Pink omens / fate
Blue dramatic irony
Yellow audience appeal
Red love and marriage in Shakespearean times
Grey modern effects and appeal
Despite the opening words of the chorus that “A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life…” at the end of Luhrmann’s production we are still fooled into thinking that perhaps this time the ending will change.
The bawdy humour: “Draw thy tool…” and “My naked weapon is out…” when the speakers have just been boasting about what they might do to the women of the house of their enemy! Would appeal to the 16th and 17th century audience, particularly the groundlings!
Romeo goes from “ill” for love, to dead for love in about 4 days in the play!
In Act 1 scene 2 Paris asks for Juliet’s hand and her father gives his consent provisional upon hers, “My will to her consent is but a part…” how soon he changes his mind!
In Act 1 scene 3 we learn how young girls might get married, “She’s not fourteen…” and indeed her mother was married by this age. But like her husband she asks her daughter “What say you? Can you love the gentleman?” and at this stage Juliet wishes to please her mother by trying, “I’ll look to like if looking liking move.” We also learn what she would gain by the marriage, “So shall you share all that he doth possess, / by having him, making yourself no less.” But the nurse is more prosaic (earthy / realistic), “No less? Nay bigger! Women grow by men.” Hinting at the pregnancy that surely follows sex which equally surely follows marriage!
Act 1 scene 4 gives us the first hints of misgivings of the characters themselves. First Romeo, “I dream’d a dream tonight.” Which prompts Mercutio’s long-winded Queen Mab speech in which he tells Romeo that bad dreams come from mischievous little fairy-like creatures and to take no notice of it, but Romeo is not put off, “…my mind misgives / Some consequence yet hanging in the stars / Shall bitterly begin his fearful date / With this night’s revels, and expire the term / Of a despised life clos’d in my breast / By some vile forfeit of untimely death…”
In the next scene Romeo and Juliet first catch sight of one another. Keeping true to the text Luhrmann has them costumed as befitting the words they say. She calls him a “knight” and a “pilgrim” hence he is dressed as a knight from the crusades, both knight and pilgrim. She is dressed as an angel from his later remark “Speak again bright angel.” But in this scene Juliet has her first presentiment of doom, “My grave is like to be my wedding bed.” Of course it turns out the reverse (except that in Luhrmann’s representation he has taken it literally)and she is here really referring to, “If he be married,” but the effect is still the same on a listening audience, dramatic irony.
In Act 2 scene 2 Romeo is skulking in the shrubbery hoping for a glimpse of his new love. He is taking himself to task for his moronic mooning over Rosaline when this is real love, what a fool he has been.
Yet swiftly Juliet takes control of the situation, apologises for seeming “light” ( we would say ‘fast’ or assertive, taking the initiative) but time is not on their side and if he is serious, then so is she and what about getting married? “If that thy bent of love be honourable, /thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow…where and what time thou wilt perform the rite…”
In another speech of unconscious dramatic irony Juliet says, “…I have no joy of this contract to-night: / It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden; / Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be….”
In Act 2 scene 3 the Friar discusses with Romeo his previous love:
Romeo: “Thou chid’st me oft for loving Rosaline..”
Friar: “For doting, not for loving, pupil mine.”
Romeo; “And bad’st me bury love.”
Friar: “Not in a grave, To lay one in, another out to have.”
Shakespeare thus lays on the omens and portents quite heavily so the audience is in no doubt about the future of this affair. The use of iambic pentameter (usually reserved for the noble characters and for doings and speeches of great importance) here also underlines the seriousness of this speech while seeming, on the surface, to be just good-natured banter of little import.
Even the Friar’s final speech here is ominous: “Wisely and slow: they stumble that run fast.”
