(Shakespearean Criticism)

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet, one of the most popular and well-known plays in the Shakespearean canon, centers on the ill-fated romance of two adolescents, each a member of one of the prominent, feuding families of Shakespeare's medieval Verona. Defying social custom and the dictates of their parents, the passionate young lovers perform a secret marriage ceremony, but a string of misfortunes ends the affair in tragedy. Written circa 1595, the play was an immediate success and has remained one of Shakespeare's most influential works. Critical consensus has tended to view the play as a poetic triumph but a dramatic failure in comparison with the playwright's later tragedies. Confronting this seeming paradox in his 1970 survey of the drama, Douglas Cole (see Further Reading) asks, “How does one create an enduring literary myth out of a sentimental romance?” This question in its myriad forms has preoccupied a host of critics. Cole's answer touches on many of the principal areas of recent interest in the work: its transformation of sources, originality of poetic language, skillfully realized characters, quickly paced fusion of comedy and tragedy, and blended themes of fate and chance. James Black (1975) highlights another element of critical interest: the play's exquisite attention to visual artistry, which has contributed to its sustained popularity on stage. Many critics, including Gerhard W. Kaiser (1977), maintain that what the play lacks in tragic intensity it replaces with lyrical beauty.

While character-centered criticism of Romeo and Juliet has traditionally focused on the drama's title figures, Romeo's friend Mercutio has also attracted a fair share of attention. The near-mythic critical status of Mercutio, who meets his demise midway through the drama, has its origins in the famous remark, attributed to John Dryden, that Shakespeare had to kill this brilliantly realized character “to prevent being kill'd by him.” Whether Dryden ever made such a statement is a matter of speculation, but there is little doubt that Mercutio tends to steal all of the scenes in which he appears. Contemporary interest in Mercutio often reflects on his status as a significant structural or thematic element in Romeo and Juliet. Herbert McArthur (1959), after first surveying Dryden's and other prominent historical assessments of Mercutio, claims that Romeo's close friend, despite his short life span on stage, is a fully developed and consistent dramatic character who helps define both Romeo and Juliet by his presence. Similarly, Raymond V. Utterback (1973) sees Mercutio as an integral component in Shakespeare's depiction of tragic causation, and maintains that the pattern of events leading up to his death becomes an organizing principle in the drama and prefigures a corresponding tragic resolution in the fate of the young lovers. Viewing Mercutio as a youthful trickster figure with symbolic links to the Roman god Mercury, Thomas Browne (1989) argues that the bawdy adolescent draws misfortune upon himself for his actions and helps focus Romeo and Juliet as a tragedy of character rather than of chance. Another figure selected for recent character study is Mercutio's slayer, Tybalt. Jerzy Limon (1995) suggests that while Romeo and Mercutio have received considerable critical attention, few have bothered to adequately analyze the nuances of Tybalt's character. Limon contends that Tybalt's actions appear to be properly motivated by a desire for honor, rather than by anger or cowardice as others have maintained. Turning to the figure of Romeo, Marvin Krims (1999) provides psychoanalytic commentary on the drama's male lead. According to Krims, Romeo fits the psychological profile of a neurotic child exposed to a sexualized trauma in his formative years, one in which he possibly confused innocent lovemaking with a violent assault. In his reenactment of this trauma during the closing scene of the play, Krims contends, Romeo once again confuses an act of love, this time with Juliet, and sublimates it into a tragedy of self-destruction.

The robust performance history of Romeo and Juliet attests to the enduring popularity of the drama, as well as to the modern stage director's prerogative to alter, revise, adapt, and abridge. Theater productions of Romeo and Juliet around the turn of the twenty-first century have demonstrated both the pliability of the drama and the perennial appeal of its emblematic lovers. Reviewing director Michael Boyd's 2000 production of the drama at Stratford-upon-Avon, Russell Jackson comments on the “austerity” of this staging of Verona, which was devoid of warmth, community sentiment, or religious sensibility. Nevertheless, Jackson finds David Tennant's Romeo and Adrian Schiller's Mercutio well interpreted and effective, and additionally approves of Boyd's fine handling of the erotic subtexts in the drama. Anita Gates (2001) reviews a very different Romeo and Juliet at the Lucille Lortel Theater in New York City. Contemporary clothing and a hip-hop motif pervaded director Rob Barron's ninety-minute abridgement, which Gates finds to be skillfully molded to please the tastes of modern-day adolescents. In Wilborn Hampton's (2001) review of Terrence O'Brien's Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival production, he contends that the staging was “uneven” in terms of both individual performances and directorial acumen, but praises Nance Williamson's “genuinely comic” Nurse. In Bruce Weber's assessment of a 2001 production at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey, he commends the youthful and energetic cast. Weber asserts that director Emily Mann's extensive text deletions enlivened the play and quickened its pace during a generally lighthearted first half, but blames such cuts for purging the performance of much of its tragic pathos in the grave and serious closing segments of the drama. Two popular cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare's love-tragedy, Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 film and Baz Luhrmann's 1996 William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, have continued to elicit critical interest. Jennifer L. Martin's 2002 analysis offers a comparative look at these works, contrasting Zeffirelli's depiction of innocent youth destroyed by an undeniable fate with Luhrmann's technique of “postmodern montage” and reliance on visual suggestion and allusion to tell Shakespeare's story.

