“A glooming peace with it this morning brings”: Struggling Against the Tragic Ending of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

Par Aoileann Ní Éigeartaigh
Publication en ligne le 18 février 2022


Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is in theatrical terms an anomaly. The melancholic young poet, the passionate lovers, the dramatic infighting of the families and the convoluted story concocted to propel the lovers into their “happy ever after” all sit comfortably within the conventions of Shakespearean comedy. However, the script published in the second Quarto in 1599 gave the play its extended title of The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, clearly situating it within the genre of tragedy and suggesting that Shakespeare’s main aim was to write a didactic play about the dangers of England’s descent into civil war. Although the beautiful language elevates the central love story above the at times formulaic conduction of the feud, theatrical convention dictates that his lovers must be sacrificed in order for the feud to be resolved. Thus, in spite of Romeo’s joyous declaration that his dreams “presage some joyful news at hand” (5.1.2), the tragic deaths of the lovers prevail over the many narratorial opportunities that exist within the final Act to bring about a more conventional happy ending. This essay argues that the need to negotiate between the audience’s emotional loyalty to the romantic couple and the structure of the tragic plot which requires the sacrifice of the couple in order to achieve its resolution is the central dilemma that adaptations of Romeo and Juliet need to address. The screenplay must attempt to convince audiences of the inevitability and inherent rightness of their deaths in spite of the numerous opportunities that exist within the narrative to challenge this fate. The essay will examine the construction of the ending in a number of adaptations: Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968), Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo+Juliet (1996) and John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998). It will focus in particular on moments of conflict apparent in the screenplays, moments when it is clear that the narrative is trying to subvert the tragic ending. The final Act in the movies becomes a struggle for dominance between the pre-existing dictates of Shakespeare’s plot and audience expectations that love can and should conquer all.

D’un point de vue théâtral, Roméo et Juliette est une anomalie. Le poète mélancolique, les amants passionnés, les querelles internes des familles et l’histoire alambiquée concoctée pour propulser les amants vers une fin où « ils vécurent toujours heureux » sont toutes des conventions propres à la comédie shakespearienne. Pourtant, en 1599, le texte publié dans le second quarto compléta le titre de la pièce par The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, situant celle-ci dans le genre de la tragédie et suggérant que le but de Shakespeare était d’écrire une pièce didactique mettant en garde l’Angleterre sur les dangers d’une guerre civile. Bien que la langue magnifique élève l’histoire d’amour centrale au-dessus des disputes parfois convenues, la convention théâtrale exige que les amants soient sacrifiés afin que les conflits soient résolus. Aussi, malgré la déclaration enjouée d’un Roméo voyant ses rêves présager une “heureuse nouvelle à portée de main” (“presage some joyful news at hand”, 5.1.2), la mort tragique des amants prévaut sur les nombreuses possibilités narratives qui subsistent dans le dernier acte et qui pourraient mener vers un heureux dénouement plus conventionnel. Cette étude considère que ce besoin de négocier entre la loyauté émotionnelle du public envers le couple romantique et la structure de l’intrigue tragique qui, elle, requiert le sacrifice de ce même couple afin d’atteindre le dénouement, est le dilemme central des adaptations cinématographiques de Roméo et Juliette. Le scénario doit convaincre le public de l’inéluctabilité et de la moralité de la mort des jeunes héros malgré les nombreuses occasions qui existent pour mettre au défi leur sort. Ce travail examine donc la construction de la fin dans trois adaptations, celles de Franco Zeffirelli (1968), de Baz Luhrmann (1996) et de John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, 1998). Il se focalise en particulier sur les moments de conflits apparents dans les scénarii, des moments où il est clair que la narration essaie de subvertir la fin tragique. Le dernier acte des films devient un combat de chefs entre ce que dicte l’intrigue écrite par Shakespeare et les attentes du public pour qui l’amour peut et devrait tout vaincre.


Texte intégral

1Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is in theatrical terms an anomaly. The melancholic young poet, the passionate lovers, the dramatic infighting of the families and the convoluted story concocted to propel the lovers into their “happy ever after” all sit comfortably within the conventions of Shakespearean comedy. However, the script published in the second Quarto in 1599 gave the play its extended title of The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet,1 clearly situating it within the genre of tragedy and suggesting that Shakespeare’s main aim was to write a didactic play about the dangers of England’s descent into civil war. Although the beautiful language elevates the central love story above the at times formulaic conduction of the feud, theatrical convention dictates that his lovers must be sacrificed in order for the feud to be resolved. Thus, in spite of Romeo’s joyous declaration that his dreams “presage some joyful news at hand” (5.1.2), the tragic deaths of the lovers prevail over the many narratorial opportunities that exist within the final Act to bring about a more conventional happy ending. This would have made sense to the Elizabethan audiences for whom, as Muriel C. Bradbrook points out, love was “comical” and would never have been privileged above the social need for the feud to be resolved: “The course of true love never did run smooth, personal affection was bound to cut across social exigencies [….] In real life, Juliet was married to Paris”.2 However, contemporary audiences, well versed in the various obstacles that are cast in the path of true love, nevertheless expect the romantic couple ultimately to prevail. This essay argues that the need to negotiate between the audience’s emotional loyalty to the romantic couple and the structure of the tragic plot which requires the sacrifice of the couple in order to achieve its resolution is the central dilemma that adaptations of Romeo and Juliet need to address. The screenplay must attempt to convince audiences of the inevitability and inherent rightness of their deaths in spite of the numerous opportunities that exist within the narrative to challenge this fate. The essay will examine the construction of the ending in a number of adaptations: Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968)3, Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo+Juliet (1996)4 and John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998).5 It will focus in particular on moments of conflict apparent in the screenplays, moments when it is clear that the narrative is trying to subvert the tragic ending. The final Act in the movies becomes a struggle for dominance between the pre-existing dictates of Shakespeare’s plot and audience expectations that love can and should conquer all.

2Tension in the relationship between an original literary text and its adaptation is not, of course, peculiar to Shakespeare. Indeed, critical responses to film adaptations are, in the words of Brian McFarlane: “bedevilled by the fidelity issue”.6 The status afforded to the literary text by virtue of its primogeniture means that debates about its adaptations tend to revolve around their perceived accuracy: “a notion of the text as having and rendering up to the (intelligent) reader a single, correct ‘meaning’ which the filmmaker has either adhered to or in some sense violated or tampered with”.7 This is particularly the case, as Erica Sheen points out, when the literary text has achieved the status of a “classic text”, and is thus protected from tampering by the perception that it cannot be improved upon.8 Situating the adaptation in a chronological relationship with the literary original suggests a uni-directional flow of authority, which does not sit well with contemporary theories of reading that emphasize the flexibility of the text and the empowerment of the reader. Andy Bennett argues that texts which may once have been considered historically homogenous have become increasingly pluralistic and fragmented, necessitating a more flexible and nuanced mode of reading: “Rather than espousing singular and essentialist meanings, they express a range of highly differentiated and contested meanings”.9 Roland Barthes advocates the removal of the author as centring presence as a means of opening up the text to accommodate multiple perspectives: “We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the message of the ‘Author-God’) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash”.10 It is notable that Barthes suggests the replacement of writing, the act of recording and thus establishing a clear unequivocal meaning, with the “performative”, an act of communication that exists only in the present and has: “no other origin than language itself, language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins”.11 Each adaptation of Romeo and Juliet is thus, according to Barthes’ formulation, a unique, equally valid interpretation, answerable only to its own context.

3Michel Foucault suggests that the ease with which Barthes can banish the author as a structuring presence is because this role never existed in the first place, and that the authority we invest in the author is a relatively new phenomenon: “those texts which we now call ‘literary’ were accepted, circulated, and valorised without any question about the identity of their author”.12 Notions about authenticity are thus contemporary perspectives that we wrongly impose on a text, seeking to tie it firmly into its historical context to satisfy our need to glorify the “Author God”. Identifying the creator of a text was never meant to exclude all but one interpretation as the correct one. On the contrary, as Erica Sheen comments: “copyright is, and always has been, a mechanism that facilitates the exchange of the literary property, not its stabilization”.13 After all Shakespeare based his own play on Arthur Brooke’s 1562 English poem “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet”, which in turn was based on a number of older versions of the story.14 All of the adaptations considered in this essay exploit what Susan Bennett characterises as the “gaps and excesses”15 in Shakespeare’s play to create spaces for play within both the plot and the language, thus facilitating an intertextual exchange with the source text, using it as a resource to inspire new meanings rather than as a monolith that precludes creativity.

