Posted: June 19th, 2021
Discuss the appropriation of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ by William Shakespeare and ‘Romeo+Juliet’ by Baz Luhrmann Texts and ideas from texts are appropriated and transformed into other text forms and other compositions in a different context. An appropriation is a text that is appropriated or taken over by another composer and presented in a new way. Romeo and Juliet’ is a well-known high culture text that is a tragedy about two young star-crossed lovers whose deaths ultimately unite their feuding families. In the 1997 film, Baz Luhrmann has taken what is valued about the original play of ‘Romeo and Juliet’; the themes, evocative language and poetry, the timeless storyline and humour, and has placed it in a context which is accessible and appealing to a modern audience.
This essay will demonstrate how and why Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ has been appropriated and valued for modern audiences in relation to: variations in the reactions to the text over time, differences and similarities between language, settings, prologue and chorus, themes, characterisation, techniques, values and contexts, as well as different readings of the play and other appropriations. Shakespeare’s time was an age of great change, as the old ways were being questioned, and more than any other Renaissance figure, Shakespeare exposed an ability to use the past and shape it for his own dramatic needs.
As a result of this, his ideas and storyline in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ were being questioned. The earliest registered critic of the play was diarist Samuel Pepys who, in 1662 wrote: “it is a play of itself the worst that I ever heard in my life”. Ten years later, the poet John Dryden wrote “Shakespeare show’d the best of his skill in his Mercutio”, praising the play and its comic character Mercutio. In the mid-18th century, writer Charles Gildon and philosopher Lord Kames argued that the play was a failure in that it did not follow the classical conventions of drama.
However, writer and critic Samuel Johnson thought it to be one of Shakespeare’s “most pleasing” plays. It is evident that “Romeo and Juliet” has received mixed reactions, but also gained value by responders as the context has changed over the years. In ‘Romeo and Juliet’, Shakespeare applied two specific aspects of life in Renaissance Italy to create the complication of his play. The first was the history of bloody interfamily disagreements that degraded Italian cities uring the Renaissance era, and the second was the fashionable approach to love, based on the poetry of Petrarch (1304-1374, an Italian poet who wrote about love). However, Shakespeare does not simply adopt and recount history; instead he modified the civil wars of the period into a minor war; a family feud that takes place in a stable state. Also, he contrasted the fiction act of the Petrarchan lover with the experience of a young man who is truly in love (Romeo). Baz Luhrmann approaches his new version of ‘Romeo+Juliet’ with the same intent.
He entertains contemporary viewers by using modern ideas to convey the values embodied in the play and the impossible love, hate and sorrow that are the essence of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Introducing these same ideas in a different context has proven the value of Shakespeares’ storyline and the importance of the morals associated with it. An aspect of Shakespeare’s play and Luhrmann’s film that varies is the setting. The play is set in the 16th century in Verona, whilst Baz Luhrmann’s film takes place on Verona Beach, 20th century times, resembling Los Angeles.
The setting of the film is a striking contrast to the Elizabethan England of William Shakespeare; hence the attitudes expressed in the film vary from those conveyed in the play. This also contributes in articulating the contemporary attitude to religion, violence, duty, etc and how it has significantly changed from those of 16th century England. A major feature that Luhrmann has maintained in his film is the original Shakespearean language that characterises the play.
Although the meaning of particular sentences has been changed, other parts have been emphasised. An example is Mercutio’s speech at Sycamore grove, the dialogue is very similar, “Her wagoner [Queen Mab], a small grey-coated gnat… And in this state she gallops night by night” and this has been reiterated by close up shots of Mercutio’s face, showing his emotions. Also the famous line; “O Romeo, Romeo! – wherefore art thou Romeo? ” is from the original play and has been reinforced by an offer gaze from Juliet, showing her love for Romeo.
This shows contemporary audiences Luhrmanns’ ability to capture the core of the tragedy through traditional Shakespearean text, and that even though the context has changed over the years, the language of Shakespeare is highly valued and pondered by the majority of people. In addition, a difference in the film by Baz Luhrmann, compared to the play by Shakespeare is the prologue and chorus. In Shakespeare’s original production, the chorus would have entered the Globe Theatre, and to gain the audiences’ attention, would yell “Two households, both alike in dignity” and the rest of his part.
