William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet-A (postmodern) Elizabethan interpretation
Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) retells the famous story of Romeo and Juliet who fall in love but cannot be together due to their families’ old feud. In many English literature lessons this film adaptation is popular to familiarize people with William Shakespeare’s plays and language. Due to the juxtaposition of Shakespeare’s words, fast colourful pictures and teenage stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes the director Baz Luhrmann claims this adaptation to be an “Elizabethan interpretation of Shakespeare”. Adapted to the modern Zeitgeist Luhrmann staged a combination of an updated version of the classic in a multimedia time and preserved traditional essential elements such as the language and main themes. The adaptation lets the cast speak the Shakespeare’s original text and combines it with fast modern video art. The combination of the Elizabethan English language and the recontextualisation of the classic love story with news, TV, swords as guns, advertisements, and ecstasy led Jane Maslin, a reviewer form the NY Times, to remark “[t]his is headache Shakespeare, but there's method to its madness“. The adaptation is widely recognized to be postmodern. This does not seem to coincide with Luhrmann’s aspiration of an “Elizabethan adaptation” of the classic dramatic love story. So the question arises: Can a postmodern interpretation be an “Elizabethan interpretation” at the same time?
Postmodern characteristic such as hyperreality and the ascription of Shakespeare as part of Elizabethan popular culture play an important role in Luhrmann’s depiction of the classical plot of the star-crossed lovers. Intermediality served as an instrument to portrait both postmodern features as well as popular culture.
Baz Luhrmann neglected the interpretation of “Club Shakespeare” in order to “violence, direct, passionate, musical (…), free, energetic, boardy, savage, rambunctious storytelling that it was when this author brought it to the stage”. Luhrmann intends to make Shakespeare accessible for the masses. He combines the high cultural status, which Shakespeare’s plays are ranked among, and Shakespeare original “Elizabethan” cultural status of popular culture. Popular culture is appealing to a wide range of people. As the term already implies popular culture is well-liked and also relatable to the general public. Moreover, popular culture is aimed to be comprehensible for non-specialists. Cinema is an important medium of popular culture as it is affordable and easily accessible (the films get even more accessible when the films are shown on TV). William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet also appealed to a younger teenage audience due to the choice of cast and style of filming. The fear of undermining Shakespeare’s cultural value overshadows the asset a modern adaptation can have to familiarize more people to the classic story. Luhrmann captured Shakespeare’s status as popular culture and writer for the masses. He updated the play to modern popular culture. His aspiration was to convert what he assumed Shakespeare would have staged: “he would have low comedy, high drama, action, popular songs”. Luhrmann and Shakespeare both staged the storyline of Romeo and Juliet for a broad audience of their time. They both factored in their respective zeitgeist. Luhrmann states that he wanted to “tell his (Shakespeare’s) story in such an aggressive, sexy, noisy, rambunctious way that he could shut them [his audience] up and at the same time reach out and touch every kind of background”. He also expresses his intention to “learn from this guy who lived 400 years ago”. Shakespeare who is now considered high culture used to write and stage his plays for the masses. Luhrmann’s adaptation twists Shakespeare’s “high culture” and elitist status in modern society. Various reviewers expressed their concern about the combination of modern popular culture and Shakespeare. “In Luhrmann's Romeo it is hard to believe that Harold Perdneau even understands most of Mercutio's lines”. The NY-Times reviewer Janet Maslin ascribes the film “an attempt to reinvent Romeo and Juliet’ in the hyperkinetic vocabulary of post-modern kitsch”. So considering that “in postmodernity, the age in which distinctions between high and low (culture) have supposedly collapsed, Shakespeare remains an important symbolic site of struggle between stratified cultural institutions”, Luhrmann ascription to film an “Elizabethan interpretation of Shakespeare” made it postmodern.
Playing with the text and Shakespeare as an author, Baz Luhrmann utilizes intermediality in his adaptation William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. In order to emphasize Shakespeare’s popular culture status he used media that represents popular culture such as TV, music, newspaper or TV news coverage. In his adaptation Luhrmann went beyond the method of intertextuality and exploited intermediality in order to demonstrate the storyline of the young lovers. As defined by Kattenbelt „‘intermediality’ refers to the co-relation of media in the sense of mutual influences between media“. As an adaptation of literature the film already combines two media: film and book. Intermediality coined the postmodern interpretation and also supports Luhrmann’s aspiration of an “Elizabethan interpretation of Shakespeare”. Baz Luhrmann’s film requires a certain degree of literacy in Shakespeare to understand Luhrmann’s intertextual references in the different media such as advertisement, costumes and setting. Although the text is rearranged and enhanced from other Shakespeare plays, intermediality adds extra meaning as for example the advertisements quoting Shakespeare do. Lanier proposes that “self conscious dialogue between Shakespeare and contemporaneity”. The combination of the modern imaginary of advertisements is combined with Shakespeare’s words. Hopkins points out “that much of the written text we see consists of adverts”. Popular imaginary such as the Coca-Cola advertisement is re-used in an advertisement saying “Wherefore L’amour”. The advertisements are medium to establish a world in which Shakespeare’s words are a part of the cityscape. The use of the Elizabethan English in “this film foregrounds … words, ways which both underline its own status as filmic adaptation of a literary text and also echo the play’s own intense concern with the role of language in culture”. Intertextuality as a self-reflective element within modern media implies the importance and topicality of Shakespeare’s ideas.