Among the major threads of thematic criticism that have dominated study of Romeo and Juliet is the question of whether the drama should be viewed as a character-driven tragedy of fate or one that relies on fortune or chance as its guiding principle. D. Douglas Waters (1992) contributes to this discussion, contending that the play is a tragedy of fate and fortune influenced by the writings of Ptolemy and Seneca. According to Waters, Shakespeare demonstrated that fate sometimes acts “through chance, human contingency, and accident.” A number of contemporary critics have also studied ideological or cultural factors that contribute to Shakespeare's depiction of society, including late-twentieth-century commentators who have considered the rebellion of Romeo and Juliet as a tacit subversion of patriarchal culture. Kirby Farrell (1989) interprets the actions of the young lovers in disregarding their parent's wishes and following their destructive passions as a direct assault on the symbolic power of patriarchy. In a distinct but complementary assessment, Nathaniel Wallace (1991) analyzes the theme of family conflict between the feuding Montagues and Capulets of Verona, concentrating on the process of semiotic revolt in which new cultural metaphors appear to replace the old. Dueling is the subject of Jill L. Levenson's (1995) essay, which emphasizes violence as a “constant theme” in the play, and one coded into the conventions of the culture it endeavors to depict. Robin Headlam Wells (1998, see Further Reading) looks at the satirical element in Romeo and Juliet, suggesting Shakespeare's unrelenting attack on sentimentalism in the work as it critiques the conventions of Petrarchan love poetry and the masculine ideal of the martial hero. Continuing another line of scholarly inquiry, several recent critics have regarded time as a central theme in Romeo and Juliet and have commented on Shakespeare's complex application and manipulation of temporality within the play. G. Thomas Tanselle (1964) points out that the action of Romeo and Juliet is compressed into roughly four days and that references to time and its passing saturate the work. In surveying these references, Tanselle remarks that this perception of time serves to strongly distinguish young and old, and suggests Shakespeare's “peculiarly modern” preoccupation with relativity as his characters attempt to define where they stand in relation to the past, present, and future. G. G. Heyworth (2000) distinguishes between two modes of temporal reckoning in Romeo and Juliet: tragic and romantic time. For Heyworth, the drama foregrounds “the generic insufficiency of time” in romance, and illustrates Shakespeare's power to desynchronize, dilate, and condense time in his drama in order to transform romance into tragedy.

James Black (essay date spring 1975)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Black, James. “The Visual Artistry of Romeo and Juliet.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 15, no. 2 (spring 1975): 245-56.

[In the following essay, Black traces patterns of visual pairing, duplication, and opposition in Romeo and Juliet.]

The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

The first-act prologue to Romeo and Juliet invites the audience to use its eyes as well as its patient ears. “Our toil”—the actors' efforts—will try to compensate visually for anything that may elude hearing. There is a more confident note here than can be found in Shakespeare's other...

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Gerhard W. Kaiser (essay date 1977)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Kaiser, Gerhard W. “Romeo and Juliet.” In The Substance of Greek and Shakespearean Tragedy under Special Consideration of Shakespeare's “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” “Othello” and “Romeo and Juliet,” pp. 179-208. Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, Universität Salzburg, 1977.

[In the following excerpt, Kaiser presents an overview of the plot, central characters, and themes of Romeo and Juliet, viewing the drama as not only a tragedy of misfortune and explosive passion, but also one of reconciliation.]

After having discussed three of Shakespeare's most famous tragedies, we propose now to have a look at...

(The entire section is 9484 words.)

Herbert McArthur (essay date winter 1959)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: McArthur, Herbert. “Romeo's Loquacious Friend.” Shakespeare Quarterly 10, no. 1 (winter 1959): 35-44.

[In the following essay, McArthur examines past critical perceptions of Mercutio in order to determine this character's fundamental significance to the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.]

The critic takes a deliberate and well-guarded position to make his assault on major characters and major problems; he comes with his theories and his standards of value, his moral and aesthetic standards, flying in the breeze. A minor character who lies in the way is likely to be pounced on and disposed of without much ado. But if we watch closely we may learn more about the...

(The entire section is 5217 words.)

Raymond V. Utterback (essay date spring 1973)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Utterback, Raymond V. “The Death of Mercutio.” Shakespeare Quarterly 24, no. 2 (spring 1973): 105-16.

[In the following essay, Utterback analyzes the pattern of events leading to Mercutio's death in Romeo and Juliet, maintaining that Shakespeare subsequently repeats this pattern in the main plot of the drama.]

Mercutio is a notorious scene-stealer. His brilliant lines and the intensity, humor, and vigor of his personality give him numerous opportunities to upstage the romantic hero of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, with the result that he can often create a stronger dramatic impression whenever he and Romeo appear together.1...

