Set against a background of conflict, revenge, loyalty and hatred, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, in my opinion is, as one eminent critic stated, “a tragedy of youth as youth sees it1.” In this play Shakespeare portrays love as a violently ecstatic, and overpowering force which inevitably and inexorably leads the lovers to their doom. Intricately interwoven into the plot of Romeo and Juliet are the timeless themes of death, violence, tragedy and passion as we race along the “misadventured” path of the “star-crossed lovers.” In Act Three, Scene One we witness the turning point of the play; Mercutio’s needless but predestined death drives Romeo to seek revenge for his beloved friend and pushes him further towards his doom. Once Mercutio and Tybalt are removed from the action, the audience’s attention is no longer distracted and our full focus is upon the eponymous “star-crossed lovers.” Franco Zefferelli and Baz Luhrmann have each approached Romeo and Juliet in different ways and it is interesting to see how these Twentieth Century directors have interpreted the 1595 play. By using Act Three, Scene One, I intend to show how, over four hundred years after it was written and first acted, Romeo and Juliet retains its timeless appeal for young people.
It is quite extraordinary that a play which was written so long ago, should still excite and affect people, especially in a society where traditions and values have changed so dramatically for the younger generation. Although, traditions have changed and technology has become a dominant force, society will always be affected by the emotions of love and hate which Shakespeare cleverly captured in Romeo and Juliet. These emotions will always cause conflict and will always appeal to all audiences, especially younger audiences. When Shakespeare wrote this play it must have been revolutionary for his day, dealing as it does with feuds, rebellion and family conflict and prejudice
Mercutio and his opposite number, Tybalt, are essential to the play as both characters add vibrancy and excitement to the play. Mercutio appears to despise Tybalt for being a slave to fashion and vanity, one of “such antic, lisping, affecting phantasms, these new tuners of accent…these fashionmongers, these pardon-me’s.” Mercutio is so insistent that the audience almost feels compelled to accept this description of Tybalt’s character as definitive. Indeed, in many ways Tybalt does prove the truth of Mercutio’s words; he demonstrates himself to be as witty, vain and prone to violence as he is fashionable, easily insulted, and defensive. To the self-possessed Mercutio, Tybalt seems a caricature; to Tybalt, the brilliant, earthy and unconventional Mercutio is probably incomprehensible. Mercutio is one of the most unique characters in Shakespeare. In Romeo and Juliet his language is always powerful, imaginative and, at times, beautiful. Mercutio is Romeo’s friend and, therefore, he is neither Montague nor Capulet. Consequently, he has not been born into a feud and does not need to uphold an “ancient grudge.” Still, his friendship with Romeo associates him with the Montagues, and Romeo’s quarrel becomes his quarrel.
The renowned, nineteenth century critic and poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, describes Mercutio as “a man possessing all the elements of a poet2.” Mercutio’s character is very complex and vital to the plot of this play. He is a multifaceted character who can switch from prose to poetry, depending on the mood of the moment. Mercutio’s character stand out from the rest because of his energy in everything he does and says; his very name promises unpredictability because his nature is in deed Mercutial. He is thrives living his life on the edge, enjoying his constant plays’ on words which are unsurprising as Shakespeare and his contemporaries were addicted to puns. This is shown in Act II Scene IV when he says ” Follow me this jest now, till thou has worn out thy pump, that when the single sole of it is worn, the jest may remain, after the wearing, solely singular.3″
In Act II Scene IV Romeo describes Mercutio as, “A gentleman, Nurse, that loves to hear himself talk.” However, Mercutio is not the superficial person these words seem to indicate; in his Queen Mab speech in Act I Scene IV he displays a fey imagination as he describes in minute detail everything about a little world he has imagined:
“She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
In shape no bigger than an agate-stone
On the fore finger of an alderman.4”
His beautiful language and blank captur the audience, transporting us to his imagined place. He creates a miniature society which he uses to explain the source of our dreams. However, his confused emotions prevent him from maintaining the delicacy of his train of thought. Mercutio is thus seen as an unstable person who treads the thin line between sanity and sobriety as he moves to disturbing, offensive language as he talks of
“that very Mab
That plaits the manes of horses in the night,
And bakes the elf-lock in foul sluttish hairs,
Which, once untangled, much misfortune bode5s.”