Luhrmann’s decision to maintain the language has been the most discussed feature of his Romeo and Juliet adaptation. Whereas other modern adaptations of classic material change both setting and language Luhrmann stuck to the language but made extreme changes to the imagery. Anderegg argues “the sixteenth-century syntax and vocabulary serve as necessary links between the pastness of the tale and the presentness of the mise-en-scène”. Moreover, “the film can simply pretend that the language and the ‘poetic’ diction are not alien to contemporary sensibilities”. The actors speak Shakespeare as prose. This represents another mixture of theatre and film as stage actors usually stick to the rhyme scheme. As Jim Welsh complains in his review: “The lines are often right, but the context is most peculiar“.
Furthermore, drugs and weapons do not seem to have lost their topicality. In relocating culture the film addresses drug culture as a pressing issue. Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo takes an ecstasy pill at the masquerade party and comments “Thy drugs are quick”, a famous quote from the original death scene. Therefore, the adaption emphasizes the drug difficulty but does not reinvent it. However, Hopkins argues that Baz Luhrmann exercises his power as an auteur “because Luhrmann’s creative intervention has allowed Shakespeare’s text to address issues of which it could not originally have had any knowledge”. She further criticises the implied gang wars as two different ethnic groups fighting each other. Luhrmann modified the ethnicity of some characters. However, the feud between the families remains “a old grudge break to new mutiny” without an explicit reason.
Hyperreality is depicted in various features of the film such as the updated setting, costumes, exploitation of verbal and visual synchrony and the film’s intermediality. Language and symbolic value of media and costumes indicate a production away from reality. Hopkins argues that the customs at the party serve as symbols for a new layer of meaning. Romeo is dressed as a knight and therefore represents English traditional virtues. Paris however wears an astronaut costume and represents an American achievement. Metonymically the costumes of Paris and Juliet seem to connect them as a couple in the regard of metaphorically flying and heaven. This enhanced meaning highlights the modern zeitgeist of the new interpretation. Julie Sanders argues William Shakespeare’s Romeo+Juliet represents a “transposition relocating the play locally, temporally and culturally”. The old/new opposition again arises in the choice of setting. As the play the film is also set in “fair Verona”. Although filmed in Mexico a license plate number identifies it as Verona Beach. In this naming a connection between the old-European Shakespeare continent and American “Hollywood” society can be explored. Many American places are named after European town or cities sometimes even countries. Luhrmann’s self-reflexibility as an interpreter of an old story shows his awareness of the same. So although not set in the original Italian Verona, Romeo+Juliet preserves the opposition of the urban setting and nature. The elaborate construction of Verona Beach “authorizes the use of Elizabethan language by constructing a place where all vernacular and advertising mirror the local language”. Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English becomes the natural language of Verona Beach as already discussed in the use of advertisements. Rather than reciting verse characters communicate with Shakespeare’s words. Intermediality enables this construction of a world in which this is normal communication. The Sycamore Grove of Shakespeare becomes a beach with building, kiosks and a lot of visitors. However, the setting shows limits to an entire update of the story. So is Romeo’s exile to Mantua is out-dated.
The idea of time is ambiguous. Time cannot be clearly defined for this adaptation. As Anderegg comments: “the photographic qualities of Luhrmann’s film coordinates with his mise-en-scène; a future that is really a past”. However, a temporal relocation only took place partially. Although set in the late 20th century which implies the lack of actual swords and the more complex urban setting time within the storyline, the narrated time, stays the same. The fast pace of the play is preserved. Moreover, as well as place time also shows one limit of the updated version. The fast marriage of two minors cannot be simply put in today’s time.
The mixture of genres- teenager, drama, romance, action – is represented in the soundtrack. So for example it includes music of “Spaghetti Western”. The soundtrack contrasts Shakespeare’s eloquence. The tracks have a slow pace in contrast to the fast film.
In regards of the casting each actor attributes to the cast through his or her image, previous roles and in Romeo+Juliet ’s case ethnicity. The juxtaposition of traditional conventions of stage on film and fast cinematic scenes makes William Shakespeare’s Romeo+Juliet a film of “cinematic verve” but also “a highly theatrical” one. This prompts the audience to mix the “aware[ness] of the actor’s impersonation… [and] the tension between the ‘real person’ playing the role and the image projected on the screen”. Further, Braudy argues that the connection between the actor and his or her film character due to their personation is more personal than a stage actor’s impersonation. “[T]he other life of a film character is the continuity on other films of the career of the actor who plays him”. This imposes an intertextual factor to the film. Ironically Leonardo DiCaprio’s, whose Romeo is metaphorically interconnected with water in Romeo+Juliet, most famous role Jack Dawson in Titanic (1997) drowns, also in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013) his character’s death is staged around a swimming pool.
