The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare is considered by many the greatest love stories ever written. A wide variety of literature, despite how renowned, is susceptible to great alterations that may change the entire meaning of the work, such as Romeo and Juliet. The play, set in 17th Century Verona, Italy, is about a long-standing feud between the Montague and Capulet families.
This feud results in tragically fatal fates for the protagonists of the play, Romeo and Juliet. The events contrast hatred and revenge with love and a secret marriage, forcing the young star-crossed lovers to grow up quickly and die in despair.
Franco Zeffirelli’s directorial decisions to omit or adapt certain scenes alter the meaning of Romeo and Juliet by transforming the character analyses, changing the mood of certain events, and forming confusion around implicit information.
The modified scenes in this film adaptation also modify the understanding the audience has of certain characters. Juliet’s original character in the play transforms from contemplative and concerned to more confident and at ease because of the expressive lines Zeffirelli discarded.
Specifically, rather than irresolutely pondering what would be her fate if she took the sleeping potion, in Scene III of Act IV of the movie she merely says, “Love give me strength” (Zeffirelli). This changes the entire character of Juliet, as instead of ostensibly seeming hesitant, doubtful, or scared, she appears determined and undaunted through the power of love.
This is not how she is truly depicted in the book, where she expresses her fears of taking the potion. Tybalt’s character also adapts from a powerful, merciless fighter to a penitent, apologetic dueler when his reaction shifts during a fight. In the movie, Tybalt stabs Mercutio under Romeo’s arm but appears surprised, even shocked at his action when the other Capulets struggle to pull him away from the scene.
This contradicts the book, which portrays Tybalt as having no remorse after killing Mercutio. He even threatens Romeo when he says, “Thou, wretched boy, that didst consort him here. Shalt with him hence” (3.1.135-136). Here, Tybalt menacingly implies that Romeo will soon join Mercutio through death. This dramatically changes the viewer’s grasp of Tybalt’s character because of the two contradicting emotions he expresses in the book versus the movie adaptation. In the audience’s perspective, characters are drastically changed as the scenes are transfigured and removed.
The way Zeffirelli adapts certain scenes changes the ambiance of the events which influences the viewer’s conclusive thoughts on the information. During the marriage scene between Romeo and Juliet, the atmosphere adjusts from a momentous event to one that seems childishly trivial.
The movie depicts the two lovers relentlessly giggling and kissing as Friar Lawrence weds them. This event is originally expressed more ceremoniously and solemnly to show the significance of the pivotal decision, but when the movie portrays the lovers as ‘fools in love,’ the understanding grasped from the scene is overturned. The tone of Juliet’s funeral scene is also converted from a dignified, ceremonial event to a slightly more lighthearted occasion. In the movie version of the funeral scene, while the grievers are melancholy, the Friar releases a giggle as he pretends to pray for Juliet.
This takes away the serious essence again as the audience now apprehends the scene as more of a joke. This reaction is also a reminder of the dramatic irony shared between Friar Lawrence and the audience. This expressive reminder greatly alters the meaning and tone of this somber scene. As scenes are modified and dropped, the mood and interpretation of events convert.
Zeffirelli leaves much information to be presumed by the viewer, though confusion often arises because the removed scenes cause certain sequences to become illogical. Incertitude occurs during Scene III of Act V of the movie when Romeo withdraws the poison as he speaks to sleeping Juliet.
The movie adaptation discards Scene I of Act V, in which the book exhibits Romeo buying fast-acting poison from a poor Apothecary. Once Romeo reveals the bottle of poison, the addled watchers question where and when Romeo obtains the poison as it appears out of nowhere. Though Zeffirelli does have Romeo announce that he has the poison in Scene III, he leaves the audience to presume how and where Romeo attains it.
Here, Zeffirelli removes Scene I, which some viewers may find beneficial for their understanding. Another confounding instance is how Zeffirelli abandoned the scene where Friar Lawrence would explain the events from the past two days to Prince Escalus as everything begins to unravel. Following the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, the book shows Friar Lawrence being apprehended by the Prince and subsequently revealing the truth of the secret wedding, the potion, and all other plans for the destined lovers.
In the movie, however, Friar Lawrence was never heard from again after he fled from the tomb. Because of this, the exposure of Romeo and Juliet’s marriage was not explained in the film, though somehow both families seemed to be aware of the situation by the time the double funeral took place. The puzzlement developed from lacking essential information leads watchers to dubiously question their comprehension of the storyline.
Considered one of the greatest love stories of all time, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a timeless literary classic and remains perhaps the most appreciated piece of literature in all of history. Though different adaptations, both movies and restructured performances, may transform the complete meaning of the original, the art and understanding stay intact.
The allure of Romeo and Juliet is everlasting, even if other versions rework the understanding of the original, such Zeffirelli’s decisions to revise certain scenes by transforming the characters, changing the mood, and abandoning critical information. The original characters, ambiance, and sequence organization will forever stand as part of the authentic classic, while dissimilar interpretations are criticized or disfavored.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Simon & Schuster Inc., 1992, New York, NY.
Zeffirelli, Franco. Romeo and Juliet. Paramount Pictures, 1968.
What would you say influenced Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet? In terms of what was going on at the time, would you say any other art forms influenced it?