Mercutio cannot love and respect women and this too serves a purpose as he is a contrast to Romeo who initially worships Rosaline before falling deeply love with her. Remember, it was Mercutio who advised Romeo earlier in Act I Scene IV:
“If love be rough with you be rough with love6.”
Coleridge noted that “…upon the death of Mercutio the whole catastrophe … is produced7.” I agree with this statement because it is the murder of Mercutio which causes the enraged Romeo to kill Tybalt for revenge . Mercutio’s death in Act III Scene I is the turning point of the play because, from this point, the two “star-crossed lovers” rush to their doom. When Tybalt kills Mercutio, the attributes of a comedy die with him. Mercutio’s death marks the end of the play’s essential comic movement because, up until now, Mercutio, with a few humorous moments of comedy from the Nurse, has carried the light mood of the play. Susan Snyder said “Mercutio’s death intervenes to cut off this world of exhilarating ventur8e.” In Mercutio’s sudden and violent end, Shakespeare makes the birth of tragedy coincide with the symbolic death of comedy. Furthermore, as Mercutio dies, the element of freedom and jest dies with him. This demonstrates how Mercutio is a strong representation of all that is youthful and carefree in this play and consequently the audience respond strongly to his death.
When Franco Zefferelli directed his version of Romeo and Juliet in 1968, it was considered a masterpiece screenplay of William Shakespeare’s intentions. Zefferelli aimed his version of Romeo and Juliet at an audience who appreciated Shakespeare’s language. Almost all aspects of the production are accurate and closely follow the original, making this film an excellent rendition of the play, albeit somewhat pedestrian in my opinion. On the other hand, Luhrmann’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, beautifully portrays the two young lovers falling into forbidden love, but its pace is fast and the filming colourful, making it appeal to a younger generation while conveying effectively Shakespeare’s intentions.
Luhrmann’s production does not follow the script as strictly as Zefferelli’s production but is to me the more interesting and swifter adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Although somewhat altered it accomplishes the goal of intriguing late Twentieth Century youth, luring them to an interest in Shakespeare’s beautiful and timeless play. W. Grierson said “Romeo and Juliet was one of his (Shakespeare’s) earlier work, the work of the artist of adolescence”9 and this is perhaps why Luhrmann decided to aim his Romeo and Juliet for young people. The play contrasts the impetuosity of youth with the pragmatism of age. Juliet herself calls their love “too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,” and it is the duty of the director to capture the essence of her words.
In Zefferelli’s production heavy cuts are discernible to accommodate the cinematic emphasis on noisy spectacle but he still follows the text of the play closely. I think that Shakespeare was enthusiastic about the Italian quality of the place and the people and Zefferelli transmits an almost over-powering flavour of this in his interpretation. It could be argued that he outdoes Shakespeare here because the domestic life of the Capulet and Montague families resembles that of English merchants rather than Italian nobility, whilst Zefferelli’s people seem wholly Italian. Zefferelli is faithful to Shakespeare, although he much enlivens the impression of Italian summer weather: hot days, warm nights, and sudden blazing sun. The whole production takes place in Italy and has an aura of post-Renaissance Italy. Zefferelli chose unspoiled medieval villages and very stylised characters; Rosaline, who is only a name in Shakespeare’s play, appears in Act I Scene V looking as if she has just stepped out of an Italian painting.
Luhrmann, in contrast to Zefferelli, made his production livelier and adapted this classic Shakespearean romantic tragedy for the screen, by updating the setting to a post-modern, fictional city named Verona Beach. He also used modern images and powerful futuristic and exciting effects, with a modern rock soundtrack. The difference between the two families is shown through their opposite religious icons and business connections. The youths of the two clans, riding in jazzy cars with rap music blaring, carry handguns openly, which they brandish in frequent showdowns that rarely lead to bloodshed. Zefferelli cast youthful, good-looking, relatively unknown actors in his version of Romeo and Juliet, but Luhrmann chose the young teen icons, Leonardo Dicaprio and Claire Danes, already established box-office draws. This had the added advantage of taking Romeo and Juliet to an audience that would normally think of Shakespeare as a chore to be studied in school. However, in my opinion, in both the Zefferelli and the Luhrmann productions, it is the charismatic, three-dimensional character of Mercutio who maintains the young audience’s interest; he is a rebel of his time, whether it is the sixties or the nineties, and young people always identify with a rebel.
