Progress Notes

Romeo and Juliet

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One of my minor pleasures--no, not a guilty pleasure--is the plays of Shakespeare. This has been a lifelong thing, since my early teens when I saw Lawrence Olivier's Richard III and enhanced by two terms plus of studying the Bard in college. Everything I learned about Shakespeare and the plays added to what I found then as so intriguing; how little was known about him, his breadth of knowledge which could not have come from his education or his life experience, the controversy of his authorship, the historical stories in the plays--all of it fed a hunger to know the answers to mysteries that continues to this day.

This week they have been running a recent film version of Romeo and Juliet on cable and I have watched parts of it a few times. It is a modern dress version with Leonardo Di Caprio and Claire Danes, directed by Baz Luhrman in 1996. Di Caprio and Danes are young and fresh-faced in the film adding to the similitude while the over-the-top modern setting and mores detract from it. I don't care for modern dress versions of the plays, although I do buy the argument that modern dress can throw the emphasis back on the words with fewer distractions than a showy period costume version has. This version has Romeo meet the very young Juliet when he crashes a party at her house, which is a costume party. Juliet is being courted although her father says she is two years too young to be betrothed. This version of the play emphasizes the comedic qualities of the play very well, with the adults resembling mobster families and the young people the henchman types, armed to the teeth and eager for action.

The most striking thing in this version for me is how the director has shown the romance as a very real, impetuous puppy love with the two young lovers talking marriage after a half-hour courtship and sharing a few quick, passion-soaked kisses. The party breaks up and Romeo lingers behind, finding Juliet's upstairs window and avoiding the armed security guards and security cameras. He lingers below her window, by the swimming pool, talking out loud to himself about his love and its presumed rocky course as the two lovers have discovered they are the children of sworn enemies. Juliet comes down the stairs, talking to herself as well, or soliloquizing as they call it which is the terminology for a solo speech which often represents the character speaking his/her thoughts out loud for the benefit of the audience.

Here, this version of the play shines. Juliet as played by Claire Danes begins. "Romeo. wherefore art thou Romeo?" and we understand she means "Why do you have to be Romeo, the son of my father's enemy? Why can't you be someone else, anyone else?" Romeo who has been concealing himself, speaks, startles her and they both fall in the pool! The rest of the famed Balcony Scene is played in and out of the pool, and the viewer sees that is part witty banter and part courtship in earnest, which ends with the lovers pledging their love forever and arranging to meet and somehow elope.

The work of the two young actors and the director here is the reason for this blog entry. Their reading of Shakespeare's lines is excellent and almost completely clear to us although it is in the Elizabethan idiom. Their dodging of the security cameras while in the pool is funny and well-timed and the situation, so often staged over the last 500 years is somehow fresh. The two actors' young, smooth faces make the romance easy to believe and the acting is good enough to convince us that these are two young teens in impossible love--and we hope for the best for them, even though we know the romance ends in tragedy.

The play has been produced countless times in the 500 plus years since Shakespeare wrote it and has been loved by theater and film-goers alike all over the world. The plot has been absorbed into western culture and has been reduced to little more than a catch-phrase representing young, impossible love. The film Shakespeare in Love tries to recreate what it was like for the very first audience to see this play, with very moving results. We also get a serious film version of the play every twenty years or so to remind us there is more to it than a catch-phrase.

There is a lot about this version of Romeo and Juliet that is over-the-top and jarring at times. John Leguizamo, whom critics regularly hate, plays Tybalt as a rabid psychopath, which is a pretty good choice to explain why Tybalt goes out of his way to pick fights and make every situation worse. Leguizamo is always a little heavy-handed but he plays Tybalt well. The speeding cars and guns are another jarring element and illustrate well what I dislike about modern dress stagings of the plays. The plays were written in a certain time for a certain culture and it is a tribute to the skill of the writing, the truth in the characters and the universality of the themes that the plays are still relevant to so many centuries after that time and culture are long gone. Romeo and Juliet works because all of us can identify with something or someone in the play. Anything that increases our enjoyment is a good thing. Modern dress has not increased my enjoyment but you may like it just fine. This film is worth watching for all the reasons I have written about and more that I have not written about. Give it a try. Maybe you will find something to like too.


  1. tomi01uk's Avatar
    Your review is probably as good as the movie. I loved reading it and it makes me take a wiser view of the significance of that play and also want to see this version of it.

    You give more than just a review here, but add validity to this play in our modern age.

    Thank you! ..
  2. Doc's Avatar
    Tomi0uk: Thanks so much for the kind words! I write some of these things for the obvious reasons i.e, to put some film or idea before a bigger audience. However, sometimes I am writing because if I don't write, I'll be talking about it around the house and driving, er, entertaining my family (who swear I'm not boring them! Good sports!).

    There is another moment in the Balcony Scene I forgot to mention. At one point, in the pool, Romeo swears his love by the Moon. Juliet replies, first disputing the logic of swearing by the moon, then stating her own love for Romeo in definite terms, which she has not done up until this point. Paraphrased, she says: Don't swear by the moon, it changes all the time. If you are going to swear, swear by yourself, for you are the god in my religion.