How does Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet as it was written compare with Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 film version?
We can definitely note several differences in Shakespeare's actual play Romeo and Juliet and the film version directed by Franco Zeffirelli in 1968, especially with respect to what Zeffirelli decided to both cut from and add to the production.
We can especially see many differences between Shakespeare's and Zeffirelli's final scene. One major difference is that Zeffirelli decided to cut the part of the scene in which Paris is seen mourning at Juliet's tomb. In fact, we certainly don't see as much of Paris in Zeffirelli's film as we do in Shakespeare's play in general. Shakespeare's description of Paris in mourning is a valuable contribution because it gives the reader/audience a chance to question the correctness of Juliet's actions. If Paris loves Juliet as deeply as Shakespeare shows, then we can question if it was wise for Juliet to have married Romeo, especially when Paris could have provided for her so much more effectively than Romeo. We particularly see Paris's feelings towards Juliet expressed in the following:
Sweet flower, with flowers thy bridal bed I strew,--
O woe! thy canopy is dust and stones;--
Which with sweet water nightly I will dew. (V.III)
In cutting Paris from the final scene, Zeffirelli also cut the duel between Romeo and Paris and Romeo's final murder. Eliminating Paris places Zeffirelli's focus on only Romeo's and Juliet's tragic deaths.
Zeffirelli also drastically changes the final scene by setting it in two locations. In Zeffirelli's film, the final speeches take place the morning after their deaths on the church steps. It is here on these church steps that Friar Laurence confesses his involvement in the couple's secret marriage and Juliet's faked death. More importantly, several speeches are cut out, particularly the speeches between Lords Capulet and Montague in which they make amends and promise to erect monuments. Even Prince Escalus's final speech stating, "Some shall be pardon'd, and some punished," has been cut. Instead, the film ends with the prince's exclamation, "All are punish'd," placing all blame for the deaths on the families.
What is most notable about Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 Romeo and Juliet is how similar it is to the text of the play. As was noted at the time, Zeffirelli cast actors to play Romeo and Juliet who were close in age to the play's young teenage leads, filmed it in Italy, and used Shakespeare's actual words. He also captures some of Shakespeare's mix of serious youthful intensity and comic adolescent zaniness; the young lovers are unwilling to compromise in their desires, such as the inability to wait to be married.
However, Zeffirelli made changes. He cut scenes and compressed the work to create a two-hour film. Romeo and Juliet was hardly the longest Shakespeare play—that was Hamlet—but if every scene had been filmed, the play would have been longer than two hours.
Zeffirelli also made changes to the ending to focus most of the drama and emotion on the double suicide. He leaves out Romeo's murder of Paris, making Romeo's suicide all the more more tragic, as it does not come in the wake of a killing.
Zeffirelli also plays on Shakespeare's love of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something that the characters do not. In the Shakespeare version, Friar John is quarantined in Mantua from fear of the plague, so he cannot return to Verona. In Zeffirelli's version, Romeo and Balthasar pass the Friar on horseback on the way to Verona, but they do not recognize him, though we as an audience do. This is one of the cases where film can gracefully do things that would be much more difficult on stage, and I cannot help but believe that Shakespeare would approve of this change.