4In spite of the flexibility suggested by such models of readership and performance, however, it can be argued when dealing with an author as canonical as Shakespeare that rumours about the demise of the author are exaggerated. William B. Worthen argues that although performance may free the text from its original historical setting and allow it to exist in the present, its freedom remains restricted by: “the stabilizing, hegemonic functioning of the Author in modern cultural production”.16 Harry Berger, Jr. agrees that the author functions as a source of “closure, of semiotic inhibition, employed in the conflict of interpretations to privilege certain readings and control ‘unruly meanings’”.17 The consequence, as Worthen states, is that in spite of the devaluing of the author in poststructuralist readings “Shakespearean authority remains very much in play”, with the result that the performance, and most crucially the response of the audience, continues to be “already scripted by the hand of ‘Shakespeare”.18 This is perhaps most apparent in the opening sequences of the adaptations which are at pains to acknowledge their creative debt to Shakespeare. Franco Zeffirelli’s opening credits introduce his movie as “Franco Zeffirelli’s Production of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet”, suggesting an interesting tussle for authorial control between director and playwright. Baz Luhrmann, as befits his postmodernist approach to the text, cedes all authorial control to Shakespeare by naming his movie William Shakespeare’s Romeo+Juliet. Luhrmann’s curious use of the numerical “plus” sign in his title could be read as signifying the clichéd representation of Romeo and Juliet as star-crossed lovers in contemporary culture. It also introduces the cross motif which he employs throughout the movie as a visual reminder of the tragic fate that awaits his protagonists in Juliet’s tomb.

5Interestingly, it is not just Shakespeare’s play that the adaptations acknowledge as their source. On the contrary, many of the adaptations include intertextual references to other adaptations, thus siting themselves within a continuum of versions of the text. Patricia Tatspaugh refers to the impact George Cukor’s 1936 Hollywood movie Romeo and Juliet clearly had on Zeffirelli and Luhrmann, who respectively borrow from his opening sequence the sweeping overview of Verona and a shot of a drop curtain on a proscenium arch. Baz Luhrmann also follows George Cukor in introducing his actors in character.19 Shakespeare in Love also begins with the camera sweeping over the rooftops of Elizabethan London, before coming to rest on the stage of the Rose theatre. As befits a movie which has as its primary focus the scripting of the play, we first meet the eponymous playwright practising what we immediately recognize as Shakespeare’s iconic signature, with a mug bearing the words “a present from Stratford-upon-Avon” further suggesting the commodification of the playwright and his works. Indeed, the movie abounds with references to other works by Shakespeare, including his sonnets and speeches from Two Gentlemen of Verona. Baz Luhrmann makes a number of references to other adaptations of the play, most notably Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (1961), some of them oblique, such as the primarily Hispanic composition of the Capulet henchmen; and some of them more overt, such as the brief scene of the drunk Lord Capulet singing the word “Amore” to the tune of “Maria” at the drug-fuelled party, just before Romeo sees Juliet for the first time. He also uses the darkly, dramatic “Montagues and Capulets” theme from Sergei Prokovief’s ballet Romeo and Juliet to capture the enmity between the rival families, as well as foreshadowing the rage that will cause Romeo to kill Tybalt, thus setting in motion the inevitable tragic ending. Luhrmann’s references to so many previous versions of Romeo and Juliet reminds the audience continually of its status as an adaptation and its consequent powerlessness to resist its tragic ending.

6Most significantly for the purposes of this essay, all of the adaptations, no matter how freely they update their locations and the social contexts they critique, are bound by their obligation to the play to sacrifice the romantic couple so that the wider social conflict can be resolved. The tragic ending is, after all, what is best known about Romeo and Juliet. A big challenge for the screenplay is finding a way to surprise the audience with an ending they know is coming. Quoting an old Hollywood cliché, Robert McKee states that the most important element of any successful movie is its final scene: “Movies are about their last twenty minutes”.20 No matter what leads up to this point, if the audience’s attention is fully absorbed in the final denouement, the movie will be a success. Keeping the audience interested in the fate of the protagonists must thus be to the forefront of every decision made by the screenwriter: “No film can be made to work without an understanding of the reactions and anticipations of the audience. You must shape your story in a way that both expresses your vision and satisfies the audience’s desires”.21 A significant problem, suggested by John F. Andrews, is that familiarity with the tragic ending can banish any element of suspense, thereby diluting the emotional impact it might have for the audience: “distorted impressions of them, and of their tragedy, are now so indelibly fixed in our memories that many of us are inclined either to disregard the drama entirely or to regard it too lightly to register its capacity to touch a modern theatregoer’s deepest sympathies”.22 The key, McKee insists, is “to give the audience what it wants, but not in the way it expects”. Paraphrasing Aristotle’s Poetics, a successful ending, he states, must be both “inevitable and unexpected”.23 Using this formulation as its focus, this essay will examine the ways in which Shakespeare’s play and its adaptations work to guide audiences towards a tragic ending they will recognize as both inevitable, in that no other outcome could be structurally convincing, but also sufficiently unexpected that it catches them by surprise and leaves them feeling emotionally satisfied at its conclusion. One key element of the catharsis that Aristotle insists is the goal of all tragedies24 is that to be effective it must not be confined to the end of the story, but rather “[build] throughout the entire story and [climax] at the end, giving the audience a final release”.25 Shakespeare structures his plot around a number of transitional moments closely resembling Aristotle’s system of “reversal” and “recognition”,26 in which Romeo and Juliet appear to have found a way of averting their tragic fate, only to have the possibility snatched from them almost immediately. Much of the suspense created in the adaptations is located in their exploitation of the potential resistance suggested in these moments, small gaps in the tragic plot in which the audience is given a hint that an alternative happy ending just might be possible.

7This need to prepare the audience for the ending is evident within the structures of Shakespeare’s play which in its own context demonstrated considerable resistance to the prevailing theatrical conventions. Much critical attention has been paid to the contested generic classification of Romeo and Juliet. Genre functions as a significant stabilizing force in cultural texts. It both creates audience expectations and offers assurances that these expectations will be fulfilled. It is a guarantee, in other words, of the unity and completeness that Aristotle insists are central to the successful tragedy.27 McKee describes genre as an additional tool the filmmaker has at his disposal to ensure audiences read the film in the intended manner: “Each genre imposes conventions on story design […]. Consequently, the choice of genre sharply determines and limits what’s possible within a story, as its design must envision the audience’s knowledge and anticipations”.28 Thomas Schatz, who describes genre as a sort of “tacit ‘contract’ between filmmakers and audiences”, suggests that it is particularly significant in determining how a movie will end: “the films within a genre, representing variations on a cultural theme, will employ different means of reaching narrative resolution, but that closure is generally as familiar as the community and its characters”.29 Although movies belonging to a particular genre will aim to delight audiences by producing new and exciting thematic variations, to be successful they must deliver an ending consistent with the rules governing that genre. Notwithstanding Shakespeare’s own description of his play as a “lamentable tragedy”, it resists easy categorization. Bradbrook suggests it straddles a number of genres and is most accurately described as “an amorous tragi-comedy”.30 This facile hyphenation belies the extent to which Shakespeare’s play challenged what were considered at the time to be incompatible genres. Such is the popularity of Shakespeare’s play, as Levin states, that is difficult for us now to understand the extent to which contemporary audiences would have been “shocked” at the respectful way in which he treated the plight of the lovers: “Legend [...] was the proper matter for serious drama; romance was the stuff of the comic stage”.31 Forging a new genre of “romantic tragedy”, he suggests, was “one of those contradictions in terms which Shakespeare seems to have delighted in resolving”.32

8From the very start of play, therefore, Shakespeare is toying with his audience by deliberately juxtaposing themes and forms of language associated with the seemingly mutually exclusive genres of comedy and tragedy (according to Aristotle). The Prologue appears to establish the primacy of the civil war in the narrative of the play and states clearly that its resolution is the goal of the plot:

“The continuance of their parents’ rage:
Which but their children’s end nought could remove:
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our Stage” (12-14)

9These lines firmly subordinate the tragic lovers and state that their sacrifice is necessary to re-establish peace. This privileging of social stability over individual happiness would have been accepted without question by an Elizabethan audience well aware of the fragility of the peace and prosperity they were enjoying. It is also the conventional ending of some of Shakespeare’s other comedies, in which the marriage of the happy couple is important only in so far as it guarantees social cohesion. However, the Prologue in Romeo and Juliet introduces an element of doubt in the privileging of social stability over romantic love. The fate of the lovers might be written in the stars but Shakespeare’s description of them as “piteous” suggests that our sympathy and loyalty should be with them and not with the society they will be sacrificed to save. The fact that the play is called after the two lovers rather than the “Two households both alike in dignity” also suggests an uneasy struggle for dominance between the private love story and its public context. This uneasiness is further reflected in Shakespeare’s use of the sonnet form for the Prologue. Marjorie Garber points out that Shakespeare is deliberately subverting a literary form mostly associated with private declarations of love to make a public statement about civil war. This disjunction between form and function, she suggests, would have indicated strongly to the Elizabethan audience that “there is something seriously wrong in the play’s world”.33

