Romeo – Juliet: The Erosion of Juliet in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet

A movie poster for the film 'Romeo + Juliet'.

A movie poster for the film ‘Romeo + Juliet’.

In her introduction for William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Rene Weis suggests that the focus of the play, despite its “double title”, rests “squarely on Juliet” (Weis, 7), an assertion Weis supports with a compelling argument.  Even if Weis’s assessment is correct though, the authorial intent of the play does not always translate into various productions as directors and actors alike can interpret the material in their own fashion.  Baz Luhrmann, for example, cuts out much of the dialogue from the source material in the film Romeo + Juliet and in the process presents a Juliet that is perhaps not the “philosophically sophisticated” (23) adolescent girl Weis suggests Juliet is presented as in the source material.  In observing what is absent from Luhrmann’s production, one can see Luhrmann’s exclusions as rescuing several of the male characters from a number of their less flattering pieces of dialogue and, consequently, strengthening their ‘masculinity’.  Though Luhrmann’s exclusion of certain passages, notably passages that can be seen as dealing with sexuality and chastity, may have only been a matter of pragmatics with the end goal of shortening a longer work and making it more digestible for a younger, 20th century audience, such omissions change the sources material dramatically.  When noting what is absent in Luhrmann’s film, it seems that the elimination of a number of passages from the source text, whether intended or not, ultimately serves to dilute the substance of Juliet’s character whilst uplifting Romeo.


Baz Luhrmann, director of 'Romeo + Juliet'.

Baz Luhrmann, director of ‘Romeo + Juliet’.

The balcony scene contains several passages that highlight Juliet’s well-articulated philosophies, but many of the lines that showcased Juliet’s intellect are absent from the film.  As the scene commences, Romeo describes the feminized moon as “envious” (2.2.4) and asks Juliet to be “not her maid” (7).   The moon, being aligned with Diana, was a symbol for chastity, so the passage serves to demonstrate Romeo’s hunger “for Juliet’s chastity” (Brown, 344).  This scene is included in Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, as is the culmination of Romeo’s efforts where Juliet agrees to marry Romeo (Chapter 14), but what is not included is Juliet’s argument against the traditional concept of chastity.  Carolyn Brown suggests that “as critics look beyond [Juliet’s] youth, they discover not a reticent virgin but a multifaceted character who transcends Romeo’s maturity, complexity, insight and rhetorical dexterity” (Brown, 333).  Such dexterity is on full display when Juliet explains her forward nature, telling Romeo that if he “think’st [her] too quickly won” then she will act “perverse and say nay to” (2.2.95-96) him.   She goes on to affirm she will “prove more true/ Than those that have more cunning to be strange” (100-101).  This passages demonstrates how Juliet views those who embrace virginity as ‘strange’ and ‘cunning’, arguing that she will actually be more chaste, or rather more ‘true’ than those who display such ‘cunning’.  Juliet does not see herself as “yielding to light love” (105), nor does she see the pragmatic value in the act of virginity, but this coherent articulation that challenges notions of chastity is absent from the film, leaving Juliet’s yielding nature unexplained and without a reasoned defense.

Claire Danes, as Juliet in 'Romeo + Juliet'.

Claire Danes, as Juliet in ‘Romeo + Juliet’.

In examining the balcony scene, Brown suggests that Juliet “can be read as trying to train Romeo” (Brown, 334), but much of the evidence Brown draws upon is absent from Romeo + Juliet.  Brown notes, for example, that Juliet “speaks of having Romeo attached to a ‘silken thread’” (337), but the subordinating passage which Brown references (2.2.180) is excluded from Luhrmann’s film.  Brown also notes that the “Nurse remarks on [Romeo’s] mildness: ‘I’ll warrant him as gentle as a lamb’” (Brown, 337), but this passage (2.5.44) is also omitted from Romeo + Juliet.  Later in the play, after Romeo has killed Tybalt, he lays on the ground weeping, to which the Nurse responds: “Blubbering and weeping, weeping and blubbering./  Stand up, stand up, stand and you be a man” (3.3.87-88).  The Nurse is clearly challenging Romeo’s masculinity, but like the scene where the Nurse compares his mildness to a lamb, this scene is also cut from the film, preserving Romeo’s masculinity, despite the fact that Luhrmann felt the need to include (Chapter 21) the dialogue where the Nurse describes Juliet’s weeping at their state of affairs (3.3.98-101).  As for Romeo, he “utter[s] devotion to

Alt-rockers Garbage records the track '#1 Crush' for the sountrack to 'Romeo + Juliet'.

Alt-rockers Garbage records the track ‘#1 Crush’ for the soundtrack to ‘Romeo + Juliet’.