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Thomas Browne (essay date 1989)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Browne, Thomas. “Mercutio as Mercury: Trickster and Shadow.” Upstart Crow 9 (1989): 40-51.

[In the following essay, Browne evaluates Mercutio as an adolescent trickster figure and considers his thematic significance in Romeo and Juliet.]

Romeo leaps over the orchard wall on his way to Juliet, and Mercutio, the mock magician, “conjures” with a series of extravagantly bawdy jokes. But when he doesn't get an answer out of his friend, Mercutio gives up: “Romeo, good night. I'll to my truckle bed.”1

This is one of those archetypal moments of adolescence: after going to the big dance in the highest hopes, the young men who failed...

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Jerzy Limon (essay date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Limon, Jerzy. “Rehabilitating Tybalt: A New Interpretation of the Duel Scene in Romeo and Juliet.” In Shakespeare's “Romeo and Juliet”: Texts, Contexts, and Interpretation, edited by Jay L. Halio, pp. 97-106. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1995.

[In the following essay, Limon interprets Tybalt's behavior in Act III, scene i of Romeo and Juliet in terms of Elizabethan codes of honor and the drama's themes of chance and misfortune.]

Although the first scene of act 3 of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is a decisive moment, indisputably forming the turning point in the development of the action and the dramatic...

(The entire section is 3860 words.)

Marvin Krims (essay date November 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Krims, Marvin. “Romeo's Childhood Trauma?—‘What Fray Was Here?’” PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for Psychological Study of the Arts, 3 (November 1999): article no. 991022.

[In the following essay, Krims offers a psychoanalytic reading of Romeo as the victim of a sexualized childhood trauma later reenacted in the concluding scene of Romeo and Juliet.]

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves …

Despite its popularity, some critics have considered Romeo and Juliet flawed because it is “not tragic in the Aristotelian sense on the grounds that the outcome does not flow out of the faults of the characters but...

(The entire section is 4477 words.)

Russell Jackson (review date spring 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Jackson, Russell. Review of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare Quarterly 52, no. 1 (spring 2001): 107-12.

[In the following excerpt from his review of the 2000 Shakespeare season at Stratford-upon-Avon, Jackson comments on the visual austerity of Michael Boyd's staging of Romeo and Juliet, surveys Boyd's directorial innovations, and summarizes the principal performances in the production.]

Michael Boyd's austere Romeo and Juliet was played on a bare platform with a runway down through the auditorium and two walls of plain wood curving into a blind exit at the back of the stage. Verona was not fair in any sense of the word. The play began with a...

(The entire section is 1056 words.)

Anita Gates (review date 23 June 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Gates, Anita. Review of Romeo and Juliet. New York Times (23 June 2001): B7, B14.

[In the following review of Rob Barron's abridged 2001 stage adaptation of Romeo and Juliet at the Lucille Lortel Theater in New York City, Gates highlights the production's potential appeal to younger audiences.]

Benvolio wears camouflage pants, with one leg rolled up to his knee. The Capulets' illiterate male servant constantly listens to his Walkman. The Prince wears a headset. The young people of Verona act out basketball moves, whoop their hellos and practice their martial arts moves. A lot of hip-hop is happening in Theaterworks/U.S.A.'s well-acted, throbbingly...

(The entire section is 540 words.)

Wilborn Hampton (review date 15 August 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Hampton, Wilborn. Review of Romeo and Juliet. New York Times (15 August 2001): E5.

[In the following review of Terrence O'Brien's Romeo and Juliet for the 2001 Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, Hampton finds the staging uneven in terms of both individual performances and O'Brien's mostly comic directorial additions to the play.]

One of the more persistent peculiarities of American culture has been the insatiable urge of actors, directors and audiences to pass hot summer nights congregating in city parks or country meadows for performances of the plays of William Shakespeare. Pioneered almost half a century ago by Joseph Papp and his New York...

(The entire section is 623 words.)

Bruce Weber (review date 26 September 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Weber, Bruce. Review of Romeo and Juliet. New York Times (26 September 2001): E5.

[In the following review, Weber praises Emily Mann's “fresh and inviting” 2001 production of Romeo and Juliet at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey, noting the adolescent exuberance of the cast and engaging pace of the performance.]

Veronese teenagers in the time of Shakespeare may well have behaved with a different decorum from today's Americans. but that doesn't mean they weren't equally in the thrall of newly rampaging hormones. For contemporary audiences—particularly young audiences—one of the more straining aspects of Romeo and Juliet...

(The entire section is 859 words.)

Neil Genzlinger (review date 9 May 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Genzlinger, Neil. Review of Romeo and Juliet. New York Times (9 May 2002): E5.

[In the following review, Genzlinger characterizes the cast of Shepard Sobel's 2002 staging of Romeo and Juliet at the Pearl Theater in New York City as generally “workmanlike” in their roles, but admires a few powerful moments in the otherwise spare production.]