10Whether or not to include the Prologue is the first significant decision to be made by directors, who must balance a desire to preserve the integrity of Shakespeare’s text with the needs of their audience, who may wish for an element of suspense to be preserved. Zeffirelli, in casting noted Shakespearean stage actor Laurence Olivier to deliver a slightly truncated Prologue over a soundtrack of Elizabethan music, appears to be infusing his movie with an aura of respect and tradition. On the other hand, placing the Prologue in the opening credits distances it from the main action of the film and could also be read as an attempt to include a well-known component of the plot without allowing it to dominate the presentation of the story. Luhrmann takes the opposite approach, foregrounding the text of the Prologue and using it to highlight both the tragic plot and the feuding families who are to blame for it. Delivered initially in the form of a news report and immediately afterwards by Colonel Prince and supplemented by the repetition of its iconic phrases in a variety of media reports on the feud, Luhrmann’s Prologue sets the scene for a movie in which the disruptive omnipresence of the media constantly reminds the characters of the fatal pervasiveness of the violence and their pre-scripted roles in it. Its textual insistence that there can be no happy ending for the tragic lovers is reinforced by the montage of images that offers the audience glimpses of the violence and bloodshed that will result in their deaths in the candlelit crypt. Carol Chillington Rutter notes that in Luhrman’s postmodern world, reality has been subsumed into the media image, with the result that “No one lives in ‘real’ time. The tragedy of the ‘star-cross’d lovers’ is already retrospective, an item on the nine o’clock news”.34 As in Shakespeare’s play, there is to be no escape for Romeo and Juliet whose “story of [….] woe” (5.3.135-137) is already being packaged for the news bulletin that will be transmitted at the end of the movie. In Shakespeare in Love, the opening credits tell of a deadly feud between two rival playhouses, both competing for the favour of the Queen and the revenues that come from having a full house for their plays. A discarded playbill, bearing the title of a recent play “The lamentable tragedy of the Moneylender Reveng’d”, is both a tongue-in-cheek reference to the full title of Shakespeare’s play and an introduction to the role that class, and wealth will play in dividing Will and Viola from each other. By the time Shakespeare’s original Prologue is delivered at the start of the performance of Romeo and Juliet, the rival playhouses have united to produce the play in the face of their persecution by the Master of the Revels, the feud thus suspended in the name of the arts. However, even though – or perhaps because – the Prologue is delivered in the context of a theatrical performance, its impact on Will and Viola is every bit as profound as in the original play. The lovers might have reunited on stage in contravention of the laws of the age, but they know that Viola’s marriage to Wessex and imminent departure for Virginia means that at the end of the “two hour’s traffic” they will be eternally and irrevocably divided from each other. Banishment, as their counterparts in Shakespeare’s play state, is after all as final and tragic as death itself:

“Romeo is banished,
There is no end, no limit, measure bound,
In that word’s death, no words can that woe sound” (3.2.135-137)

11The use of literary forms and conceits associated with comedy to play with audience expectations and thus make the inevitable tragedy even more poignant continues in the main body of the play. Romeo and Juliet initially conforms closely to the conventions of the comic genre. The feud between the symmetrically opposed nobles and their underlings is as much a source of entertainment as a real threat, carried out equally through verbal puns and physical sword thrusts: “I will cut off [….] the heads of the maids, or their maiden heads, take it in what sense you wilt” (1.1.26-29). The characters, as Susan Snyder notes, are easily recognizable from other Shakespearean comedies, “concerned not with wars and the fate of kingdoms but with arranging marriages and managing the kitchen”.35 Indeed Romeo, when we first encounter him, is a stereotypically lovelorn young man, whose expressions of love are communicated in the convoluted courtly style that precludes rather than facilitates authentic emotion:

“Love is a smoke made with the fume of sighs,
Being purg’d, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes,
Being vex’d, a sea nourish’d with loving tears” (1.1.197-199)

12Both Romeo and Juliet are initially matched with conventional love interests in Rosalind and Paris, and surrounded with picaresque characters like their parents, the Friar, Nurse and the hot-blooded members of the rival families. This supporting cast of comic characters serve as a foil for the immediate, authentic and honestly expressed attraction experienced by Romeo and Juliet when they first see each other.

13Shakespeare in Love is the adaptation that most enthusiastically engages with the premise that Romeo and Juliet may have started off as a comedy. The initial incarnation of the play is tentatively entitled “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s daughter”, a “crowd tickler” about “mistaken identities” that will have as its central theme “love triumphant”. Under pressure to cater for the distinctly low-brow taste of the Queen and her Court, for whom “love and bit with a dog” are priorities and facing stiff competition for the name of London’s favourite playwright from Christopher Marlowe, Will is experiencing extreme writer’s block, seeking inspiration from Rosalind, his sexually voracious and perennially unfaithful muse, and attending therapy. The conversation about his problem allows the double-entendres so central to the humour of Shakespeare’s plays to shine for a contemporary audience: “It’s as if my quill is broken. As if the organ of my imagination has dried up. As if the proud tower of my genius has collapsed”. The problem we learn is that Will has fallen out of faith with love and no longer believes in the exaggerated courtly expressions he found so easy to deliver in the past: “Words, words, words…once, I had the gift. I could make love out of words as a potter makes cups out of clay. Love that overthrows empires, love that binds two hearts together come hellfire and brimstones. For sixpence a line, I could cause a riot in a nunnery”. The solution he is offered is a mystical one, a bangle which he is to give to his muse Rosaline: “The woman who wears the snake will dream of you and your gift will return”. Indeed, shortly after giving the bangle to the fickle Rosaline, Will is at his desk scribbling furiously. When he arrives triumphantly to deliver the new iteration of his play, now entitled “Romeo and Rosaline” to Richard Burbage, producer at the Curtain Theatre, he finds Rosaline in bed with Hugh Tilney, the Master of the Revels. His response “I would have made you immortal” is significant: Will’s interest was not in Rosaline herself but in the role she would play as his muse. Love, in this movie, is always secondary to the timeless play Will is in the process of writing.

14The only person who resists the charm of the clever, inauthentic language of courtly love poetry is Viola, who attends the theatre to revel in the words of Will Shakespeare, reciting every line of his poetry in tandem with the actors on stage. Will’s first glimpse of Viola comes as she mouths the words to “What Life is Life” from his play Two Gentlemen of Verona: “And why not death rather than living torment? To die is to be banished from myself. And Sylvia is myself; banished from her Is self from self – a deadly banishment”. Viola responds to the romance of the verse, its depiction of a love so intense and unifying that the narrator can be alive only in the presence of his beloved. Complaining that the men in her circle are “without poetry” and interested only in her fortune, she is determined to hold out for the kind of love she has hitherto only imagined: “not the artful postures of love but love that overthrows life. Unbiddable, ungovernable, like a riot in the heart, and nothing to be done, come ruin or rapture.” No playwright, she concludes, has ever managed to capture this elevating passion, a tantalizing challenge both to Shakespeare’s play and by extension to Madden’s adaptation. Of course, the verse that has inspired Viola also has a darker message, its meditation on the living death that is banishment from the presence of one’s beloved, offering an early clue that this central relationship which is just beginning is, like its counterparts in all other versions of Romeo and Juliet, doomed to end in tragedy. The forces that will deny Viola and Will their happy ending are present at the very moment they first see each other: the Queen, whose permission to marry is a prerequisite for the nobility, and Lord Wessex who, like Will, is mesmerized by Viola’s beauty and moves immediately to secure her and, more importantly her fortune, for himself. Viola may dream of being free to marry for love, but economic realities will determine her fate and she is sold by her father for the status her union with Wessex will represent: “I have an ancient name that will bring preferment when your grandson is a Wessex. Is she fertile?”

15The adaptations also separate the lovers from their context by dramatically contrasting the noise, energy and chaos of the communal scenes with the quieter and more peaceful scenes in which the lovers find themselves alone. Zeffirelli’s movie begins with the clamorous sound of the crowded marketplace, which soon erupts into a cacophony of violence, the extended scenes of destruction made all the more disturbing because of the colourful, almost jester-like costumes worn by the Montague and Capulet servants. Deborah Cartmell notes Zeffirelli’s clever use of colour to separate Romeo from the fighting mob, noting that “the violent opening of the first half of Scene 1 is dramatically contrasted with the quietness of the second half, reflected in the vibrant colours turning to faded blues and greys”.36 The angry shouting of the crowd and the insistent tolling of the bell give way to the scenes of the wounded and dead being tended to as the Prince issues his warning. Into these chaotic scenes, Romeo appears, ambling gently through a narrow road, with a hazy light surrounding him. Deborah Cartmell notes that when he arrives, he is carrying a flower, in direct contrast to the rest of the sword-carrying characters, suggesting not only Romeo’s loyalty to love over hate, but providing the director with the opportunity to introduce his contextual context: “For a 1960s audience, Tybalt, representative of his repressive and violent patriarchal Verona society, is visually defeated by Romeo, the flower-power pacifist”.37 Of course, this victory is only temporary. Romeo will swap his flower for a sword for his next duel with Tybalt, thus fatally aligning himself with the civil war that will destroy his life and that of Juliet.

16Luhrmann’s opening gang fight is a busy, multi-layered pastiche of quotes from other plays, genre styles and soundtracks, all delivered at breakneck speed and leaving the audience bewildered by the sheer volume of intertextual references it is supposed to decode. Images of burning buildings, shootouts and dead bodies deliver a visual cacophony that is further reinforced by the soundtrack, which includes the whirring helicopter blades of the police, the Prologue which is being repeated on a television news report and Prokofiev’s dramatic music. In contrast, we first meet Romeo sitting quietly on the stage of the ruined proscenium arch on the beach, the hazy sunlight and angst-ridden music perfectly suggesting the melancholy associated with a teenager who feels himself at odds with both his parents and the surrounding society. Romeo’s rejection of the violence fuelled in part by his parents is evident in his disgusted reaction to the feud once again being reported on the news: “O me, what fray was here?” That we first meet him as he sits under the proscenium arch, however, suggests that in spite of his resistance, there is no escape from the fate the play’s script has written for him.