In Luhrmanns’ portrayal of the chorus, he instead uses close up shots of a television with an African American woman delivering a news report. Whereas Shakespeare’s audience were aurally dependent, modern audiences rely immensely on visual aspects of Luhrmanns’ ‘Romeo+Juliet’. The use of the television ‘caught’ the contemporary audiences’ eye and the African American woman represents the historically important legacy of the civil rights black movement, which is another aspect that appeals and relates to a modern audience.
This shows that the variation in context has led to new values which Luhrmann has incorporated in his film, proving his appropriation of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is much more superior to Shakespeare’s play for a contemporary audience. A vital component and similarity in Shakespeares’ play and Luhrmanns’ film are the themes. Baz Luhrmann has kept the same themes and ideas from the original play in his film which shows they are actually timeless and can impact on all audiences, no matter what age they are a part of. One of the key themes in the play and film is love.
When Romeo sees Juliet for the first time, he forgets his former love Rosaline and falls genuinely in love with Juliet. She in turn responds to him with a love that is innocent and eager. Another important theme in the two texts is hate. Peace is destroyed by the hatred that the Montague’s and Capulet’s feel for each other and the causes of this are not important, the results are. The love of Romeo and Juliet provides a strong contrast to the hate and are aspects of the play that do not have to be “modernised”.
Hate and love can be interpreted as the duality of human life; hence even though the context of the film has differed from the play, these two themes remain to be just as relevant today as they were in Shakespeare’s time. Furthermore, Baz Luhrmann has taken a modern perspective on each character, giving them character traits that may have only been hinted at in Shakespeares’ play. An example is the different representations of Romeo’s first meeting with Juliet at the masked ball.
In Shakespeares’ play, the use of language conventions such as sexual innuendo, as well as the line; “And palm to palm is the holy plamers’ kiss” portrays Juliet as either being a guarded character who is not interested in Romeo to an otherwise much more sexual and suggestive personality. On the other hand in the film, Juliet is conveyed as a flirtatious and completely exotic character. In the scene where she meets with Romeo, Luhrmann reinforces Juliet’s sensual eye movements, with close-up shots, as she gazes past the fish in the fish tank to lock with Romeo’s eyes.
Shakespeare’s characterisation of Romeo and Juliet appealed to the late 16th century audience, however as times have changed, so has the context, and Luhrmann expresses his characterisation of the couple as a way of reaching out to his young and contemporary target audience. Additionally, it is vital to remember that in the 17th and 18th centuries, plays were enacted in theatres and Shakespeare’s audience came to the play with a significant level of aural exposure, whereas Luhrmanns’ film is more visually developed. Hence, a key variation in the two text types is the techniques used.
Shakespeare has expressed his ability to use diverse language to appeal to his audience. An example is the balcony scene of Act II Scene II, when Romeo says; “It is my lady, O it is my love”, reinforced with hyperbole “two of the fairest stars in all the heaven”, exaggerating the view of Juliets’ sparkling eyes. Another example is Shakespeares’ use of puns and bawdy or sexual jokes, which can be seen in Act I Scene IV, when Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio discuss going to the Capulet’s party; “A torch for me! Let wantons light of heart, Tickle the senseless rushes with their heels. (Romeo jokes about the ladies at the Capulet party being immoral when they are actually respectable). An additional language feature evident is the use of similes; “It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear”. Romeo says this line to describe Juliet when he first sees her. The Elizabethan culture understood the puns, the sexual jokes, as well as the language that is found so ancient and old in the 20th century. All these language conventions prove that Shakespeare wrote ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to entertain his audience, writing within the context of his culture.
On the other hand, Baz Luhrmann has adopted a style very much of his own in creating the film ‘Romeo+Juliet’. To appeal to a contemporary audience, Luhrmann has used multiple visual techniques. One example is the use of costumes, at the Capulet ball Tybalt was dressed as a devil. This shows his evil and violent personality, representing the theme of violence and hatred. Camera work is another technique used effectively; an example is in the final scene when alternating close ups of Romeo and Juliets’ fingers moving are shown, which creates dramatic irony as we see Juliet waking up just as Romeo prepares to kill himself.