Act III Scene I opens with a crash of thunder followed by many aimless gun shots from Mercutio into the sea. This fits with Benvolio’s godlike warning (delivered from the top of a lifeguard’s chair) to Mercutio as he says “…these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.”10 This is a very clever way of contrasting the heart-warming matrimonial union of Romeo and Juliet, in the preceding Act II Scene IV scene, with a scene that starts so intensely with guns and thunder. Luhrmann uses ominous weather signs such as the imminent thunderstorm, as a dramatic device, to give a warning of what is to come. The gun, the lifeguard’s chair and the stark archway (a Proscenium Arch?) are all obvious symbols as well as being very modern. Luhrmann’s modernisation of the play is further shown through the costumes that are used to divide the two opposing families and different personalities.
The Montague ‘gang’ are dressed in Hawaiian beach costume and have brightly dyed blond hair to demonstrate their relaxed urbanity, while the Capulet ‘gang’ is in black leather to emphasise their threatening characters. One of Luhrmann’s most brilliant ideas is to make Mercutio stand out visually, whilst updating the play to our cosmopolitan society, by casting an African-American actor to play the role. Another form of modernisation on Luhrmann’s part is to associate Mercutio with gender-bending and with the drug culture; he is a rebel guaranteed to appeal to ‘misunderstood’ teenagers. Thus, in Act One Scene Four, he drops a ‘tab’ of acid (an hallucinogenic drug) before entering the Capulet house in his drag-Queen outfit.
In Lurhmann’s production, the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt is made unavoidable by Tybalt’s unyielding resolve to fight Romeo and reconfirm the masculine honour he felt he had lost in Act One Scene Four when he was prevented from ejecting the gate-crashing Romeo from the Capulet feast. Tybalt provokes Romeo by repeatedly and viciously striking him, despite Romeo’s refusal to fight. In my opinion, Luhrmann does this in order to engender sympathy from the audience for Romeo. Mercutio, angered by his friend’s passive acceptance of the humiliating blows, runs to defend the gang’s honour.
The subsequent fight between Mercutio and Tybalt has a powerful pace in order to make it appealing to the younger generation. This pace is helped by the fight being shot from many different angles and ensures that the audience does not become bored. Shakespeare’s swords are replaced with guns, pieces of wood, fists and broken bottles; all these are the weapons of the inner-city street-fighter. When Mercutio is stabbed by a jagged piece of glass, he drags himself up the ‘stage’ of the fictional Verona Beach, California. Here, I think that Luhrmann is trying to show Shakespeare’s intention by presenting Mercutio as a performer on life’s stage. Once again Luhrmann uses his dramatic device of empathetic weather as thunder crashes whilst he shouts: “A plague o’ both your houses,”11 his curse echoing down the beach. We hear Gospel music in the background as the surrounding nature reacts to the catastrophic tragedy of Mercutio’s death. Waves crash powerfully together; clouds roll darker, as thunder breaks and is accompanied by the chilling howls of the wind.
Luhrmann creates this eerie and slow-moving atmosphere in order to make the audience reflect on what has just happened before moving to a high-speed car chase between Romeo and Tybalt. The fight between Romeo and Tybalt is less exciting, compared with the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio, as a gun is used to kill Tybalt. However, the echoing sound of the gunshot and Romeo’s sorrowful face as he realises what he has done and screams, “O, I am fortune’s fool,”12 are highly disturbing. I feel that Luhrmann succeeds in drawing sympathy for Romeo from the audience and this fulfils both his as well as Shakespeare’s intention.