17All of the adaptations effectively use the party scene to dramatize a clear contrast between the contrived artificiality of society and the intense honesty of Romeo and Juliet. The elaborate costumes and masks worn at the Capulet party reinforce the inauthenticity of the hegemonic social discourse. Lord Capulet, for example, does not appear to mind that Romeo has gate-crashed his party as long as his presence does not create a scene that would shame him in front of his guests: “I would not for the wealth of all this town, / Here in my house do him disparagement” (1.5.78-79). This indication that the supposedly bitter feud, which will result in the deaths of Romeo and Juliet as well as a number of their kinspeople, can be suspended for the sake of a party is one of many ironic moments during which the seriousness of the civil discord is open to question. Costumes are also effectively used to critique the entrenched group mentality of the supporting characters and to separate Juliet, in particular, from the rest of the women. Luhrmann takes the role of costuming to its extreme, parodying the consumerist excess of the guests, most notably in the highly sexualized drag outfit worn by Mercutio, a tongue-in-cheek reference no doubt to the Elizabethan convention whereby female theatrical roles were performed by boys. In each of the adaptations, the simplicity of the dress worn by Juliet clearly signifies her difference from the other women. Madden’s Viola stands out at the Court of Elizabeth I for eschewing the grotesque, white makeup favoured by the Queen and her ladies in waiting, her flowing blonde hair, naturally flushed complexion and open, unguarded expression embodying the truth and light that enchants Will. Luhrmann similarly highlights the innocence of his Juliet by dressing her as an angel, this symbol of transcendence similarly communicated by the crucifix necklace worn by Zeffirelli’s Juliet. Patricia Tatspaugh notes that costuming Romeo and Juliet as a medieval knight and an angel enables Luhrmann to divide them from the cheap Hollywoodized costumes of other guests, who include an astronaut, Cleopatra, and a Roman emperor, giving them a “stillness and serenity”,38 while also suggesting a timeless quality to their love.

18All three directors considered here use the structured group dance as a motif of inclusion and exclusion. The conventions governing social interaction are embodied in the elaborate choreography of the dance sequences all of which are known to the guests, whose prescribed movements temporarily block the progress towards each other of Romeo and Juliet. The adaptations are also very similar in their depiction of Romeo’s exclusion from the stylized, ritualistic dancing, confined to peering over the shoulders of other guests for glimpses of Juliet who is absorbed, even trapped, by the formulaic dance moves of her partner. The hegemonic rules governing social interaction are challenged when Romeo and Juliet finally see each other and instantly fall in love.

19The contrast between the chaotic, fast-paced, and loud crowd scenes and the quiet, calm interactions of Romeo and Juliet is also reflected in the very different style of language in which Shakespeare writes them. Still smarting at Benvolio’s suggestion that he will lose interest in Rosalind once he sees more of Verona’s beautiful women at the Capulet party, Romeo states his eternal fidelity:

“Transparent heretics be burnt for liars.
One fairer than my love, the all-seeing Sun,
Ne’er saw her match, since first the world begun” (1.2.98-100)

20This exaggerated, courtly expression of devotion to Rosalind is clearly meant for the amusement of the audience, as a means of heightening their excited anticipation ahead of his first glimpse of Juliet, whom the audience knows to be his true love even before he does himself. Romeo may return to the imagery of light to describe the impact his first glimpse of Juliet has on him: “O she doth teach the torches to burn bright” (1.5.51) but the simplicity of his language signifies the fundamental difference in the love he now feels: “Did my heart love till now, foreswear it sight, / For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night” (1.5.59-60). Marjorie Garber notes that Romeo’s maturity from lovesick youth to credible lover is seen in the “new vigor and originality in his language, profoundly different from the hackneyed phrases in which he expressed his passion for Rosalind”.39 The authenticity of Romeo’s feelings for Juliet is reinforced by the fact that he is recognized by Tybalt in spite of the disguise he is wearing: “This by his voice, should be a Montague” (1.5.61).

21Shakespeare in Love also locates authenticity in speech. Significantly Will, who has made a name for himself with his fluent, poetic expressions of love, is struck dumb when he first finds himself touching Viola’s hand during the dance: “I was a poet till now, but I have seen beauty that puts my poems at one with the talking ravens at the Tower”. In a reversal of Shakespeare’s play, it is Viola who disguises herself as a boy in order to enter Romeo’s theatrical world, a world denied to her because of her sex. When she and Will begin to fall in love, it is through the medium of language, the letters they send each other powerful enough to pierce through the artifice that surrounds them. Viola cares nothing for Will’s low social status, dismissing his protest that he is but a “lowly player” and stating instead that he is “the highest poet of my esteem and a writer of plays that captures my heart”. Will is more aware of the dangers of pursuing the relationship: “Oh, I am fortune’s fool, I will be punished for this”. Although the atmosphere in Shakespeare in Love is more light-hearted than in Romeo and Juliet, inserting this iconic line, uttered in the play when Romeo has killed Tybalt and realises that he has ruined any chance of happiness he may have had with Juliet, serves to remind the audience that it too is an adaptation and as a consequence is bound to adhere to the tragic ending.

22Zeffirelli, Luhrmann and Madden all use the temporary privacy offered by columns on the edge of the dancefloor to create a first opportunity for Romeo to pull Juliet away from the crowd into their own private space. In all three scenes, their attraction to each other is embodied in touch, the unmediated authenticity of their hands touching acting as a strong symbol of resistance to the contrived artificiality of the other guests and their adherence to socially sanctioned regulations. Romeo’s simple, reverent flirtation is fixated on Juliet’s hands and lips: “Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take, / Thus from my lips, by thine my sin is purg’d” (1.5.117-118). Derek A. Traversi points out that this first exchange is written in sonnet form, the contrast between a genre associated with love and the threatening reference to “sin” thus suggesting to the audience “familiar poetic conventions in the process of being brought to what is finally a dangerous, a precarious life [….] we may already sense, however obscurely, that this love is destined to end in death”.40 Romeo’s use of religious imagery to describe their first kiss suggests that their union might allow them to transcend the destructive hostility of their families. However, Tybalt’s usurpation of the same words decisively undermines Romeo’s optimism: “Now by the stock and honour of my kin, / To strike him dead, I hold it not a sin” (1.5.66-67). Romeo may believe that Juliet’s lips will purge him from sin, but for Tybalt the only sin is not to defend the honour of his family from its breach by its sworn enemy. This repetition of words to convey opposing sentiments makes it clear to the audience from the very start of the play that the romantic plot and civil feud are both inextricably linked and mutually destructive.

23Zeffirelli makes this connection overt in a scene towards the end of the dance when Juliet, left breathless by her first kiss, sensuously touches her lips with her hands, a simple gesture of desire that further enrages the watching Tybalt. That their relationship is ill-fated is also signified by Zeffirelli’s soundtrack. “What is a Youth?”, Nino Rota’s wistful melody which has accompanied Romeo and Juliet’s scenes from the start of the movie, finally reveals its lyrics to us at the party. Reflecting on the transience of love:

“A rose will bloom,
It then will fade,
So does a youth,
So does the fairest maid”

24Rota’s song foresees the end of the love affair and the destruction of its youthful protagonists, reminding the audience that in the case of Romeo and Juliet, the inception of their relationship is inextricably linked to their deaths: “Death will come soon to hush us along”. It is thus appropriate that Zeffirelli will return to the image of Romeo and Juliet’s hands touching on several other occasions. In the balcony scene, Juliet offers Romeo her hand as a symbol of “Love’s faithful vow”. When Romeo leaves her, the camera lingers on their hands as their fingers slowly fall away from each other and Romeo slips down from the balcony onto the ground with Juliet’s arm still outstretched above him. This symbolic parting will be echoed when Romeo leaves Juliet’s balcony on his way to banishment in Mantua; and again, in her tomb when, having drunk the poison, Romeo slips lifelessly to the floor, his fingers slipping from Juliet’s as he falls. Zeffirelli thus uses the motif of their hands parting both as a symbol of their love and to imbue the audience with a sense of foreboding and prepare them for the tragic ending.

