while incorporating modern themes.
Romeo Must Die (NORFOLK HOUSE 822.33) – this version of the story focuses on gang warfare between African American and Chinese American families in California and stars Jet Li and the late Aaliyah as Han Sing and Trish O’Day, this film’s Romeo and Juliet. Taking advantage of Jet Li’s experience in Chinese martial arts films, Romeo Must Die has much more of an action theme than other versions.
Letters to Juliet (NORFOLK HOUSE 822.33) – rather than an adaptation of the play, this is a modern romantic drama about an American journalist (Amanda Seyfried) who travels to Verona and investigates the tradition of writing ‘letters to Juliet’, where visitors place love letters on the walls of the Casa di Giulietta, a house associated with the legend. She discovers a letter from 1957 that has remained unanswered by the ‘secretaries of Juliet’ and seeks to reunite the woman who wrote it with her long lost love. A lush film about the impact the story has had on people throughout history.
Romeo X Juliet (NORFOLK HOUSE 822.33) – a very loose anime adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, this fantastical series recasts Juliet as the lone survivor of a massacre of House Capulet by House Montague. She grows up to become the masked vigilante ‘the Red Whirlwind’ and becomes torn between her quest for revenge and her love for the son of her greatest enemy. Because Romeo is seen much earlier in the play, he is often presented as the main character, but Shakespeare presents Juliet as an active character in her own right – while Shakespeare may never have intended her to be a swashbuckling vigilante, it doesn’t feel like too much of a leap!
Shakespeare In Love (NORFOLK HOUSE 822.33) – not really about Romeo and Juliet, but this historical romance takes place when Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is writing the play and lacking inspiration. His inconvenient love affair with an unmarried noblewoman who loves his plays (Gwynneth Paltrow) fires his creativity for his tragic tale. The scene where Shakespeare and Viola enact Romeo and Juliet’s death scene in the first performance of the play, knowing that it is the last time they can be together, is wonderful. There have been many romantic stories about Shakespeare, often featuring one of many people who could have been his muse, but this is one of the sweetest and most memorable. It helps that one of the writers was Tom Stoppard, and Shakespeare in Love certainly showcases his excellent wit even as it breaks your heart.