Romeo and Juliet, which ranks among Shakespeare's most popular and well-known plays, is considered by some critics to be the first and greatest example of romantic tragedy written during the Renaissance. The play centers on two youths from feuding families who, upon falling in love, attempt to defy social custom, patriarchal power, and destiny. Their efforts meet with disastrous results, including the deaths of Tybalt and Mercutio, as well as the tragic demise of Romeo and Juliet. Contemporary critics, like their predecessors, often focus on the titular characters, searching for flaws that may be said to have contributed to their tragedy, or, in contrast, defending the lovers against such attacks. Mercutio's character is also the subject of critical analyses, as some critics feel that his death marks a turning point in the play from comedy to tragedy. Other areas of critical scholarship include examinations of patriarchal power, as well as the language, imagery, and structure of the play. Just as these issues are examined by critics in print, directors also explore issues of characterization and language in performance and film. Numerous reviewers have commented on such contemporary productions of Romeo and Juliet as Baz Luhrmann's 1996 film, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, as well as various live performances.
Romeo and Juliet have been accused by some critics of being self-centered and immature. While some may agree, others, including critics such as Elmer Edgar Stoll (see Further Reading), contest the idea that Romeo and Juliet possess flaws that contribute to their fate; Stoll finds that love, destiny, and the feud between the families brings about the deaths of the lovers. Carolyn E. Brown (1996) observes a shift in the critical opinion of Juliet, noting that modern critics have increasingly credited Juliet with being “self-willed,” rather than a passive “victim” of her circumstances and fate. Exploring Juliet's depth of character and emerging selfhood, Brown concentrates on Juliet's language in two scenes typically thought of as romantic (Act II, scene ii, the so-called balcony scene, and Act III, scene v, the morning after the consummation), and finds in these scenes and in the falconry imagery they contain an effort on Juliet's part to control Romeo. As Romeo's closest male companion, Mercutio plays a vital role in Romeo and Juliet. Joseph A. Porter (1988) focuses on Mercutio’s relationship with Romeo, stressing that in both criticism and in performance, Mercutio's statements about the value of friendship are often underemphasized. Porter locates strains of homosexuality in Mercutio's phallic language, and in the “warmth and urgency” of his friendship with Romeo, and further analyzes how these homosexual suggestions may reflect Shakespeare's response to Christopher Marlowe's subversive homosexuality. Like Porter, Joan Ozark Holmer (1991) is interested in the relationship between Romeo and Mercutio. Holmer argues that Shakespeare used Mercutio to deepen the intensity of our reactions to the play, noting for example that in Shakespeare's sources, Romeo's duel arose out of self-defense, but the duel in Shakespeare's play stems from Romeo's passionate desire to avenge Mercutio's death.
The translation of Shakespeare's play to film involves numerous challenges for directors. Baz Luhrmann's 1996 version of the play, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, although popularly successful, was often disparaged by critics. Jim Welsh (1997) criticizes the way many of the actors were unable to convincingly deliver Shakespeare's dialogue and notes as well that the “bizarre” visuals of the film called into question its “fidelity” to Shakespeare's text. Leah Guenther (see Further Reading) notes that many reviewers condemned Luhrmann's film and suggests that Shakespeare purists were disdainful of Luhrmann's attempt to create a “Shakespearean vernacular.” After comparing the film to Franco Zeffirelli's 1968...
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