25This duality of language and images is used throughout the play and its adaptations to conflate the differences between love and death, and to foreshadow the tragic fate that awaits Romeo and Juliet. Marjorie Garber describes the significance of such linguistic constructs in guiding the audience through the complexities of the plot towards a realization that there is only one possible fate for the doomed lovers: “they help the audience to understand and interpret what is going on in the play. When, for example, we hear Juliet wishing for night, or imagining Romeo dead in the bottom of a tomb, we experience a sense of anticipated doom that is due not only to our perception as playgoers but to Shakespeare’s excellence as a giver of clues”.41 Successfully translating the complex nuances of Shakespeare’s language to screen is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges facing adaptations, the simultaneity of the audio-visual scene making it difficult to create a space in which the multiple meanings of a single word have time to reveal themselves. However, as Jack Jorgens argues, many Shakespeare movies successfully relish the space for play that is opened up between a word and its meaning(s), with the result that “[t]he richest moments in these films often derive from the expressive possibilities of shifting relationships between words and images”.42 Dudley Andrew suggests that the shifting, contradictory meanings embedded in the language are most successfully explored when the directors allow themselves to fully celebrate those qualities that make a cinematic text unique: “the specificity of the original within the specificity of the cinema. An original is allowed its life, its own life, in the cinema”.43 Many of the adaptations use recurring visual and aural cues to allow the audience to navigate through the nuances of the narratives of love and hate in the manner suggested by Marjorie Garber. Luhrmann, for example, contrasts the flames, both literal and metaphorical, created by the explosive violence with the calm, ethereal motif of water with which the lovers are associated. We first see Juliet floating in her bath, serenely naked and unmoved by the chaos surrounding her. Romeo clears his drug-fuelled mind by dunking his head in a basin of water, and immediately after this first spies Juliet through an aquarium. Juliet delivers her first speech of love for Romeo in a courtyard in which she is illuminated by the shimmering light coming from the pond, a pond into which she and Romeo will fall joyously before revealing their love to each other. All of these scenes suggest a baptism or rebirth, and the water also briefly serves as a place of sanctuary, with Romeo successfully hiding under the surface of the pool from the Nurse. However, water ultimately becomes a symbol of death for the couple, with Tybalt falling into a public fountain after he is shot by Romeo, who then stands despairingly under a thunderous rain shower, which no longer has the power to purify or save him. Romeo falls once more into the pond in Juliet’s courtyard when leaving for Mantua, her premonition that she will never seem him alive again delivered as his head sinks under the water. Luhrmann’s use of water thus succinctly guides the audience through the narrative, merging motifs of life and death, and foreshadowing the tragic ending of the love affair, even as it is just beginning.

26Aural clues are also effectively used throughout the adaptations to deconstruct seemingly opposite themes and link the private moments stolen by Romeo and Juliet together into a chain of events that can end only in their deaths. Zeffirelli uses the sound of a church bell tolling throughout his movie to connect the growing love of his protagonists with the public feud that will overpower and kill them. The bell tolls as we would expect at all the key moments in which the feud directly affects the lives of the lovers: during the first fight scene in the marketplace, after Tybalt’s murder when Romeo declares himself to be “fortune’s fool” and when the Prince delivers his ruling banishing Romeo to Mantua. However, it also tolls during their intimate meetings as if to remind us that each of their actions is inextricably embedded within the violent narrative of the civil feud. For example, during Romeo’s premonition of danger before he first sets eyes on Juliet at the Capulet party, the bell starts to toll just as he utters the words “untimely death”, a clear signal to the audience that the relationship is doomed even before it starts. It tolls again as Juliet excitedly awaits news of Romeo’s proposal of marriage, her happy expectation significantly undermined by this aural reminder of its unhappy end. The bell tolls of course for the final time as crowds converge to carry the coffins of Romeo and Juliet side by side into the church, their love story thus finally subsumed fully into the narrative of the feud.

27The text of the play itself is the source of the duality at the heart of Shakespeare in Love, the motif of a play being performed within the movie effectively splitting the plot in two, allowing the audience to reflect on the myriad external forces that will separate the lovers. In the heady first moments of his romance with Viola, Will can imagine his play ending happily, the convoluted and yet acceptable comic resolution he posits reflective of the plan the Friar will concoct to reunify Romeo and Juliet: “Romeo Montague, a young man of Verona. A comedy of quarrelling families reconciled in the discovery of Romeo to be the very same Capulet cousin stolen from the cradle and fostered to manhood by his Montague mother that was robbed of her own child by the Pirate King!” His first declaration of love, appropriately delivered to her by proxy through Thomas Kent, whom Will does not as yet recognize to be Viola, is expressed through the conceit of deconstructed oppositions: “Tell me how you love her, Will. / Like a sickness and its cure together”. The love speeches from Shakespeare’s play are granted their full dramatic glory through repetition on stage and later in the bedroom where the words are stripped of their theatrical artifice and become simple declarations of love. In rehearsal, Viola (disguised as a boy) and Sam (playing the role of a girl) perform Romeo and Juliet’s tender first meeting, their tentative flirtation slowly building towards their first kiss: “Sin from my lips, Oh trespass sweetly urg’d: / Give me my sin again” (1.5.120-121). That Shakespeare’s words can express passion even in a scenario where Juliet is being played by a boy whose voice is on the verge of breaking is apparent in the reverent silence with which the surrounding actors watch the scene. The desire embedded in the words is so honest that Will, unable to watch even the stage kiss he has written, intervenes to kiss Viola himself. The movie cuts several times between the words being rehearsed on stage and the same words being repeated by Will and Viola in the privacy of her bedroom. These scenes enable Madden to introduce a space between the artificiality of the words of love being delivered on stage as part of a performance, and the capacity of those same words to express the deep love and passion that is growing between Will and Viola.

28Shakespeare in Love’s central concern with the language of the play is acknowledged by Viola on the morning after the first night she and Will have spent together. Echoing the reluctance of her counterpart in Shakespeare’s play to admit that the day has dawned, she suddenly recollects that her lover must leave immediately. In this case, it is not fear of his being caught and executed that worries Viola, but rather the realization that if he does not go, the play will not be completed: “You would leave us players without a scene to read today?” The irony, of course, is that the quicker Will writes, the less time is left for him and Viola to enjoy their relationship. The completion of the play will herald the ending of their stolen romance, its ephemerality acknowledged by Viola: “I am feared, Being in night, all this but a dream, Too flattering-sweet to be substantial”. Indeed, the sanctuary claimed by the lovers both onstage and in Viola’s bedroom is punctured by Wessex who, in a crude parody of Shakespeare’s tender words, has already claimed ownership of Viola: “But why me? / It was your eyes. No, your lips”. Her fate, moreover, is determined by the Queen, the ultimate scriptwriter of the age: “The Queen’s consent is her command”. Viola knows there is nothing she can do to escape her fate: “I will do my duty, my lord”. Here we see a significant deviation from the original play. Will and Viola know there is no point in railing against the choices that the laws of their society are imposing on them – Will after all is married already, and they are from two very different social classes so it was never going to be possible that they would marry each other. Instead, they invest their dreams of a future together in their fictional counterparts. Viola hopes that Juliet at least will achieve her happy ending: “Oh, but it will end well for love?”, but Will realizes that his play is destined to be a tragedy, its lovers separated by forces as intractable as those separating him from Viola: “In heaven perhaps. It is not a comedy I am writing now. A broad river divides my lovers – family, duty, fate – as unchangeable as nature”. Viola’s acknowledgement that a tragic fate is the only poetically right end for a couple from such different worlds: “Yes, this is not life, Will. This is a stolen season” has two important consequences for our interpretation of the ending of both Shakespeare’s play and this adaptation. Firstly, even Viola admits that tragedy is the only ending consistent with the structure of the plot. Secondly, it suggests that Madden’s obligation is to honour Shakespeare’s play as a work of art rather than to allow his protagonists their happy ending. In fact, a rereading of the Sonnets with which Will first wooed Viola indicates that this aim was always at the heart of this adaptation. The adoration of the beloved may be a key theme in many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but even more significant are his musings on the transience of human love in comparison to the permanence of art. Sonnet 18, in which Will glowingly compared Viola’s beauty to “a summer’s day”, reveals its deeper meaning in the concluding rhyming couplet. The beauty of the beloved will never fade because it has been immortalized in poetry: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee”. Appropriately, when Viola is presented to the Queen at Greenwich, their conversation revolves not around love or marriage but on the play as the embodiment of truth and emotion: “Can a play show us the very truth and nature of love? I have not seen anything to settle it yet”. Madden’s movie can thus be read as his attempt to prove that the tragic love story at the heart of Romeo and Juliet continues to resonate with and inspire contemporary audiences.

29Shakespeare in Love is unusually direct in pinpointing the moment at which the play moves from the genre of comedy to tragedy. In Shakespeare’s play, in spite of the harbingers of death that suffuse the language of love from the very start, the violent incursion of the feud into the happiness of the newlyweds is nevertheless sudden and abrupt. Act 3 sees Juliet mourning the slow progress of time towards evening: “Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds, / Towards Phoebus’ lodging” (3.2.1-2); unaware – though the audience is not – that night no longer represents a place of sanctuary for her and Romeo, but rather a precursor of the endless night of death towards which they are inexorably moving. Reflecting on the dramatic shift in tone, Susan Snyder notes that Shakespeare’s intention was to shock audiences who had begun perhaps to think that the purity of their love might be enough to insulate Romeo and Juliet from the surrounding darkness: “Romeo and Juliet is different from Shakespeare’s other tragedies in that it becomes, rather than is, tragic. Other tragedies have reversals, but in Romeo and Juliet the reversal is so radical as to constitute a change of genre: the action and the characters begin in familiar comic patterns and are then transformed – or discarded – to compose the pattern of tragedy”.44 Mercutio’s death is pinpointed by many critics as the moment when the play undergoes this generic transformation. Mercutio was the quintessential comic character in the play, who is still delighting us with his punning even as he lies dying: “ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man” (3.1.101-102). After his death, language loses its playfulness and words which formerly conveyed both darkness and light now signify only death. Susan Snyder comments that: “The element of freedom and play dies with him, and where many courses were open before, now there seems only one. Romeo sees at once that an irreversible process has begun [...]. It is the first sign in the play’s dialogue pointing unambiguously to tragic causation”.45 The inevitability of the tragic ending is further reinforced by Mercutio’s repeated cursing of the feuding families who caused his death: “A plague a’ both your houses” (3.1.111), lines that foresee the Prince’s grim accusation in the final Act.