Everyone knows that high school proms, rampant at this time of year, are a dangerous idea foisted upon us by the formal-wear industry. Yet for generations, parents have looked the other way, dressing up their teenagers like adults and sending them out to indulge.

In the East Village,...

(The entire section is 480 words.)

Jennifer L. Martin (essay date September 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Martin, Jennifer L. “Tights vs. Tattoos: Filmic Interpretations of Romeo and Juliet.English Journal 92, no. 1 (September 2002): 41-6.

[In the following excerpt, Martin compares Franco Zeffirelli's and Baz Luhrmann's cinematic adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, concentrating on their differing styles, representation of the drama's central characters, and interpretations of its most well-known scenes.]

Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann present very different interpretations of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet that imply how these directors see the world and what they value. After reading the primary text, students can sharpen their critical thinking skills by comparing the two films in terms of particular scenes, directorial intention, mis-en-scène, etc., as Shakespeare scholar and film critic H. R. Coursen suggests. The result of this line of thinking is that there is no one “correct” version: “In other words, actors and directors collaborate with the original work” (3).

When students are encouraged to view film adaptations of Shakespeare's plays in this light, they will inevitably view them more critically. A valuable technique that Coursen suggests is for students to view the same scene from a variety of film adaptations. He notes, “Comparing and contrasting the same scene in two or more versions of the same script teaches the student to look for detail” (5). Students will also begin to notice the actors' and directors' interpretations of Shakespearean text and the fact that these interpretations differ vastly from film to film, a realization that will encourage them to take more ownership of the text. Teaching students to be more critical of media sources will help them to view film/television as a text that can be deconstructed. As Coursen suggests, “Instead of merely seating students in front of the tube, we can unashamedly make what appears there the focus of study. If we help students to understand the media, we empower them” (8). In order to do this, however, we must begin to look at film critically and develop a vocabulary through which to discuss the nuances of film art.

Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 version and Baz Luhrmann's 1996 version of Romeo and Juliet present very different filmic approaches to the play and vastly different ideas about the two young lovers and their relationship to the world and each other. Zeffirelli's film casts two very young and virtually unknown actors, Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, in the roles of Romeo and Juliet. The director's vision of adolescent love is one of immediacy and immaturity. The young lovers, particularly Romeo, act impulsively and are naive pawns in a deterministic world. Zeffirelli's view of adolescence is one of impertinence and naiveté. His film is melodramatic and linear, highlighting the role of fate and the sense that the story of Romeo and Juliet could not have ended any differently. Luhrmann's interpretation of Shakespeare's text, on the other hand, pays homage not only to the primary source, but also to filmic versions that came before. However, Luhrmann's depiction of the two young lovers, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, marks a definitive departure from Zeffirelli's in that his two lovers are more grounded and reflective and show more of an inner maturity and strength of character; his depiction of adolescence through these two characters is more worldly. Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet makes much use of flashback and flashforward to add to the drama of the script. His style suggests irony and downplays the role of fate in the story.


Zeffirelli's version begins with the prologue dubbed in as a voiceover, signifying the omnipotent role that fate plays in the lives of the two young lovers. We are then quickly led into the scene of battle between the Capulets and Montagues. This fray is not glamorized. On the contrary, it seems to affect the entire village. As David Kranz states, “Zeffirelli uses close-ups in the opening brawl of his Romeo and Juliet (1.1) to underscore the violence of the action and possibly to relate this destructive passion to the upcoming love of Romeo and Juliet, which is similarly photographed” (347). We are soon shown the scene when Paris asks Capulet for his only daughter (1.2). When Capulet responds to Paris's comment, “Younger than she are happy mothers made” (216) with “And too soon marred are those so early made,” (13) he notices Lady Capulet through a window, and she gives him an evil glare as if to validate his statement. This is an interesting difference from Shakespeare's primary text—a difference that alludes to the often-dismaying situation women are placed in regarding the business of marriage. Another interesting difference from Shakespeare's primary text is Zeffirelli's implication that physical love exists between Lady Capulet and Tybalt. This insinuation is made explicit in Lady Capulet's plea for justice after Tybalt's death (3.1).

In Zeffirelli's interpretation of the Capulet feast (1.5), Rosaline is depicted—a difference from Luhrmann's version—and Romeo is focused on her until he sees Juliet. His immediate transference of affection demonstrates his emotional immaturity and his need for immediacy in matters of love. Romeo and Juliet seek each other out with their eyes, and Zeffirelli makes much use of the close-up. As Kranz states:

Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet uses numerous close-ups on the young lovers to help us feel their passion and side with them against Veronese society. This is especially evident in Act 1, Scene 5, the Capulet ball, where juxtaposed close-ups of Romeo and Juliet are interspersed with medium and full shots during an elaborate Renaissance dance.


The focus on the eyes of the two lovers illustrates their innocence, inexperience, and naiveté.