Luhrmann combines today’s Shakespeare’s cultural status and popular culture in the late 20th century. In preserving Shakespeare’s themes and mostly language he fulfils the purpose of a transposition of the text. Furthermore, the extraordinary setting remains as well. Though it was upgraded the main opposition of urban and natural setting remains. The film stays loyal to the original writing. The asynchrony of verbal and visual lets the film comment on today’s cultural potential of Shakespeare’s play. The cultural relocation of gangs and drugs are a transposition into modern culture not an interpretation. The self-reflexibility on the Elizabethan origin of the play and references to Shakespeare’s other plays show Luhrmann’s intention to disguise a transposition of a text in a commentary adaptation. His claim and efforts to direct an “Elizabethan interpretation of Shakespeare” make the film into a postmodern interpretation. Therefore, a strict connection between Luhrmann’s claim and the general agreement of a postmodern interpretation can be drawn.
Anderegg, Michael , ‘James Dean meets the Pirate’s Daughter’, in Shakespeare, the Movie, II: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, Video, and DVD, ed. by Lynda E.Boose and Richard Burt (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 56-71.
Braudy, Leo, ‘Acting: Stage vs. Screen’ in: Film and Literature: An Introduction and Reader, Ed. by Timothy Corrigan (Oxon: Routledge, 2012), pp. 232-238.
Hopkins, Lisa, Relocating Shakespeare and Austen on Screen (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
Kattenbelt, Chiel, ‘Intermediality in Theatre and Performance: Definitions, Perceptions and Medial Relationships’ , CULTURA, LENGUAJE Y REPRESENTACIÓN / CULTURE, LANGUAGE AND REPRESENTATION, VI (2008), 19-29 (p.21).
Lanier, Douglas. Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
Malone, Toby, Behind the Red Curtain of Verona Beach: Baz Luhrmann’s 'William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (2012), http://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=de&lr=&id=oTTVBAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PT19&dq=%22Behind+the+Red+Curtain+of+Verona+Beach:+Baz+Luhrmann%E2%80%99s+%27William+Shakespeare%E2%80%99s+Romeo+%2B+Juliet%27%22&ots=53kk4UOX1K&sig=ciV_Wlwo6gMFUTuUITBuYBvKafU&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=true [accessed 04 January 2015].
Maslin, Janet, Romeo Juliet (1996) Soft! What Light? It's Flash, Romeo (1996), <http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9C0CE7D91139F932A35752C1A960958260> [accessed 04 January 2015].
Sanders, Julie, Adaptations and Appropriation (London: Routledge, 2006).
Welsh, Jim, ‘Postmodern Shakespeare: Strictly Romeo’. Literature/Film Quarterly 25.2 (1997): 152.
William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, dir. by Baz Luhrmann (20th-Century-Fox, 1996).
 Commentary, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, dir. by Baz Luhrmann (20th-Century-Fox, 1996).
 Janet Maslin, Romeo Juliet (1996) Soft! What Light? It's Flash, Romeo (1996), <http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9C0CE7D91139F932A35752C1A960958260> [accessed 04 January 2015].
 Luhrmann in commentary
 Luhrmann in commentary
 Luhrmann in commentary
 Jim Welsh. ‘Postmodern Shakespeare: Strictly Romeo’. Literature/Film Quarterly 25.2 (1997): 152.
 Maslin, Romeo Juliet (1996).
 Douglas Lanier. Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p.49.
 Chiel Kattenbelt, ‘Intermediality in Theatre and Performance: Definitions, Perceptions and Medial Relationships’ , CULTURA, LENGUAJE Y REPRESENTACIÓN / CULTURE, LANGUAGE AND REPRESENTATION, VI (2008), 19-29 (pp.20-21).
 Douglas Lanier. Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p.87.
 Lisa Hopkins, Relocating Shakespeare and Austen on Screen (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p.28.
 Hopkins, p.28.
 Anderegg, p. 60.
 Welsh, p. 153.
 Hopkins, p.38.
 Hopkins, p.27.
 Julie Sanders, Adaptations and Appropriation (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 20.
 Hopkins, p. 166.
 Toby Malone, Behind the Red Curtain of Verona Beach: Baz Luhrmann’s 'William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (2012), http://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=de&lr=&id=oTTVBAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PT19&dq=%22Behind+the+Red+Curtain+of+Verona+Beach:+Baz+Luhrmann%E2%80%99s+%27William+Shakespeare%E2%80%99s+Romeo+%2B+Juliet%27%22&ots=53kk4UOX1K&sig=ciV_Wlwo6gMFUTuUITBuYBvKafU&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=true [accessed 04 January 2015].
 Michael Anderegg, ‘James Dean meets the Pirate’s Daughter’, in Shakespeare, the Movie, II: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, Video, and DVD, ed. by Lynda E.Boose and Richard Burt (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 59.
 Hopkins, p.27.
 Anderegg, p.59.
 Leo Braudy, ‘Acting: Stage vs. Screen’ in: Film and Literature: An Introduction and Reader, Ed. by Timothy Corrigan (Oxon: Routledge, 2012), p. 233.
 Braudy, p.234.