30Mercutio’s death as a moment of transition is, as Susan Snyder notes, fundamental to understanding the difference in the logic governing the genres of comedy and tragedy: “The tragic world is governed by inevitability, and its highest value is personal integrity. In the comic world “evitability” is assumed; instead of heroic or obstinate adherence to a single course, comedy endorses opportunistic shifts and realistic accommodations as means to an end of new social health”.46 If Romeo and Juliet occupied a comic play, their love could indeed transcend the human laws, even those governing marriage. Their counterparts in Shakespeare’s other comedies defy familial and governmental objections in order to achieve their happy unions. In Much Ado About Nothing, for example, a similar plan concocted by the Friar in which Hero pretends to be dead in order to unite with her intended, is a success and enables the lovers to overcome the obstacles outside forces have put in their path to marriage. In fact, Shakespeare continues to tease his audience throughout Act 3 by dangling the possibility that the scriptural inevitability of the tragic ending might yet be averted. Romeo, after all, was acting in good faith when he intervened to stop the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt, a fact recognized by the Prince who commutes his death sentence to banishment. Although initially distraught by the thought of banishment from Juliet, Romeo is reassured by the Friar’s calm assurance that his plan to reunite the lovers would be successful:

“to Mantua,
Where thou shalt live till we can find a time
To blaze your marriage, reconcile your friends,
Beg pardon of the Prince, and call thee back,
With twenty hundred thousand times more joy
Than thou went’st forth in lamentation” (3.3.159-163)

31Romeo and Juliet even manage to take refuge from the horror of the outside world and enjoy their wedding night, but all too soon, in spite of their attempts to keep it at bay, the outside world in the form of the dawn intrudes on their peace and the tragic plot reasserts its control over their destinies: “It was the lark, the herald of the morn [….] I must be gone and live, or stay and die” (3.3.6,11). Although Romeo attempts to reassure Juliet that they will be reunited before long, Juliet sees Romeo off to exile with a clear premonition of death:

“O God, I have an ill-defining soul,
Methinks I see thee now, thou art so low,
As one dead in the bottom of a tomb,
Either my eyesight fails, or thou look’st pale (3.5.54-57)

32Juliet is correct in her intuition that no human plan will be enough to save her and Romeo from their tragic fate. As Susan Snyder states, “[t]ragic law cannot be altered; it does no good to stop breeding destruction, or to tell gods or human individuals to stop being themselves”.47 In spite of the images of light and transcendence in which their relationship is bathed, because Romeo and Juliet are subjects of a tragic play, their fate cannot be averted by human agency.

33It is worth noting that in spite of the extended conversations Juliet has before the end of the play with her parents, Nurse, Friar and Paris, this scene with two full Acts of the play still to come is the last time she will see Romeo alive. The titular couple, who have defied the confines of language and social convention to dream of a future together, lose all agency from this point in the play, reduced to helpless pawns in the relentless progression of the plot towards its tragic ending. Susan Snyder notes that “[t]his helplessness is the most striking quality of the second, tragic world of Romeo and Juliet. That is, the temper of the new world is largely a function of onrushing events. Under pressure of events, the feud turns from farce to fate”.48 Time also appears to be compressed in the closing Acts, with characters acting urgently and many chances to avert the tragedy missed simply because the characters are moving too quickly to see them. The physical separation of the lovers also heralds the end of the authenticity that set Romeo and Juliet apart from the surrounding society. Language, which in the love scenes was simple and honest, now becomes duplicitous again, with Juliet retreating into double meanings to protect herself from the machinations of her parents, who are determined to quench her growing rebelliousness with a swiftly arranged marriage to Paris:

“Indeed I never shall be satisfied
With Romeo, till I behold him. Dead
Is my poor heart so for a kinsman vex’d” (3.5.98-100)

34The masterful punctuation before “Dead” allows her mother to misread Juliet’s grief for Romeo’s role in Tybalt’s death. Duplicitousness is also at the heart of the Friar’s plan to reunite the lovers, with Juliet’s feigned death the key to their future life together: “And in this borrow’d likeness of shrunk death / Thou shalt continue two and forty hours” (4.1.106-107).

35Most unfortunate of all, their separation also causes Romeo and Juliet to lose faith in each other, as evidenced by Juliet’s nightmare that she will wake from her induced sleep in the vault before Romeo has arrived to rescue her and will die a horrible death of suffocation:

“How if when I am laid into the tomb,
I wake before the time that Romeo
Come to redeem me, there’s a fearful point:
Shall I not then be stifled in the vault?” (4.3.31-34)

36The destructive loss of their unity reaches its climax in Romeo’s hasty acceptance of the news of Juliet’s death and subsequent refusal to believe what his own eyes are clearly telling him, that Juliet lying before him in her tomb is still alive: “Thou art not conquer’d, beauty’s ensign yet / Is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks” (5.3.94-95). The truth in front of Romeo that he is too hasty to read in his impatience to kill himself is another ploy to frustrate the hopes of the audience who know that Romeo is on the verge of realizing that Juliet is still alive but powerless to intervene and stop him from drinking the poison. What the play does in its final two Acts is break the union of the lovers and thus make them susceptible to second guessing each other and the future they dream of having together. Mark Van Doren comments that comedies can propel lovers towards their happy endings because comedy is by its nature a social genre. Tragedies, on the other hand, work on a principle of isolation: “[h]er identification with his is negated by death, conceived as a shut or poisoned eye, which throws the pair back upon their single selves. Each of them dies alone – or, at all events, in the belief that the other lies dead, and without the benefit of a recognition scene”.49 The conclusion of the love story is undoubtedly anti-climactic. Romeo dies without realising that Juliet is still alive; while the poignancy of Juliet’s final moments with her dead husband is significantly undermined by the incursions into her tomb of the Friar, a Boy and a Watch, leaving her but a snatched opportunity to mourn Romeo before she rather hurriedly kills herself: “Yea noise? Then I’ll be brief. O happy dagger. / This is thy sheaf, there rust and let me die” (5.3.174-175).

37Having emotionally invested in the tragic lovers and hoped against all evidence to the contrary that they could transcend their fate, the audience is to a large extent denied the opportunity to enjoy the “purification” of emotion cited by Aristotle as the goal of catharsis,50 in part because they have been so well prepared for the tragic ending but also because the deaths are immediately subordinated to the primacy of the feud plot. Thus instead of concluding with a central tragic image of Romeo and Juliet lying dead beside each other, the play embarks on what Barbara Hogdon describes as “a series of seemingly anti-climactic events analogous to those in the final scene of a detective fiction: alarmed discoveries, accusations, hurried questions”.51 Shakespeare’s decision in a play marked by the speed of its tragedy “to slow down (once it’s too late), to have and take all the time in the world to resolve its ‘two hours’ traffic’”52 may provide the playwright with the opportunity to ensure that the civil feud is finally brought to an end but it certainly tests the patience of an audience whose loyalty is undoubtedly with the romantic couple. Shakespeare even allows the families to get public atonement for their role in the deaths, the last exchange in the play between the fathers as they plan a monument to their dead children: “O brother Montague, give me thy hand [….] But I can give thee more, / For I will raise her statue in pure gold” (5.5.306). It is perhaps not surprising that from early on in the play’s staging history, directors have tended to condense the concluding scenes in order to redirect the play’s focus back onto the final unity in death of Romeo and Juliet: “18th- and 19th-century theatrical practice concentrated upon the lovers’ deaths and then provided a symbolic tableau of reconciliation, constructing closure as a condensed image of the privileged lovers”.53 Such an ending has the effect of creating what Barbara Hogdon calls “its Liebstod-like myth of timeless tryst in the tomb, to preserve its ‘golden story’ – including all the lyrical beauty of its verse – inviolate as a precious icon of young love, glorified tragedy, and immortal ‘Shakespeare’”.54 The consequence, as John Andrews notes is that the eternal passion of Romeo and Juliet survives undiminished into the present: “Its protagonists are now enshrined on the high altar of love’s sanctuary”.55 This description of their love as “enshrined” succinctly suggests the elevated, almost sacred, place occupied by the tragic protagonists in the hearts of all those who love the play. Consequently – and in spite of the primacy of the tragic plot in Shakespeare’s text – the love story is thus ultimately victorious in performances of the play.