The balcony scene (2.2) in Zeffirelli's version focuses on the physical attraction the two lovers have for one another. Zeffirelli makes much of the fact that the two lovers share an intense physical passion. During the marriage ceremony (2.6), Friar Lawrence has to physically keep the two apart, for they cannot keep their hands off each other; they are impulsive and seek immediate gratification. When Romeo learns of his banishment and Juliet of her inability to avoid the arranged marriage to Paris, the two are desperate and hysterical. The Friar acts as the calming, paternal figure for them both.

Zeffirelli's interpretation of the conflict between Tybalt and Mercutio (3.1) is one of playful bantering; the two seem to enjoy joking with one another and to share a mutual admiration and respect. Tybalt looks absolutely dismayed when he realizes that he has wounded Mercutio, a sense of regret that is absent from Luhrmann's version. In the film, it is Romeo's impulsiveness that has caused this death.

When in Friar Lawrence's cell after killing Tybalt (3.3), Romeo's grief manifests itself as whiney and immature. Friar Lawrence strikes him and is represented as an authority figure. Romeo is shown here as an impulsive youth, unable to control himself. Zeffirelli here depicts adolescence as an emotional, impulsive time; wiser, adult forces must contain adolescent desires.

At the Capulet tomb where Juliet is to be buried, Friar Lawrence smiles and then remembers himself, as he presides over the ceremony. We are given the sense that the Friar's intervention will triumph. However, his paternalism soon turns to cowardliness in the film. The Friar's line, “I dare no longer stay,” is repeated several times, suggesting his fear; likewise, he is not given the chance to explain the events that lead to the two deaths, as he is in the primary text. Romeo and Juliet are carried out together on a platform, dressed in their wedding clothes, as if to signify their idealization. The Prince's last lines, “A glooming peace this morning with it brings. / The sun for sorrow will not show its head. / Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things; / Some shall be pardoned, and some punished; / For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo” (306-11) are dubbed in a voiceover as Lord Capulet and Lord Montague walk out together, followed by Lady Capulet, Lady Montague, and the others, truly signifying the resolution of the strife between the two families.


Luhrmann's interpretation begins with a television newscaster reading the prologue, which is then repeated in both voice and text as we are introduced to the setting, Verona Beach, and the cast of characters. Capulet and Montague are CEOs of corporations. Luhrmann's interpretation of the play is postmodern in that it pays homage to other Shakespearean works (e.g., a store on the beach is named “The Merchant of Verona Beach,” a run-down theater in town is named “The Globe,” and the name for the local cleaners is “Out, Out Damn Spot Cleaners”) and to other film adaptations of the play. For example, Luhrmann takes Zeffirelli's incestuous overtones between Lady Capulet and Tybalt and makes them more explicit. According to Levenson:

Luhrmann's revision also reflects its era, perhaps most specifically, in its postmodern style: it echoes key figures in film history, from Busby Berkeley to Federico Fellini to Ken Russell; it uses techniques and images familiar from television networks (MTV) and genres (evening news, Miami Vice). At times it even looks back to strategies originating with Garrick, such as the encounter of Romeo and Juliet in the tomb.


A striking difference in Luhrmann's version is his use of religious imagery. The Priest (Friar Lawrence in Shakespeare's primary text) has a tattoo of a cross on his back, religious statues loom ominously over the action, and Juliet's room contains scores of angels and a shrine to the Virgin Mary. Although the society depicted in this version is fast-paced and violent, perhaps the religious imagery illustrates the spiritual aspect of the love between Romeo and Juliet. The love between DiCaprio's Romeo and Danes's Juliet is strikingly more tender and not so violently immediate and physical as that depicted in Zeffirelli's version. Simultaneously, Luhrmann's use of religious imagery also suggests that religious dictates represented by the preponderance of religious icons are inadequate in explaining the confusion of postmodern life.

The society Luhrmann depicts is more violent. The initial brawl between the Capulets and Montagues results in the blowing up of a gas station. Tybalt is depicted as being more violent and more menacing in this version. For example, in the first scene of battle, he draws his gun on a young boy and says “bang.” Luhrmann does much to demonize the majority of the Capulet family. At the Capulet feast, Tybalt is dressed as a devil and is shown growling; the Capulet boys are dressed as skeletons. Lord Capulet strikes Lady Capulet in Act 3, Scene 5 when Juliet refuses to marry Dave (Paris). Also, Lady Capulet is depicted in an evil light. Although she was married at a young age, not only does she not sympathize with her daughter (as the primary text indicates), but she is also cruel and cold to her and takes an active role in the plotting of the marriage. Luhrmann depicts Lady Capulet as possessing power “behind the scenes.” Furthermore, she is represented not as a mother, but as a licentious woman, a depiction that may be an allusion to Lady Capulet's “dirty look” to Lord Capulet in Zeffirelli's earlier version, mentioned previously. Finally, in Act 3, Scene 1, after the death of Tybalt, Luhrmann takes Capulet's stoic lines from the primary text: “Not Romeo prince; he was Mercutio's friend; / His fault concludes but what the law should end, / The life of Tybalt” (186-88) and gives them to Montague. Perhaps Luhrmann's purpose in demonizing the Capulets is to highlight Juliet's goodness and innocence, which leads to her acceptance of a man of the Montague clan.