By scene 6 we have all we need to know about the means of their deaths as Romeo bids the Friar wed them, “Then love-devouring death do what he dare…” To which Friar Laurence responds: “These violent delights have violent ends…”
Up until now the mood, despite the acknowledged tragedy to come, has actually been quite light-hearted, even comic, aspects which Luhrmann fully explored in his version. (See the petrol station, the close-ups of the faces of Benvolio and Abraham, the Capulet woman hitting him with the handbag, the shouting, screaming and silly faces, and the deliberate spoof of the arrival of Tybalt as if some outlaw gunslinger in a remote Western Frontier town, with close-ups of his shoes, his teeth, his earrings, him lighting the cigarette and dropping the match to watching the flame light the trail of petrol…Or setting Mercutio up as a drag queen singer at the Capulet ball!)
But now, in Act 3, the mood changes and becomes much more serious. Although it opens with the banter between Mercutio and Benvolio about which one has the quicker temper, as Mercutio jokes, “…thou wilt quarrel with a man that hath a hair more or a hair less in his beard that thou hast.” Yet all too soon Mercutio is cursing not only his murderer, Tybalt, but also his erstwhile friend Romeo whose behaviour he cannot understand. “A plague o’ both your houses!” And dies unknowing that he has been the architect of this disaster himself, dramatic irony.
Act 3 scene 3 may well be the source of Baz Luhrmann’s idea for guns rather than swords since Romeo actually says to the nurse that he is a murderer and that it’s almost as if his name, “Shot from the deadly level of a gun, / Did murder her; as that name’s cursed hand / Murder’d her kinsman…” but the nice little twist I the film is that all the guns have different sword names carved on their butts! (Rapier, Sword…)
Scene 5 here is of course the culmination of their love’s plans, the consummation, the climax and also ironically the death knell too. “O think’st thou we shall ever meet again?…O God I have an ill-diving soul: / Methinks I see thee…/ As one dead in the bottom of a tomb…” Of course we look back to this speech and realise she got it the wrong way round. Ironically, when approached by her family the next morning, she is forced to agree with their condemnation of Romeo’s actions in killing her cousin in saying: “I never shall be satisfied / With Romeo until I behold him – dead …”
Now her family are desperate to get her married off to Paris, possibly out of some misplaced belief that a wedding would cheer them all up, we don’t know, but we do know that her father and mother both threaten to disown her, throw her out, send her to a nunnery, cut her off without a penny if she refuses to comply. So much for her consent then! Yet more dramatic irony when first her mother says: “I would the fool were married to her grave..” words which if she remembered them she would no doubt much regret; then her father is equally harsh: “Hang thee young baggage! Disobedient wretch! / I tell thee what, get thee to church o’ Thursday, / Or never after look me in the face…”
Juliet grows up rapidly now, forced to make her own decisions then to carry out her plan. She grasps at the straw the Friar offers her, not without first thinking of the consequences but seeing it to be her only real option. “Give me, give me! Tell me not of fear.”
She returns home, outwardly appearing to be meek and subservient to her father’s will, inwardly resolute to be done with this charade. “I have learn’d me to repent the sin / Of disobedient opposition / To you and your behests…” “So please you let me now be left alone… / For I am sure you have your hands full all / In this so sudden business.” “Romeo… I drink to thee!”
A momentary return to light-hearted banter begins the final scene as the nurse enters Juliet’s room and, finding her there still in bed , seemingly fast asleep, calls her all manner of insults, and joking coarsely with her that she get all the ‘rest’ in bed she needs for when she’s married to Paris she won’t be doing much ‘sleeping’ in bed! Of course she swiftly discovers her error, “Alas! Alas! Help! Help! My lady’s dead!” She must have been heart-broken since she’d wet-nursed Juliet from a babe in arms. Her hysterics set the tone for this last episode.
The one or two word phrases, the excessive use of exclamation marks (though not original to the Shakespearean manuscript would nevertheless mimic the way in which the actors would have said their speeches), the use of repetition: “O woe! O woeful, woeful, woeful day!…O day! O day! O day! O hateful day!…” the (temporary) upgrading of the nurse’s speeches to the iambic pentameterform of verse, the opportunity for the actors to walk round the stage repeating these important lines ensuring that no-one missed them! all serve to underline the overwhelming emotion the audience are meant to feel: “Death is my son-in-law, Death is my heir…” With a capital D death is personified like a bridegroom but one who marries to the grave.