Juliet and defies the outside world” (Brown, 34) by rejecting his family name and assuring Juliet that if she refers to him as “love… [he’ll] be new baptis’d [and]:/  Henceforth [he] never will be called Romeo” (2.2.50-51).  This scene is significant because in Elizabethan England the man, in all instances, retained his family name whilst the woman he married abdicated her family name in favour of her husband’s.  Here, however, Romeo takes on the feminine role and is willing to resign his own name for the relationship.  This passage, though, is absent from the film.  In an earlier scene, Romeo concedes to his helpless state by admitting “that Cupid has so wounded him that he is temporarily immobile” (Brown, 335) stating: “I am too sore enpierced with [Cupid’s] shaft/ To soar with his light feathers” (1.4.19-21).  This scene is also excluded from the film.  In the balcony scene, however, Romeo asserts the opposite, stating that he was able to topple the orchard walls into Juliet’s garden with the assistance of “love’s light wings” (2.2.66).  This passage, which is far more flattering to Romeo, is included by Luhrmann (Chapter 14).  It seems the passages which demonstrate Juliet’s power over Romeo have been excluded from the film along with the passages where Romeo demonstrates his self-deprecating nature.  The passages that demonstrate Romeo’s strengths, in contrast, have been left in, diluting Juliet’s presence and affirming Romeo’s ‘masculinity’.

 

Olive Hussey, who starred in the 1968 film adaptation of 'Romeo and Juliet.

Olive Hussey, who starred in the 1968 film adaptation of ‘Romeo and Juliet‘.

Throughout the play, Romeo seems to be more enamoured with romantic notions of love than with love itself, and in turn lacks a substance that is very much present in Juliet.  Nathaniel Wallace notes that in the marriage scene, “Juliet counters Romeo’s fondness for Petrarchan eloquence and its metaphors with a preference for a direct, unornate discourse” (Wallace, 339).  This is made clear in the shared sonnet where Romeo begins the poem by trying to quantify his love and speaks of “imagined happiness” (2.6.27).  Juliet outstrips Romeo’s words as she completes the sonnet, suggesting that a conceit “more rich in matter than in words/ Brags of his substance, not of ornament”, going on to state that they “are beggars that can count their worth” and that her “love is grown to such excess/ [that she] cannot sum up… half” (30-34) her wealth.  This poetic duel suggests that Juliet’s notion of love are far more grounded than Romeo’s, and that her rhetorical skills far exceed that of Romeo’s.  She is offering to yield her chastity based on substance, not poetic conceit.  The entire exchange, however, is absent from the film.  By excluding Romeo’s half of the sonnet, Luhrmann hides Romeo’s flawed Petrarchan notions from the audience.  In omitting the second half of the sonnet, Luhrmann supresses Juliet’s superior rhetorical skill whilst also failing to allow Juliet to articulate why she is willing to offer up her chastity to Romeo.  Such exclusion serves to maintain Romeo’s masculinity at the expense of a fully formed Juliet, leaving her as an inferior to Romeo, or at the very best an equal, rather than Romeo’s rhetorical and emotive superior.

 

William Shakespeare, alleged author of 'Romeo and Juliet'.

William Shakespeare, alleged author of ‘Romeo and Juliet‘.

After the consummation of their marriage, Juliet and Romeo share a prolonged exchange regarding the dire circumstances that have arisen; namely Romeo’s banishment from Verona.  Paul Kottman notes that when Shakespeare displays the young lovers, there “is no resigned, tearful acceptance of the necessity of saying goodbye” (Kottman, 29).  Kottman observes that Juliet is defiant (29) when she pronounces: “stay yes; thou need’st not to be gone” (3.5.16).  Here Juliet affirms her commitment to Romeo, and Luhrmann even includes this line in his film (Chapter 22).  Juliet makes an even more pronounced commitment, though, when she suggests that she will endure Romeo’s banishment with him and “be to [Romeo]… a torchbearer” (3.5.14).  We see here that Juliet recognizes Romeo’s need for guidance and that she is willing and confident enough to provide this guidance, even if it means sacrificing her familial ties and standard of living.  This line is not revealed to Luhrmann’s audience however.  Juliet proceeds to dissuade Romeo from leaving, employing the metaphor of the lark who “some say makes sweet division” (29).  Juliet makes it clear that she is chaste in her commitment to Romeo and claims that the lark is not sweet because “she divideth” (30) the title characters.  The lamentation of their departure is reduced from ten lines in the source material, to two lines in the film, reducing Juliet’s pleading to a couplet that consists of: “Hie hence, be gone away” and “O, now be gone!  More light and light it grows” (26, 35).  These lines make it seem as though Juliet were prompting Romeo’s hasty departure when in fact she is affirming her resolution to maintain her chastity.  Excluding these lines dilutes Juliet’s loyalty to Romeo and fails to display her fortitude.