Romeo and Benvolio learn of the Capulet feast via television. In Zeffirelli's version, some attendees of the feast are masked, but in Luhrmann's version it is a costume ball. The Montague boys are dressed humorously—Mercutio as a drag queen, others as Vikings, in kilts, etc. Luhrmann's costuming of Romeo and Juliet illuminates his projection of their personalities. Juliet is dressed as an angel, illustrating her innocence and purity. This choice of costume echoes other filmic depictions of Juliet, including Zeffirelli's. However, Claire Danes's Juliet is not so naive as the Juliet of Olivia Hussey. As Gerrie Lim states, “Here's a Juliet who walks that fine line between the naivetè of youth and the passion of someone much wiser than her age would allow” (2). Romeo is dressed as a soldier, with a chain mail suit, and he is more “warlike” in this version. He is not the weeping innocent shown by Zeffirelli. He shows more strength and is more reflective upon his actions. For example, in Act 3, Scene 1, when Romeo kills Tybalt, the camera pauses on his face for a long close-up in which we see a sense of bewilderment, regret, and disillusionment. This emotion is reinforced in Act 3, Scene 5, when Romeo is awakened from his first and only slumber with Juliet by a flashback of the murder he has committed. He yells the line, “I am fortune's fool,” (138) while looking up at a religious statue that is under construction. Luhrmann's ironic use of mis-en-scène here seems to suggest that fortune does not play as great a role in the lives of his characters as it does in other versions. Also, his depiction of creation under construction illustrates the self-consciousness of his own creation (the film) via his use of textual and filmic allusion; his film is definitely a postmodern construction.

We first encounter Juliet in slow motion, while she is submerged in water; Juliet is portrayed as peaceful and innocent. In contrast, the Nurse's and Lady Capulet's movements are sped up while they search for Juliet. With this technique Luhrmann seems to be poking fun at these characters, demonstrating their ridiculousness and frivolity. In fact, Luhrmann depicts Lady Capulet as possessing more power and influence than does Zeffirelli. She is shown flirting and conspiring with Dave (Paris) in this film version. She is also depicted as being a more angry and corrupt character. She kisses Tybalt openly. Her affection for him is much more explicit than in the Zeffirelli version. For example, in Act 3, Scene 1, Lady Capulet clings to the body of Tybalt after he is slain, and she attempts to attack Benvolio when he explains the events in question. In Act 3, Scene 4, when Capulet explains to Paris why he cannot woo Juliet, as she is distraught over the death of Tybalt, Luhrmann gives one of Capulet's lines to Lady Capulet. When Capulet states, “She loved her kinsman Tybalt dearly,” (3) it is Lady Capulet who replies, “And so did I” (4).

Another interesting difference in Luhrmann's version of the Capulet feast is that Romeo takes drugs, offered to him by Mercutio. As he begins to hallucinate at the feast, he speaks the line from Act 5, Scene 3: “Thy drugs are quick” (120). Just prior to his taking the drug, he envisions his own death; Luhrmann inserts a flashforward sequence of Romeo entering the Capulet tomb, “well-neoned” with crosses.


There are many scenes in these film versions of Romeo and Juliet that would be interesting to compare and contrast in the classroom. The balcony scene in Act 2 is vastly different in the two versions. In Zeffirelli's version, Juliet contemplates her love on her balcony, and ample attention is paid to her breasts. This detail gives credence to the notion that Zeffirelli's version focuses highly on the physical aspects of the love between Romeo and Juliet. In Luhrmann's version, there is no balcony. Romeo and Juliet meet on equal footing. Juliet is not raised to a pedestal as is often depicted. She is shown walking around a pool and lamenting that Romeo is a Montague. When Romeo finally speaks to her, she screams, and the two fall into a pool. Luhrmann's use of water in his mis-en-scène is common when showing the two lovers. When Romeo and Juliet first spot each other at the Capulet feast, it is through an aquarium. The promise of their union is made in the pool, and Romeo falls into the pool after meeting Juliet on their one night together. This use of water suggests a purity, a spiritual component to their love, which is absent in Zeffirelli's version.

Another interesting scene to examine is Act 3, Scene 3, when Romeo is in Friar Lawrence's cell after learning that he has been banished. In Zeffirelli's version, as noted previously, Romeo is seen crying and wailing. He is on the floor and unable to maintain his composure or control his emotions. In Luhrmann's version, Romeo is not weeping and wailing in Friar Lawrence's cell, nor does the Friar (the Priest in Luhrmann's version) chastise him as if he were a child. He is depicted as more of a friend or an equal than as a paternal figure.