38As Romeo’s role in Tybalt’s death is the climactic moment of the play in which his entrapment in the tragic plot becomes irrefutable and the consequences of his actions are no longer within his control, it is worth examining how each of the adaptations handle the scene and its role in preparing the audience for the end of the play. In Shakespeare’s play, Tybalt returns to the scene of Mercutio’s death and taunts Romeo, blaming him for Mercutio’s death: “Thou wretched boy that didst consort him here, / Shalt with him hence” (3.1.135-136). In the circumstances, Romeo can hardly be criticized for rising to Tybalt’s bait and the subsequent fight is but briefly mentioned: “They fight. Tybalt falls”. The fight is important in structural terms in that it propels Romeo on the path to destruction, but examining his motivation is not relevant in a play which has the law of tragedy as its guiding philosophy. Convincing though the immutability of the law of tragedy would have been to the Elizabethans, the adaptations, reflecting a more secular world, locate the tragic fate of the protagonists at least partly in their own actions. Zeffirelli and Luhrmann both offer Romeo time to reflect on his actions after Mercutio’s death by having Tybalt leave the scene. The crowd try to prevent Zeffirelli’s Romeo from pursuing Tybalt, but he escapes from their clutches and chases through Verona’s warren of old streets until he finds and challenges him. He is thus significantly more culpable than Shakespeare’s original in seeking vengeance for the death of his friend. The protracted duel is violent and angry, resulting in both men rolling around in the dirt with their clothes torn, thus illustrating the innate hatred that divides the families, but when Tybalt does die it is because he falls almost by accident on Romeo’s sword. Zeffirelli thus mitigates Romeo’s role in seeking vengeance by absolving him from blame for Tybalt’s death. The unfairness of finding himself a murderer on the day of his wedding is epitomized in his anguished howl “O I am fortune’s fool” which is uttered as the bell once again starts to toll, reminding us that Romeo’s destiny was already written in stone. Jack Jorgens notes that Zeffirelli’s filming of the fight sequence reiterates Romeo’s helplessness in escaping his tragic destiny: “Romeo is pursued along a dark, tunnellike street [….] the imprisoning walls and mazelike streets symbolizing centuries of tradition and a social system hardened against change underscore the central theme of this [….] film – ‘youth against a hostile society’”.56 When the Prince delivers his ruling again to the sound of the bell tolling, Zeffirelli effectively closes down the possibility that there could be any change in fortune for his hapless lovers.

39Luhrmann restructures the events slightly in order to suggest moments when the fate of the protagonists could possibly be altered. When he encounters an enraged Tybalt on the beach, Romeo tries to run away but is caught and viciously beaten up by Tybalt. When Mercutio intervenes and is killed, Tybalt drives away in his car while Romeo stays to comfort and mourn his friend. Night falls on Romeo and with time thus passing, the audience is given the space to believe that he will not after all make his fatal intervention. Suspense is further heightened when the scene cuts to a joyous Juliet, waiting excitedly for her wedding night and reflecting on her transcendent love for Romeo:

“Give me my Romeo, and when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine,
That all the world will be in love with night” (3.2.22-26)

40Juliet appears unconscious of the foreboding embedded in her words, but for the audience, who know that Romeo is about to commit his fatal act of murder, this reference to Romeo’s impending death reaffirms the powerlessness of the lovers to escape their prewritten fate. The proscenium arch on the beach that serves as a backdrop to Mercutio’s death is a further visual reminder that Luhrmann’s movie is an adaptation and thus scripturally bound to adhere to Shakespeare’s plot, in spite of any desire the director might express to release Romeo from his destiny. As if driven by a force he is too strong to resist, a frenzied Romeo eventually drives after Tybalt and after a frantic car chase dramatically confronts and shoots him. Tybalt’s lifeless fall into water and the thunderous rain that begins to fall on Romeo recollects the audience to the superhuman forces that govern the actions of the characters in the movie and underlines the lack of power Romeo has to resist them.

41From this point on, Zeffirelli and Luhrmann follow the prescribed sequence of events towards the tragic ending, while making significant cuts to the action and extraneous characters in order to focus more closely on the central protagonists. Dialogue, which has been so central to the expression of both love and hate, is now pared to a minimum in Zeffirelli’s movie. Juliet knows immediately of Romeo’s role in Tybalt’s death and is thus spared the protracted series of recognitions and reversals that Shakespeare’s Juliet suffers. Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet demonstrate considerably less awareness than their Shakespearean counterparts that their fates are set in stone, neither of them verbalizing the premonitions that darken their final meeting in the play. After their romantic wedding night, Juliet sees Romeo off to Mantua almost cheerfully, although the final image of their hands slipping apart as Romeo clambers down from the balcony foreshadows their final parting which is now only a short time in the future. What is emphasized in this movie is how isolated Juliet is after Romeo’s departure. Bullied by her parents into accepting Paris and devastated at her betrayal by the Nurse, who urges her to forget Romeo, she epitomizes youth and helplessness. Easily persuaded of the success of the Friar’s complicated plan, she drinks the potion without hesitation and is carried to her funeral draped in white sheets and flowers, motifs that reflect her loyalty to peace and love and unwilling embroilment in the civil hatred that has destroyed her. Impatience rather than malign fate prevents Romeo from receiving the Friar’s letter on time, his haste in returning to Verona meaning that he actually passes the Friar who is taking a break from his journey at the side of the road. Once back in Verona, Romeo goes straight to Juliet’s crypt, his scenes with the apothecary and Paris both omitted, in part to simplify the story, in part as Deborah Cartmell suggests, to preserve his innocence which would be tainted by association with another murder.57

42The presence in the crypt of the dusty corpses of Capulet ancestors, as well as Tybalt, situates Juliet’s death amidst the generations responsible for perpetuating the interfamilial hatred. Close shots of Romeo’s embrace of Juliet’s lifeless body and a lingering shot of their lips touching create an intimacy for Romeo’s final speech, and Zeffirelli returns to the motif of their hands, with Romeo’s fingers the last things to touch Juliet before he falls to the ground with his arms outstretched. The Friar has just entered the crypt and seen Romeo when Juliet begins to wake. Terrified by the realization that his human plan has been thwarted by forces stronger than he, the Friar – previously a source of strength and comfort for Juliet – becomes hysterical and rushes out of the crypt leaving Juliet alone with Romeo. Crying helplessly like a child, Juliet hears the watch arriving and kills herself quickly, her head coming to rest chin-to-chin with Romeo’s, the “star-cross’d lovers” visually united on their deathbeds. Without any further dialogue, the tolling bells accompany the bodies of Romeo and Juliet as they are carried side by side through the main square to the steps of the church, the slow, silent progress of the accompanying crowd and the sombre black clothes they are all wearing contrasting vividly with the cacophonous noise of previous scenes. The Prince delivers his angry final rebuke to the feuding families before the bodies are carried into the church to the accompaniment of Laurence Olivier’s delivery of the final lines. As the closing credits roll, the families walk together into the church for the funerals. Barbara Cartmell suggests that Zeffirelli’s ending returns to his central theme of youth versus age: “The older generation are reduced and condemned in this production in order to give full expression to the young”.58 It is notable that Zeffirelli denies the grieving fathers their chance to atone for their role in the deaths with their plans to erect statues in honour of their children, and thus with the exception of the final lines spoken by the Prince, the play ends with Juliet’s dying words of grief and anger.

43Luhrmann’s concluding scenes are structurally similar to Zeffirelli’s but he goes much further in hinting to the audience that the tragic ending may yet be resisted. An alternative ending is imagined by the Friar, who still has faith that the marriage of Romeo and Juliet can reconcile the warring families. His hope is illustrated by a montage of newspaper clippings, in which reports of the “ancient grudge” are replaced by a headline reading “Montague and Capulet reconcile” above a photograph of the heads of the families shaking hands. Most significantly, a newspaper clipping showing Romeo and Juliet kissing is included in the montage. As their hidden love was never photographed, let alone published in a newspaper, this brief moment raises the possibility of an alternative future where their relationship is allowed to exist in public. As in Zeffirelli’s script, malign fate does not interfere to prevent the delivery of the Friar’s letter to Romeo. Instead he does not hear the postman or see the note he has left indicating that an “urgent message” awaits him. Initially reluctant to believe the bad news: “Hast thou no letters for me from the Friar?”, Romeo jumps in his car to race back to Verona, oblivious to the postman standing almost directly in his path with the letter from the Friar in his hand, thus missing several opportunities to learn the truth about Juliet’s reported death.

