The crown of English literature most certainly rests on the head of English playwright and dramatist, William Shakespeare. In the early stages of Shakespeare’s career, he wrote a tragedy called Romeo and Juliet concerning the deaths of two young star-crossed lovers. Thereafter, the play enjoyed immense popularity and was adapted into more than five-hundred movies. At the end of twentieth century, Australian film director Baz Luhrmann produced a modern reimagining of the tragedy, showcased in a contemporary setting while still preserving the traditional elements of the sixteenth century drama. Luhrmann’s manifestation has numerous differences to the original play, and thus it has had a prodigious impact on Shakespeare’s message and work. The modifications of setting, character, emotions and omission of lines contributes to the noticeable differences evident in the “balcony” and “death” scenes. Shakespeare’s message that love is a brutal and powerful emotion which captures individuals and catapults them against their world, has diluted to a ‘prettied-up’ version of the emotion.
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Perhaps the most conspicuous contrast between Shakespeare and Luhrmann’s purposes may be noted in the ‘balcony’ scene. In the MTV inspired film, Luhrmann places Romeo and Juliet’s love into the limelight, by showing the characters’ earthy and sensual side. Through this, he also promotes optimism and gives the impression that there will be light at the end of the tunnel regarding their relationship. Although Shakespeare also concentrates on the passion of their fatal love, he is far more concerned with displaying it in a pessimistic outlook and substituting the earthy visualization of the two lovers for more expression of emotions and thoughts through words. The main difference in the balcony scenes of the film and play is the surroundings and the positioning of the protagonists. Romeo reveals his impetuous love for Juliet in a soliloquy situated in the Capulet’s orchard in the original balcony scene. Stemming from the fact that an orchard is a piece of enclosed land, the environment serves as a figurative symbol of isolation and separation, which contributes to the fear of exposure of the characters’ ‘death marked love’. Shakespeare makes an effort to indirectly communicate the nature of Romeo and Juliet’s relationship being eternally ill-fated and negative, considering that being involved in the act of concealing a secret is frequently associated with a potentially adverse consequence. Luhrmann’s interpretation of the scene incorporates a swimming pool as part of the setting in which Juliet falls into with Romeo. The director uses water as a representation of the ‘purity’ of their love and cleanse the two main characters of their previous relationship, ready to commence a new chapter of romance with additional hope. The visual interpolation of Romeo and Juliet admiring each other beneath the water with the accompaniment of the soundtrack “I’m Kissing You” by Des’ree, provides a clear allusion and backtrack to their first physical encounter through the fish tank. Naturally, the reference to this happy memory reinforces Baz Luhrmann’s view on the positivity of their passionate attachment and detracts from Shakespeare’s negative perception. An additional key difference between the two pieces of work is the playwright’s positioning of Juliet on her balcony from which she professes her love to Romeo. Shakespeare uses the balcony as a barrier and division between the teenagers, presenting the difficulty of their relationship and separating the two from having any sexual contact. On the contrary, Luhrmann directs Juliet to descend to ground on an elevator, as contrasted with having Juliet listen to her dear Romeo from the balcony. The establishment of a level playing field makes the scene more central to their intimate connection rather than their physical distance in the original set-up. Consequently, Baz Luhrmann’s desired theme of Romeo and Juliet’s love being optimistic and hopeful is underscored in comparison to Shakespeare’s despondent and negative portrayal.
Another significant difference between William Shakespeare and Baz Luhrmann’s depiction of Romeo and Juliet, is exhibited in the ‘death’ scene. While both portrayals of the lover’s deaths are equally as tragic, the filmmaker romanticizes their acutely distressing end and makes their love appear self-centered to the audience. Conversely, the playwright places their love in a more dramatic spotlight and highlights the destructive power that their connection possesses on the outside world. This is primarily reflected in the exclusion of Paris’ death in the Capulet vault and the setting. Luhrmann takes the creative liberty of factoring out the suitor’s passing from Shakespeare’s version of Romeo and Juliet. Originally in the play, Paris mourns Juliet’s deceptive demise outside the Capulet tomb, prior to Romeo coming into view to take his own life and ultimately killing Paris by slaying him with a sword. On his deathbed Paris insists, “O, I am slain! If thou be merciful/ Open the tomb, lay me with Juliet” (Romeo and Juliet Act 5, Scene 3) and proclaims his deep affection for Juliet. Paris’ omission in the movie belittles Shakespeare’s message that people outside of Romeo and Juliet are affected by their love story. In the case that Paris was incorporated into the film’s suicidal scene, it would dilute the strength of Romeo’s love for Juliet which would additionally defeat Luhrmann’s purpose of solely focusing on their great romance, without the distraction of other characters. Another major variance between the film and play in terms of the death scene, is the setting. Shakespeare situates the two protagonists in a mausoleum encompassing deceased Capulet bodies. The setting creates a gloomy and somber ambience and gives the impression that their love was wasteful and meaningless. With the formation of this ambience, the audience is called to feel pity for the characters which further enhances the idea of a tragedy. On another hand, the director sets the scene in an awe-inspiring church with Juliet’s body surrounded by a large number of candles and electric-blue neon crosses. Opposed to the mausoleum, the sacred space lightens the mood, characterizes romance and suggests that their love will transcend death and live on in heaven. The light emitted from the candles contradicts the darkness of their death and the prominent religious imagery evinces that their love is blessed, which promotes a positive force. The destructiveness and negativity surrounding the relationship in the play is disregarded, as Luhrmann’s romanticism of the theme of love in the film features in the spotlight through a positive view.
In closing, both the original play and the modernized movie interpretation of Romeo and Juliet inhere the overarching theme of young and fatal love, despite differing in the views of the playwright and film director. Shakespeare brings their love into a tragic and negative light, giving attention to its detrimental and fateful nature. In another vein, Baz Luhrmann displays the teenagers’ profound relationship as immensely constructive, optimistic, visually earthy and above all romantic. Demonstrations of these particular ideas are evident in the distinguishable settings that the characters are surrounded by, omissions of specific individuals deemed as unnecessary, as well as the positioning of the protagonists.
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