A final scene worthy of analysis is that of the two lovers in the tomb—Act 5, Scene 3. In Zeffirelli's version, Romeo returns to Verona without being detected. There is also no interaction with Paris, as in the primary text, but Romeo does speak to the body of Tybalt, lying next to Juliet. In this version, Romeo dies before Juliet awakens. When Friar Lawrence leaves Juliet, after repeating “I dare no longer stay,” (159) four times, she takes Romeo's dagger and quickly thrusts it into her chest. In Luhrmann's version, Romeo returns to Verona with police chasing him. What he says to Paris in the primary text, “tempt not a desp'rate man” (59), he shouts to the police, with his gun drawn. There are no Tybalt, no Paris, and no Priest in Luhrmann's version of the tomb scene, suggesting that his Romeo and Juliet are more isolated and alienated than are Zeffirelli's. Perhaps the major difference between the two films is that in Luhrmann's version Juliet awakens to see Romeo take the poison, and Romeo realizes his mistake. He is still alive when she kisses his lips to attempt to taste the poison. He then speaks to her, “Thus with a kiss I die” (120). Then there is silence. Claire Danes's Juliet then kills herself with a gun, but it is a more thoughtful and calculating death than the hasty and quick death of Olivia Hussey. We then see flashbacks of their loving union, as the two lie dead on top of one another in the funeral chamber, well lit with candles. The coroners then carry the bodies out. The two are not glorified in death and are not made to look attractive or idealized, as in Zeffirelli's version. Luhrmann's version ends with a television newscaster reading the Prince's last six lines, followed by the static of a TV screen. We do not see the overt resolution of the two families, as is made clear in Zeffirelli's version.


By providing students the vocabulary to discuss the genre of film, we can encourage them to look for detail and to analyze film in ways they never have before. It is important to teach students about film technique, at least in a rudimentary manner, so that they are able to more adequately understand directorial intention and view film as interpretative text. Concepts such as flashback, flashforward, and mis-en-scène will be helpful in introducing students to the genre of film. It is not always necessary to show films in their entirety (for example, some teachers may want to avoid the brief nudity scene that occurs in Zeffirelli's version), although showing films from beginning to end will give students the full picture of what the director attempts to illustrate. Analyzing particular scenes from at least two Shakespearean film adaptations will provide students with the notion that there is more than one way to view a text. They may then discuss which versions they feel are truer to the primary text or truer to their personal interpretations of the primary text. Often it is difficult for students to understand that there may be various valid interpretations of a text. Bringing the genre of film to the teaching of Shakespeare in the classroom will encourage students to see the possibility of multiple interpretations and will perhaps provide them with more confidence in their own interpretive abilities.

Works Cited

Coursen, H. R. “Theories, Techniques, and Resources.” Teaching Shakespeare with Film and Television: A Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996. 1-10.

Kranz, David. “Cinematic Elements in Shakespearean Film: A Glossary.” Riggio. 341-60.

Levenson, Jill L. “Romeo and Juliet on the Stage: ‘It Is a Kind of History.’” Riggio. 114-26.

Lim, Gerrie. “Endless Love.” Movie Review: Romeo and Juliet 6 July 2001.

Riggio, Milla Cozart, ed. Teaching Shakespeare through Performance. New York: Modern Language Association, 1999.

Romeo and Juliet. Dir. Baz Luhrmann. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, and Harold Perrineau. Fox Video, 1996.

Romeo and Juliet. Dir. Franco Zeffirelli. Perf. Leonard Whiting Jr., Olivia Hussey, and Milo O'Shea. CIC Video, 1968.

Shakespeare, William. “Romeo and Juliet.” The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare. Eds. Sylvan Barnet et al. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963. 479-523.

G. Thomas Tanselle (essay date autumn 1964)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Tanselle, G. Thomas. “Time in Romeo and Juliet.Shakespeare Quarterly 15, no. 4 (autumn 1964): 349-61.

[In the following essay, Tanselle focuses on Romeo and Juliet's references to time in relation to its themes of fate, youth versus age, and haste.]

It is conventional for editors and critics to point out that in Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare compressed into a matter of days the action that took nine months in Brooke's Romeus and Juliet. They also note that there are a great many time references in the play, and, on the basis of these refererences, they construct a calendar for the events of the plot. But, even though allusions...

(The entire section is 7892 words.)

Barry B. Adams (essay date March 1968)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Adams, Barry B. “The Prudence of Prince Escalus.” ELH 35, no. 1 (March 1968): 32-50.

[In the following essay, Adams contends that Prince Escalus is a partially emblematic figure in Romeo and Juliet who represents the double-faced image of prudence and Fortunata and who links the drama's themes of chance, fate, time, wisdom, and divine providence.]

Escalus, Prince of Verona, makes his first appearance on stage relatively early in the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet. The noisy street brawl touched off by the rival serving men is in full swing, and the Prince at first has trouble making himself heard. When he does finally gain the attention of...

(The entire section is 7472 words.)

David M. Bergeron (essay date March 1977)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Bergeron, David M. “Sickness in Romeo and Juliet.CLA Journal 20, no. 3 (March 1977): 356-64.

[In the following essay, Bergeron explores Shakespeare's use of the language and imagery of illness as a central tragic metaphor in Romeo and Juliet.]