44The city is chaotic and busy when Romeo returns, the atmosphere of fear and foreboding heightened by the noise of the police helicopters and sirens, while a percussive version of Prokofiev’s “Montagues and Capulets” rhythmically ticks down the final frantic minutes of his life. Caught in the spotlight of a police helicopter, Romeo rushes to buy the poison, taking a hostage and getting involved in a gunfight with the police before taking refuge in the church. Once inside, the frenetic atmosphere quietens and Romeo leaves the shadowy entrance, following the light to where Juliet is lying on her deathbed, an elaborate theatrical set-piece, placed on an elevated platform (a sort of stage perhaps), surrounded by candles and illuminated crucifixes, and draped in flowers and white lace. Luhrmann allows time to slow down as Romeo, and with him the audience, slowly approaches the centre of the room, where he places his gun jarringly on Juliet’s bed. While speaking about her undiminished beauty, Romeo pauses to question whether she can really be dead before continuing on with his farewell speech. This is one of a number of pauses Luhrmann introduces into this final scene as a means of heightening suspense and hinting that Shakespeare’s narrative may be open to resistance. Also masterly is his use of split-second timings to indicate how easily the tragedy could convert to a happy ending even at this late stage. Juliet moves her fingers when Romeo kisses her hands – the audience seeing what Romeo does not. When he kisses her on the lips, recollecting every fairy-tale ever written, Juliet opens her eyes and smiles happily at her beloved just as he raises the poison to his lips. A fraction of a second too late, she caresses his check, but fate has succeeded and Romeo must live his last seconds with the realization that one final glance at Juliet would have averted his death. Significantly, Luhrmann does allow Romeo and Juliet to spend their last moments together and to share a final kiss. Romeo is given the final words in this adaptation, whispering “Thus with a kiss I die” while one solitary tear runs down his cheek. Juliet looks wordlessly around the room before she shoots herself, staring directly and defiantly into the camera. The aerial shot of the lovers surrounded by a sea of candles epitomizes the “enshrining” of their love story noted above by John Andrews. The movie then freezes, creating a division between the immortal love story and the framing context. The movie ends quietly, with the bodies being taken off in ambulances while the shocked families and silent crowd listen to Colonel Prince’s angry words. The footage then attains the grainy quality of a cheaply shot news report, before the newscaster concludes her television bulletin into the latest casualties of the violence. Lacking the authority of the news report which opened the movie, the newscaster’s voice slowly fades away before the image goes dead. Luhrmann it seems does not want to give any further attention to the cycle of violence lest it dilute the emotional impact of the dramatic final death scene.

45The violence is already over by the time Will’s new play is ready for its first public performance in Shakespeare in Love. The rival playhouses have united in the face of attempts by the Master of the Revels to censor the arts and Viola is married and about to leave England for Virginia. Only the intervention of fate – the Friar’s letter or, in this case, an advertisement for the play which arrives on time – brings Viola back to the theatre for one final performance. Playing Juliet for the first time to Will’s Romeo, the significance of each speech is doubled. This time, however, instead of the double meanings introducing contradictions into the text, the message of love embedded in the play is reinforced, the words as valid to Romeo and Juliet as they are to Will and Viola. As the final words are intoned by the narrator and the mesmerized audience jump to their feet, Will and Viola rise from their death bed and share their one and only public embrace. The spectators in the theatre react emotionally to the tragic deaths of Romeo and Juliet, but no less poignant is the fate that awaits Will and Viola, for as soon as the final words of the play are spoken, they too will be separated forever. Having married Wessex, Viola must now leave England and face an unhappy future: “How is this to end? / As stories must when love is denied, with tears and a journey”.

46This is not, however, the final word on their relationship. Having won his wager and demonstrated that his play could show “the very truth and nature of love”, Will symbolically defeats and humiliates his enemy Wessex. Viola too can imagine an alternative future for herself, albeit not in reality but in her reincarnation as the heroine of Will’s next play. Begging him to go back to the start of their story and write a different fate for them, Will begins to imagine the heroine of Twelfth Night, who will survive a shipwreck and a convoluted plot involving mistaken identities until she finally marries her true love: “It will be a love story. For she will be my heroine for all time. And her name will be Viola”. The happy ending achieved in this movie is not for its hapless lovers who, like their counterparts in all other versions of Romeo and Juliet, are subject to the unfair machinations of fate. Rather the victor is the play itself which, as evidenced by the number of its adaptations and the unfading beauty of its language, has truly achieved immortality.


ANDREW, Dudley, “Concepts in Film Theory”, in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (eds.), Film Theory and Criticism, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009.

ANDREWS, John F., “Introduction”, in John F. Andrews (ed.), Romeo and Juliet: Critical Essays, New York & London, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993.

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1 Unless noted otherwise, all the quotations are taken from: William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, London, Penguin Books, 1994, p. 18.

2 Muriel C. Bradbrook, Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry: A Study of his Earlier Work in Relation to the Poetry of the Time, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1951, p. 121.

3 Franco Zeffirelli, Romeo and Juliet, Paramount, 1968.

4 Baz Luhrmann, William Shakespeare’s Romeo+Juliet, Twentieth Century Fox, 1996.

5 John Madden, Shakespeare in Love, UCA, 1998.

6 Brian McFarlane, Novel to Film: An Introduction to the Theory of Adaptation, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 8.

7 Id.

8 Erica Sheen, “Introduction”, in Robert Giddings and Erica Sheen (eds.), The Classic Novel: From Page to Screen, Manchester & New York, Manchester University Press, 2000, p. 4.

9 Andy Bennett, Culture and Everyday Life, London & California, SAGE Publications, 2005, p. 4.

10 Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”, in Anthony Easthope and Kate McGowan (eds.), A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, UK, Open University Press, 2008, p. 319.

11 Id.

12 Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?”, in Sean Burke (ed.), Authorship: From Plato to the Postmodern, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1995, p. 237.

13 Erica Sheen, op. cit., p. 5.

14 William Shakespeare, op. cit., p. 15.

15 Susan Bennett, Performing Nostalgia: Shifting Shakespeare and the Contemporary Past, New York & London, Routledge, 1996, p. 2.

16 William B. Worthen, Shakespeare and the Authority of Performance, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 2.

17 Harry Berger, Jr. “Bodies and Texts”, in Representations, vol. 17, Winter 1987, p. 153.

18 William B. Worthen, op. cit., p. 3-4.

19 Patricia Tatspaugh, “The tragedies of love on film”, in Russell Jackson (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 142.

20 Robert McKee, Story, USA, Regan Books, 1999, p. 107.

21 Ibid., p. 8.

22 John F. Andrews, “Introduction”, in John F. Andrews, (ed.), Romeo and Juliet: Critical Essays, New York & London, Garland Publishing Inc., 1993, p. ix.

23 Robert McKee, op. cit., p. 311.

24 Aristotle, Poetics, trans. Malcolm Heath, London, Penguin Books, 1996, p. 10.

25 Michael Tierno, Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters, New York, Hyperion, 2002, p. 4.

26 Aristotle, op. cit., p. 18.

27 Ibid., p. 13.

28 McKee, op. cit., p. 89.

29 Thomas Schatz, “Hollywood Genres”, in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (eds.), Film Theory and Criticism, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 572.

30 Muriel C. Bradbrook, op. cit., p. 121.

31 Harry Levin, “Form and Formality in Romeo and Juliet, in John F. Andrews, (ed.), op. cit., p. 45.

32 Id. It should be added however that Shakespeare did not matter with genres as they were not yet labelled as such.

33 Marjorie Garber, “Romeo and Juliet: Patterns and Paradigms”, in John F. Andrews (ed.), op. cit., p. 125.

34 Carol Chillington Rutter, “Looking at Shakespeare’s Women on Film”, in Russell Jackson (ed.), op. cit., p. 261-262.

35 Susan Snyder, “Romeo and Juliet: Comedy into Tragedy”, in John F. Andrews (ed.), op. cit., p. 75.

36 Deborah Cartmell, “Franco Zeffirelli and Shakespeare”, in Russell Jackson (ed.), op. cit., p. 223.

37 Id.

38 Patricia Tatspaugh, op. cit., p. 148.

39 Marjorie Garber, op. cit., p. 122.

40 Derek A. Traversi, “An Approach to Shakespeare”, in John F. Andrews (ed.), op. cit., p. 19.

41 Marjorie Garber, op. cit., p. 130.

42 Jack J. Jorgens, Shakespeare on Film, Bloomington & London, Indiana University Press, 1977, p. 17.

43 Dudley Andrew, “Concepts in Film Theory”, in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (eds.), op. cit., p. 375.

44 Susan Snyder, op. cit., p. 73.

45 Ibid., p. 77.

46 Ibid., p. 73.

47 Ibid., p. 74.

48 Ibid., p. 77.

49 Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare, in John F. Andrews (ed.), op. cit., p. 50.

50 Aristotle, op. cit., p. 10.

51 Barbara Hogdon, “Absent Bodies, Present Voices: Performance Work and the Close of Romeo and Juliet’s Golden Story”, in John F. Andrews (ed.), op. cit., p. 246.

52 Id.

53 Ibid., p. 246-247.

54 Ibid., p. 245.

55 John F. Andrews, (ed.), op. cit., p. ix.

56 Jack Jorgens, op. cit., p. 89.

57 Deborah Cartmell, op. cit., p. 218.

58 Ibid., p. 218-219.

Pour citer ce document

Par Aoileann Ní Éigeartaigh, «“A glooming peace with it this morning brings”: Struggling Against the Tragic Ending of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], II. Adaptations cinématographiques, Shakespeare en devenir, N°14 - 2019, mis à jour le : 18/02/2022, URL : https://shakespeare.edel.univ-poitiers.fr:443/shakespeare/index.php?id=1738.

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Dr Aoileann Ní Éigeartaigh is a lecturer in literature and cultural studies at Dundalk Institute of Technology (Republic of Ireland). She studied for a BA (English and History) and MA (English Literature and Publishing) at NUI Galway, before doing her PhD in American Literature at the University of Edinburgh. She is the co-editor of Borders and Borderlands in Contemporary Society (Cambridge Scholars, 2006), Rethinking Diasporas: Hidden Narratives and Imagined Borders (Cambridge Scholars, 2007) a ...

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