 

 

Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo in 'Romeo + Juliet'.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo in ‘Romeo + Juliet’.

Romeo, in this scene, is full of despair so far as the source material is concerned.  He had, before arriving to consummate his marriage to Juliet, just half-heartedly attempted to stab himself only to be too easily thwarted (3.3.107) by the Nurse who is so old that all she has is but four teeth left in her mouth (1.3.14).  This scene, which displays Romeo’s utter futility, is predictably excluded from Romeo + Juliet.  When alone with Juliet, Romeo says: “Let me be ta’en, let me be put to death” and goes on to invite death to come and take him, passive-aggressively claiming that “Juliet wills it so” (3.5.24), despite the fact that the optimistic Juliet had not even so much as hinted at this alternative.  These lines are in the film, but Luhrmann’s direction defuses the sombre/passive-aggressive weight of the words as he has Leonardo DiCaprio, unconvincingly, deliver the lines in a jovial manner.  Such exclusion and manipulation hides Romeo’s supplicating and fatalistic defeatism from the audience, preserving his masculinity.

John Leguizamo (center) as Tybalt in 'Romeo + Juliet'.

John Leguizamo (center) as Tybalt in ‘Romeo + Juliet’.

When confronted with a marriage match from her parents, Juliet endures a great deal of abuse from both of her parents whilst trying to preserve her chastity by remaining faithful to Romeo.  Upon hearing her mother tell her of a planned marriage, Juliet courageously defies her mother, first proposing “wonder at [such] haste” and the asserting that she “will not marry… and when [she] do[es]… It shall be Romeo” (118-122).  This assertiveness does not make the final cut of Luhrmann’s film however, so Luhrmann’s audience does not get to see Juliet defend her chastity.  Even before her father she is defiant, albeit meekly.  Juliet calls to her father: “I beseech you on my knees” (158), but not even this brief display of humility and loyalty could find its way into Romeo + Juliet.  As the scene comes to a close, Juliet chastises the Nurse who tries to rationalize the proposed marriage between Juliet and Paris, asking the Nurse: “Is it more sin to wish me this forsworn,/ Or to dispraise my lord with that same tongue/ Which she hath praised him with” (237-239)?  In this passage, Juliet notes that Romeo is her ‘lord’, making clear to whom she is loyal, whilst also rejecting the Nurse’s rationalization.  Juliet recognizes her limited autonomy in the scene, and concludes the scene by asserting that if “all else fail, myself have power to die” (243), demonstrating the extent of her loyalty and chastity to Romeo: she would sooner die than be unchaste.  Again, though, this display of loyalty to Romeo on the part of Juliet is excluded form Romeo + Juliet, and so Luhrmann’s audience again misses out on the full range of strength which Juliet displays in the source material.

 

Diane Venora as Lady Capulet in 'Romeo + Juliet'.

Diane Venora as Lady Capulet in ‘Romeo + Juliet’.

Juliet’s final scene is perhaps the most problematic.  After having asserted that she would sooner die than break her chastity, Juliet fulfills the promise.  As Weis notes, “Shakespeare’s Juliet has so far outgrown Romeo by the end of the play that it seems entirely right that her final act of courage, a ‘Roman’ suicide unlike his gentler poisoning, should linger in our minds’ eye” (Weis, 61).  But by the end of Romeo + Juliet, the audience has not seen that Juliet ‘has far out grown Romeo’.  The film has spent far more time on Romeo’s self-indulgence than on Juliet’s sacrifice, and even in the final scene Juliet is robbed of her ‘Roman’ suicide.  Luhrmann does not afford Juliet the courage to stab herself.  Instead of sheathing a knife into her chest, she dies via self-inflicted gunshot.  Nor does Luhrmann allow Juliet the poetics of ending her life by destroying the metaphorical source of her love: her heart.  Instead, she shoots herself in the head.  The scene is the culmination of Juliet taking ownership of her chastity.  She is dying rather than allowing her chaste body be touched by a man other than her ‘lord’, but because Luhrmann does not include Juliet’s monologue at the end of the third act, the audience does not get a full sense of the purpose of Juliet’s suicide.  Juliet is allowed a slightly more courageous ending than Romeo, who still dies via poison, but the audience is robbed of the metaphorical drama that only a knife plunged in heart a heart can allow, and, in turn, is denied the full range and motivation of Juliet’s courage.

 

The first kiss shared between Romeo (DiCaprio) and Juliet (Danes) in 'Romeo + Juliet'.

The first kiss shared between Romeo (DiCaprio) and Juliet (Danes) in ‘Romeo + Juliet’.