Luhrmann also uses playful humour which can be seen when Romeo stumbles over to reach Juliet, appealing to his young audience. In addition Latin and punk music, a children’s choir and a production number is used in the film to create a blissful and contemporary atmosphere. It is evident, throughout the use of modern technology and visual techniques, Luhrmann has successfully made his appropriation of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ much more superior to Shakespeare’s play, for a modern audience. Moreover, a variation in values between the play and film is The Wheel of Fortune and religion.
During Shakespeare’s time, it was widely believed that fate and/or fortune was the main controlling force in life. Just as a part of a wheel moves from a low to a high position or from high to low, so does a man’s life. Hence, Shakespeare used this value to portray the idea of as to what extent fate and to what extent human foolishness and error, contributed to the final tragedy. On the other hand, Luhrmann takes what implications of religion there are in the play and makes them a key visual focus in his film.
Romeo and Juliet have a relationship that is based around the church, and there is usually a cross or other religious symbol in the scenes in which they appear, encouraging the story to be viewed in a Christian context. Luhrmann uses his Christ imagery as a way to show contemporary audiences that the young lovers play a Christ-like role in their families – sacrificing themselves for the final peace between their families. Because of the lover’s sacrifice, Verona has hope for life, just as Christians in the world have hope for life because of their Saviour (God).
Hence, Luhrmanns’ ‘Romeo+Juliet’ conveys the values of its original context whilst relating to his modern audience by depicting current social issues which make it more relevant and comprehensible to the audience. Furthermore, as the context of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ by Shakespeare has changed, so has peoples’ interpretations of the play. Early psychoanalytic critics saw the complication of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in terms of Romeo’s overconfidence developing from “ill-controlled, partially disguised aggression”, which led to Mercutio’s death and the lovers suicide.
In the late 1900’s, critics such as Julia Kristeva focused on the hatred between the Capulets and Montagues, arguing that this hatred caused Romeo and Juliet’s passion for each other. Juliet for example, speaks of “my only love sprung from my only hate” and usually articulates her love through an anticipation of Romeo’s death. Feminist literary critics debate that the blame for the family feud lies in Verona’s patriarchal society. For example, Coppelia Kahn, a feminist critic believes the firm, manlike code of violence implied on Romeo, is the main force driving the tragedy to its end.
In this view, the teenagers “become men” by involving themselves in violence on behalf of their fathers. Juliet also obeys a female code of purity and obedience and she demonstrates this by allowing others, such as the Friar to solve her problems for her. This shows that ‘Romeo and Juliet’ has had many different readings over the years and critics’ values, professions and cultures can have a major influence on their interpretations. In addition, Luhrmanns’ ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is not the only appropriation of Shakespeares’ play. The play has been adapted numerous times for stage, film, musical and opera.
David Garrick’s 18th century version modified many scenes, removing material then thought of as offensive, and Georg Benda’s adaption excluded much of the action and added a happy ending. Performances in the 19th century, such as Charlotte Cushman’s, updated the original text, and centred on greater realism. In 1935, John Gielgud’s version reinforced the Elizabethan culture and costumes, and kept very close to Shakespeare’s text. In the 20th century, the play has been diversely adapted, including the 1950’s musical ‘West Side Story’ and the 1996’s MTV-inspired ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
It is evident that Shakespeares play ‘Romeo and Juliet’ has a timeless storyline as well as powerful themes and language, and has been appropriated multiple times as the text is highly valued. In conclusion, it is now clear that William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is highly valued and Baz Luhrmann has taken what is valued about the original play; the themes, evocative language and poetry, the timeless storyline and humour, and has placed it in a context which is accessible and appealing to a contemporary audience.
The variations in the reactions to the text over time, differences and similarities between language, settings, prologue and chorus, themes, characterisation, techniques, values and contexts, as well as different readings of the play and other appropriations has shown how and why the text has been appropriated and remains immensely valued. It is through appropriations like Luhrmann’s, which have continually rekindled the fire to enable the original storyline of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to be perceived by an ever changing audience.
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