Zefferelli opens his version of Act III Scene I on a much lighter note, with a close-up shot of Mercutio holding a white handkerchief over his face. Zefferelli makes the camera blur in and out of focus in order to create the intense heat that was captured by Shakespeare’s words. This opening lighter tone is even more emphasised as Mercutio climbs into the public water fountain and begins bathing comically while teasing Benvolio for being moody as he says “….thou art as hot a Jack in thy mood as any in Italy.”13 Benvolio alarms both the audience and Mercutio when he interrupts Merutio with a warning, “..here come the Capulets.”14 As soon as Tybalt explodes onto the scene, the atmosphere is charged with volatility. Zeffereli uses differently coloured clothing for different characters to portray their different personalities. Mercutio wears a dark blue costume, which shows his depressed mood, and the “fiery Tybalt” wears fiery passionate colours of orange and red, showing his hot-tempered nature.
Romeo enters this scene with evident happiness on his face, as he has just come from his wedding (preceding scene, Act Two, Scene Five). As he enters there is a deliberate pause in the action and Zefferelli creates dramatic tension by enabling us to contrast the exalted Romeo with the impending horror. Tybalt menacingly requests Romeo to “turn and draw.”15 Unlike Luhrmann’s Tybalt, who is determined to injure Romeo seriously, we do not feel as if Zefferelli’s Tybalt intends lasting harm; he is contemptuously angry and wishes merely to teach the younger boy a lesson for invading his territory and making him look foolish. Zefferelli’s Tybalt relies on the Elizabethan weapon of impugning Romeo’s honour. He calls him “boy”16 and “villain”17 and, in return, Romeo replies reasonably. Zefferelli’s direction, at this point, gives the misleading appearance of anti-climax as it seemed as if the fatal fight could be averted.
However, he is toying with us. Mercutio, undergoing yet another character change, moves abruptly from mirth to anger and accusing Romeo of “calm, dishonourable, vile submission”18 challenges Tybalt, the “King of cats” to a sword fight. Zefferelli uses swords as the main weaponry for fighting, firstly, because he was maintaining his traditional interpretation and, secondly, to allow the actors to build up tension andshow their skill. Zefferelli plans the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt to begin merely as a game and, as Mercutio’s mood changes once again, the action has moments of comedy with Mercutio teasing Tybalt, refusing to return his sword and, when it seems as if Tybalt will run him through, folding his arms and whistling softly. The Montague and Capulet factions seem equally good-humoured but Tybalt’s temper boils over, the fighting becomes more and more heated and heated until Romeo, by trying to hold Mercutio back, accidentally causes Tybalt to kill Mercutio.
Unlike Luhrmann’s Mercutio’s grim pun, “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man,”19 Zefferelli’s Mercutio’s words do not echo loudly as darkness descends; in place, Zefferelli sends a struggling Mercutio up a flight of steps to the church, amidst gales of laughter from his friends untill his sudden colapse finally silences them. Ironically, the white handkerchief which began the scene so comically is the same handkerchief which had been staunching the flow of blood from Mercutio’s wound; this is a very effective device on Zefferelli’s part.
The ensuing fight between Romeo and Tybalt is, in my opinion, too long and lacks the passion and swiftness of the Luhrmann production but this is possibly because the cinematic techniques were not so advanced in Zefferelli’s time. However, Zefferelli’s Romeo’s, “O, I am fortune’s fool,”20 is particularly memorable, especially as it is followed by the haunting background music which has been slowed down to create a dirge-like effect.
Franco Zefferelli and Baz Luhrmann, although divided by a gap of thirty years, were, in my opinion, exceedingly successful in attracting audiences to their adaptations of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. A purist might question the cuts in some speeches and scenes, the changes in plot (why is Paris alive at the end of the play in both Zefferelli’s and Luhrmann’s productions?) and the lack of clarity in diction, especially in Luhrmann’s film. However, I firmly believe that Shakespeare intended his Romeo and Juliet to be accessible to all, but to young people in particular; Juliet is thirteen years old and Romeo is not much older and their deaths are indeed ” a tragedy of youth as youth sees it.”21 Zefferelli and Luhrmann, in my view, most definitely realised Shakespeare’s intentions by bringing this four-hundred years old play to a modern-age society without sacrificing its integrity.