The omission of source material did not only impact the title characters, but some peripheral characters as well.  There are masculine notions regarding chastity in Romeo and Juliet that cast perhaps a negative light upon some of the characters who people the source material.  The Nurse’s husband, for example, who is only referenced in the play, had a lewd comment in regards to the infant Juliet.  On an occasion when he witnessed the infant Juliet fall forward, he commented: “‘dost thou fall upon thy face?/  Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit” (1.3.43-44).  This sexualization of Juliet in her infancy indicates what little respect even servant men had for women, especially when considering Juliet was of noble birth and his social superior.  The Nurse’s husband sees women, even in their infancy, as an agent of the sex act.  This passage, however, is absent from the film, and so Luhrmann does not allow the audience to see this side of masculine notions on sexuality and chastity.  Such disregard for the autonomy and chastity of women is on display as early as the play’s first scene.  When Samson and Gregory speak of their family’s feud with the Montagues, Samson boasts that he will forcibly “thrust [the Montague] maids to the wall” (1.1.16-17).  When Gregory notes that their quarrel is with the men, Samson reaffirms his position, bragging that he will “show [himself] a tyrant” and “cut off the… heads” of the maids, going on to clarify that he means their “heads… or their maidenheads” (20-24).  With these blatant rape innuendos, it becomes clear that the men, regardless of class, have little if any respect for the chastity of women.  Like the scene in which the Nurse’s husband sexualizes the infant Juliet, this scene is also omitted from the film, hiding the misogynistic overtones of some of the male characters from the audience.  Both these omissions serve to whitewash masculine misogyny, and fail to show the audience some of the masculine views on chastity as they were presented in the source material.

 

Harold Perrineau (center) as the cross-dressing Mercutio in 'Romeo + Juliet'.

Harold Perrineau (center) as the cross-dressing Mercutio in ‘Romeo + Juliet’.

By the end of the play it seems clear when examining both her actions and her language that Juliet is emotively and philosophically superior to Romeo.  Weis suggests the play’s “final couplet, with a strategically placed possessive pronoun, says as much” (Weis, 7): “For never was a story of more woe/ Than this of Juliet and her Romeo” (5.3.309-10).  The last four words invert the order of the title and use a possessive pronoun to define Romeo as Juliet’s possession, a far cry from the typical patriarchal notions of a romantic relationship that culminates in marriage as the father usually gives the bride to her husband, making the woman the property first of her father and then of her husband.  The moments of the play that seem to most suggest Juliet is worthy of such an inversion of patriarchal custom seem utterly lacking in

The Cardigans contributed the song 'Lovefool' to the soundtrack of 'Romeo + Juliet'.

The Cardigans contributed the song ‘Lovefool’ to the soundtrack of ‘Romeo + Juliet’.

Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and so when the final couplet arrives on screen, a viewer familiar with the source material might fairly expect for Luhrmann to invert the possessive pronoun in the play’s final line.  Surprisingly, though, Luhrmann leaves the original order, perhaps for not better reason than to change it would break the rhyme scheme.  The spirit of the original departing couplet, however, is simply not present in Luhrmann’s film adaptation, and so the couplet does not reverberate with the film the way it does with the source material.  Weis notes that the “play may have started out as ‘Romeo and Juliet’ but it ends as ‘Juliet and Romeo’, a hierarchy more truly reflective of the essence of the drama” (Weis, 7), but this is not the case in Romeo + Juliet.  The Juliet of the source material, who is a strong, independent, assertive, philosophical woman, is, through the exclusion of various texts, transformed into an ever-weeping victim who is powerless and emotively delicate: a clichéd damsel in distress.  Luhrmann’s film is entertaining and visually stunning, but it dilutes Juliet’s character and so fails to display for its audience the true spirit of the source material.

 

Works Cited

 

Primary Sources:

 

Shakespeare, William.  Romeo and Juliet.  Ed. Rene Weis.  Bloomsbury.  New York, New York.  2012.  Print

Luhrmann, Baz.  Romeo + Juliet. Twentieth Century Fox.  1996.  Film.

 

Secondary Sources:

Brown, Carolyn E.  “Juliet’s Taming of Romeo”. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 36, No. 2, Tudor and Stuart Drama (Spring, 1996), pp. 333-355.  JSTOR. Web.  1 Aug. 2013.

 

Kottman, Paul A. “Defying the Stars: Tragic Love as the Struggle for Freedom in Romeo and Juliet.” Shakespeare Quarterly 63.1 (2012): 1-38. Project MUSE. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.

Wallace, Nathaniel.  “Cultural Tropology in Romeo and Juliet”.  Studies in Philology , Vol. 88, No. 3 (Summer, 1991), pp. 329-344.  JSTOR.  Web.  1, Aug. 2013.

 

Weis, Rene.  “Introduction”.  Romeo and Juliet.  Ed. Rene Weis.  Bloomsbury.  New York, New York.  2012.  pp. 1-115.  Print.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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