Romeo and Juliet is an old romantic tragedy originally written as a play by William Shakespeare, a poetic genius and a master playwright both in his time and beyond. There have been a number of film adaptations of this popular romantic tragedy though the most famous one was the 1968 version directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Based and shot in Italy, this version of Romeo and Juliet is considerably the most appealing and natural celebration of young love, thus explaining its immense success in the film world. In order to understand the reason why the film has remained quite popular and well received, it is important to examine a number of significant aspects used by the director to express his constructions and interpretations of the tragic love story written centuries ago.
Similar to the play, the film Romeo and Juliet is constructed around the concept of young love, its defiance and endurance. It depicts people who defy the odds in order to fight for their beliefs and take their chance at happiness. While watching the film, one also discovers that the director portrays the mindset of the feuding families in order to stress on its futility in the society. By representing these feuds as baseless and highly destructive, he manages to highlight their cons to the audience albeit through terse style.
The film follows the play religiously concerning its plot. The Montague and Capulet Clans are warring, and they keep having street brawls. Two youngsters from either side meet at a party, fall in love with each other, and secretly get married. After another street brawl, Romeo kills Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, and he is banished from Verona. Meanwhile, Juliet devises a plan to evade getting married to Count Paris by faking her death. And while she originally plans to escape with Romeo after her supposed funeral, the latter does not receive the message on time and thus ends up taking his life at the tomb. When Juliet wakes up and finds him dead, she stabs herself. The film ends with a double tragedy that consequently unites the Capulets and Montagues stopping a lifelong family feud that no one could really pinpoint its origin.
In this film, the obvious theme evident in all episodes is the power of fate. In popular culture, fate has been considered debatable regarding its existence and significance in the life of an individual. With Romeo and Juliet however, it can be noted that the events that result in the end of their lives are not entirely due to personal decisions. Their lives are considerably used as a sacrifice to end the long feud between the Montagues and the Capulets. From the coincidental meeting between Romeo and Capulet’s illiterate servant, to being invited to a Capulet party despite being a Montague, and the ‘bad news’ delivered to him before he can receive Friar Lawrence’s message. Romeo’s life is one serious series of mishaps that resemble a punishment not for his own deeds but more for those of his family and the Capulets. Juliet ends up dead because she is a Capulet, and yet this is not by her choice. She takes her life to be with her secret husband whom she would never have been allowed to marry due to his family name.
Despite the film’s set being in Italy, the subject of gender is presented very clearly, especially with reference to masculinity. Mercutio, Romeo’s cousin, considers himself a symbol of ultimate masculinity from the way he talks, dresses and fences. He frequently criticizes Romeo after he finds that he is in love with Juliet, claiming that his feelings effeminate him and thus rob him of his masculinity. The use of the word ‘effeminate’ in this film is in itself a declaration of the theme of gender. Commonly, one would expect ‘emasculate’ to be used when implying a challenge to one’s position as a man. ‘Effeminate’ however strongly puts on a negative denotation on the whole debate, making it automatically wrong to be anything less than what the society expects a man to be. Tybalt is also questioned in the film due to the way he talks, dresses and fights. The irony however is that he ends up killing Mercutio although the reason is that Romeo was trying to stop Mercutio from pursuing the sword fight any further. Thus, presenting the debate on being masculine, the director is able to highlight the social constructs of gender at the time of the film.
One may expect the film to be about good against evil, drawing a clear line between virtue and vice. The reality however is reverse. The play has a distinct inclination towards ambiguity where actions are never all good or all bad. Friar Lawrence, for example, tries to help the young lovers and yet they end up dying. Romeo also tries to end the street brawl to stop Mercutio from killing Tybalt only to have Tybalt kill Mercutio. Juliet, on the other hand, fakes her death in order to escape with Romeo, but she ends up making Romeo take his life for fear of being without her. Generally, people in this film have good intentions that drive their actions, but the end appears far from positive. This implies a sense of ambiguity where life is full of grey areas. The director thus seeks to communicate the ambiguity of life itself where nothing is purely black or white.
The film explores the theme of love in its various versions, from romantic and passionate to proper and cultural, as well as the sensual and physical love. Juliet and Romeo are romantic and passionate lovers able to take such great risks to be together. Count Paris, on the other hand, considers himself the proper lover capable of marrying young Juliet and taking care of her as custom demands, without tarnishing the Capulet family name. It can also be noted that sensual love applies to Romeo and Juliet when they consummate their secret marriage. Therefore, the main challenge in the film is the significance of such kinds of love and whether one is better than the other. Juliet worries about the authenticity of Romeo’s proclamation of loving, constantly stating that Romeo’s sweet nothings could be nothing but poetic lies pleasant to listen to and thus equally misleading. This presents the dilemma of whether an individual should uphold one type of love over another. In this film, it would be argued that Juliet might have been much safer with Count Paris than with Romeo due to their turbulent family history.
Light and Darkness
Generally, light and darkness are used to symbolize good and evil. In this case however, light is considerably a symbol of the youngsters’ love for each other. Both Romeo and Juliet are described repeatedly respecting a ‘torch,’ the ‘sun’ and the ‘stars’ among other light related things. Their relationship is light and thus only gets to be appreciated, or in this case, to thrive in darkness. Not only does Romeo have to make his first declaration of love under the stars when he sneaks into the Capulet home but their marriage is consummated under the cover of darkness, with Romeo having to leave before day break or risk being killed. The director further uses light and darkness in the movie for effect to bring out the contradictions between the love shared by Romeo and Juliet against the hatred between the Montagues and the Capulets.
In this film, the night is freedom. This is when the young lovers are able to proclaim their love for each other, consummate their marriage, try to elope, and eventually die together. The two love birds are able to escape their reality with all the bad blood between their families by getting married, living their love even if only for one night, and eventually give up their lives for one another. It can thus be noted that night time is a really important symbol in the movie since the numerous night time shots are used by the director.
The actual poison in the film is not the one that kills Romeo or gets Juliet to appear dead for too many hours. Rather, it is the family feud between the Capulets and the Montagues that can only be resolved after the young lovers’ deaths. It can be noted that the feud between the families has already caused a lot of damage, including the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt. The director is thus able to emphasize on the effects of the poison as he ends the film with the Prince’s ruling over the Capulets and the Montagues ordering them to end the feud once and for all and make peace.
Silver and Gold
Silver and gold have been used in the drama to advance the disagreements between the Capulets and the Montagues. This is displayed in the paly when the Montagues visit Romeo and play him gold stating that it is worse than poison to men. In this scenario, silver and gold denote riches or money. What Shakespeare means in this scene is that money is the source of the quarrels among the aristocratic families.
Blossoms of Tragedy
Blossoms of tragedy play a significant role in the love interplay between Romeo and Juliet. A good example is when Juliet refers to new love as ‘the bud of love.’ This type of floral symbolism is displayed throughout the film. In this scenario, a budding flower means new found love. In addition, different types of flowers mean types of love in the film.
Zeffirelli is able to bring out the original Romeo and Juliet tragedy in a set that is quite beautiful and relevant to its audience. In addition, he manages to highlight the significant social themes that continue to affect even the present-day audience. Fate, gender and love as well as the ambiguity of actions in respect to values are still common nowadays. In the end, it can be appreciated that the film is an impeccable work of art using the light and darkness, the night time and the poison to bring out impressive messages about the lives of the characters and the audience in one way or another.
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