If we have cut our critical teeth on tragedies like The Spanish Tragedy, Hamlet, and The Revenger's Tragedy, we may have some difficulty in locating the tragic sense in Romeo and Juliet. Indeed some theatre directors choose to present it as a comedy, emphasizing Mercutio, the Nurse, and the sacrificial nature of the deaths of Romeo and Juliet which ultimately bring reconciliation of the...

(The entire section is 3318 words.)

Kirby Farrell (essay date 1989)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Farrell, Kirby. “Love, Death, and Patriarchy in Romeo and Juliet.” In Shakespeare's Personality, edited by Norman N. Holland, Sidney Homan, and Bernard J. Paris, pp. 86-102. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Farrell probes the patriarchal subtext of Romeo and Juliet and the play's subversive critique of this social system.]


Recent criticism has tended to depict patriarchy primarily as an authoritarian institution for the regulation of society. Where Elizabethan theorists praised the system for its order, we now have difficulty seeing beyond its flagrant injustices and...

(The entire section is 6589 words.)

Nathaniel Wallace (essay date summer 1991)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Wallace, Nathaniel. “Cultural Tropology in Romeo and Juliet.Studies in Philology 88, no. 18 (summer 1991): 329-44.

[In the following essay, Wallace analyzes the theme of family conflict between the feuding Montagues and Capulets of Verona in Romeo and Juliet, concentrating on the process of semiotic revolt in which new cultural metaphors appear to replace the old.]

Shakespeare's Verona in Romeo and Juliet has been perceived as moribund and stylized, and the lovers' relationship has been contrasted to the city's decadence as an uncorrupted preserve.1 Yet a reassessment of Verona and its celebrated lovers reveals that the...

(The entire section is 6336 words.)

D. Douglas Waters (essay date 1992)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Waters, D. Douglas. “Fate and Fortune in Romeo and Juliet.Upstart Crow 12 (1992): 74-90.

[In the following essay, Waters contends that Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy of fate and fortune influenced by the writings of Ptolemy and Seneca.]

In critical discussion of Romeo and Juliet in the last three decades or so, there are at least three significant ways of approaching the play: 1) traditional character-study as the key to the tragedy, 2) a recent de-emphasis on the genre of tragedy in favor of discussion of culture, sexual difference, and ideology, and 3) the role of fate as the key to the tragedy. The complexity of these issues...

(The entire section is 6953 words.)

Jill L. Levenson (essay date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Levenson, Jill L. “‘Alla Stoccado Carries It Away’: Codes of Violence in Romeo and Juliet.” In Shakespeare's “Romeo and Juliet”: Texts, Contexts, and Interpretation, edited by Jay L. Halio, pp. 83-96. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1995.

[In the following essay, Levenson discusses the centrality of violence—depicted in the numerous acts of dueling—in Romeo and Juliet and its displays of ambition, power, and competition.]

Now malice and hatred ouerrunneth all, strife and rancor are the bellows of quarrels, and men vpon euerie light cause enter into more actions of defiance, than for any iust...

(The entire section is 5492 words.)

Ronald Knowles (essay date 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Knowles, Ronald. “Carnival and Death in Romeo and Juliet.” In Shakespeare and Carnival: After Bakhtin, edited by Ronald Knowles, pp. 36-60. London: Macmillan, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Knowles applies Mikhail Bakhtin's cultural theory of the carnivalesque to Romeo and Juliet, particularly in regard to the drama's themes of love and death.]

As the title Rabelais and His World indicates, Bakhtin is primarily concerned with medieval culture, but he does offer many fascinating asides on the carnivalesque in the early modern world, and in Shakespeare particularly. ‘Shakespeare's drama’, he writes, ‘has many outward carnivalesque...

(The entire section is 8182 words.)

G. G. Heyworth (essay date 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Heyworth, G. G. “Missing and Mending: Romeo and Juliet at Play in the Romance Chronotope.” The Yearbook of English Studies: Time and Narrative 30 (2000): 5-20.

[In the following essay, Heyworth concentrates on the Ovidian spatio-temporal dynamics of Romeo and Juliet, and the drama's paradoxical juxtaposition of tragic and romantic time.]

Assume for a moment that Romeo and Juliet is not about star-crossed lovers or feuding families, but more profoundly about the generic insufficiency of time that afflicts everyone and everything to do with romance, author as well as characters. Poetically and emotionally, temporal insufficiency is necessary for...

(The entire section is 7254 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Andrews, Michael Cameron. “Cock-a-hoop.” Upstart Crow 12 (1992): 91-5.

Explicates the phrase “set a cock-a-hoop” used by Capulet in Act 1, scene v of Romeo and Juliet, regarding it as an expression of “masculine self-assertiveness and self-display.”

Cole, Douglas. Introduction to Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Romeo and Juliet” A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Douglas Cole, pp. 1-18. Englewood Cliffs: N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Surveys the sources, contexts, structure, and themes of fate, time, and the balance of good and evil in Romeo and Juliet.


(The entire section is 387 words.)