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Perhaps among the most dismal of passages in all of history is the final scene of Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare. In this scene, Act 5, Scene 3, Romeo, who believes Juliet to be dead, visits the tomb where her body rests, encountering Paris outside (Shakespeare 5. 3. 1-69). They fight with their swords, and Romeo kills him before entering the tomb and finding Juliet (Shakespeare 5. 3. 70-108). He drinks his poison and is found dead by Friar Laurence just as Juliet is awakening (Shakespeare 5. 3. 109-172). The friar, frightened by a noise, leaves Juliet alone with her dead husband, where she desperately stabs herself and dies (Shakespeare 5. 3. 173-184). Romeo and Juliet has been the subject of several film adaptations, including Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968) and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1997). These two directors approach this poignant scene in starkly contrasting ways, specifically how they interpret Juliet’s character. Zeffirelli views Juliet as a determined, yet somewhat impulsive girl, while Luhrmann imagines her to be more level-headed.
Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet is set in the same place and time period as the play: 14th century Verona, Italy. Originally, this scene begins with Romeo meeting, and eventually killing, Paris outside the Capulet tomb. However, Zeffirelli chose to exclude this part of the scene. Possible reasons this was done could be that he wanted to focus on the tragedy of the lovers in the final moments of the movie, or that he didn’t wish to villainize Romeo when he is supposedly mourning. Instead, Zeffirelli begins the scene with the events following Paris’s death. Romeo enters the dim, dank room in search of Juliet. He passes several other dead bodies before finding her. She is wearing a gold long-sleeved dress and headpiece, both decorated with beads. A sheer white sheet covers her, and the delicate plucking of a harp plays the movie’s theme as Romeo pulls it back. He gazes fondly upon her and remarks how beautiful she is, even in death. His eyes lift from Juliet and fall on the deceased Tybalt, whom he had killed in Act 3 (Shakespeare 3. 1. 140-145). He apologizes sincerely, then returns to Juliet. He buries his head in the sheet covering her and sobs. The music rises and falls again before reaching its climax when Romeo drinks from the vial of poison. He takes Juliet’s hand in his and kisses it. “Thus with a kiss I die,” he says as he falls dead (Shakespeare 5. 3. 123). With his dying breath, Romeo states that his last action will be a gesture of love.
Moments later, Friar Laurence arrives and finds Romeo’s lifeless body on the ground (Zeffirelli). As the friar mourns this new loss, Juliet’s fingers begin to move and she wakes up slowly. Despite the friar’s best efforts to bring Juliet away from the scene, she catches sight of Romeo. Friar Laurence pulls her arm hurriedly, but she refuses to leave. “I dare no longer stay!” he shouts several times, exiting hastily (Shakespeare 5. 3. 172). He doesn’t wish to leave Juliet, but he knows that if he doesn’t come away now, he will be caught by the night watch. The music speeds up and becomes louder before stopping suddenly, leaving Juliet in silence as she walks slowly towards Romeo, her face plastered with horror and shock. She comes to kneel beside him, resting his head in her hands and finding the small vial. After concluding that Romeo had drunk poison from the vial, she frantically brings it to her lips, only to find it empty. “O churl! drank all, and left no friendly drop to help me after?” she says, pained (Shakespeare 5. 3. 176-177). She is angry with Romeo for not leaving some poison for her. Just as Romeo was suicidal when told Juliet is dead, Juliet wishes to kill herself now as well. She kisses him in hopes that there is still some poison left on his lips. She pulls away, however, with a look of anguish, saying, “Thy lips are warm” (Shakespeare 5. 3. 180)! Juliet knows that only minutes ago, Romeo was alive. To have had her dream come so close to reality, only to be abruptly cut short, is a miserable realization for Juliet. She weeps, clinging to Romeo and wailing. Shouting voices from outside pull her from her love. Knowing that people will soon be entering the room, Juliet yells lividly. She spies Romeo’s dagger and snatches it up, determined. “O happy dagger!” she exclaims, “This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die” (Shakespeare 5. 3. 182-183). Welcoming death, she thrusts the blade into her stomach and moans. She dies with her head resting on Romeo’s shoulder, signifying her desire to die with him.
While Zeffirelli altered a few aspects of this scene, Luhrmann greatly transformed it. Most notably, he changed the setting from Italy during the Renaissance, to L.A. in the 1990s. Though he modernized the setting of the story, he did not do so with the script, choosing instead to quote Shakespeare directly. Like Zeffirelli, Luhrmann did not include Romeo’s fight with Paris. However, unlike Zeffirelli, Luhrmann has in its place Romeo taking a man hostage with his gun while the police are chasing him. Luhrmann might have done this to show how desperate Romeo was in that instant. Another element Luhrmann changed was Juliet’s resting place. Originally, she is laid in the Capulet tomb. In Luhrmann’s film, she is placed in a church. After Romeo releases his hostage, he enters this church and follows a pathway flanked by neon crosses. The music, which had previously been absent, begins to shift from a barely audible note to high-pitched singing similar to opera, growing louder as Romeo nears Juliet at the end of the pathway. Rising in intensity, the music heightens the suspense of the scene while also exuding a sense of solemnity. Juliet, wearing a white long-sleeved gown reminiscent of a wedding dress, is surrounded by numerous candles and holds a small bouquet of flowers. Viewing this picture, I feel that Romeo is being mocked, because this scene would be identical to that of a wedding if Juliet were alive. Romeo sits beside her and strokes her face and hair adoringly, saying, “My love. My wife. Death, that hath sucked the honey of thy breath, hath had no power yet upon thy beauty” (Shakespeare 5. 3. 94-96). Romeo whispers these words, amazed that Juliet’s beauty has not been affected by her death. After these lines, in the original play and in Zeffirelli’s film, Romeo notices the dead Tybalt. However, as this scene is set in a church and not a tomb, Tybalt’s body is elsewhere, and this event does not occur in Luhrmann’s adaptation. Luhrmann possibly wanted to focus solely on the two main characters in this, their last scene.
After speaking fondly to Juliet once more, Romeo breaks off the ring hanging from his neck and places it on her finger, again echoing a wedding (Luhrmann). In this movie, Juliet begins to awaken before Romeo dies, another divergence from the play. Her fingers twitch as Romeo utters his final monologue, retrieving his vial of poison. As he puts it to his lips, Juliet’s eyes flutter open. When she first sees Romeo, she smiles contentedly. Still somewhat asleep, Juliet fails to realize what Romeo is doing and strokes his face. She is too late, though, as the poison has already passed his lips. Romeo turns to her in shock, grabbing her hand, and the music rises to accentuate the tragedy unfolding. Juliet, now fully awake, looks on in confusion as Romeo starts convulsing. After discovering the empty vial, she exclaims, “Drank all, and left no friendly drop to help me after” (Shakespeare 5. 3. 176-177)? When Romeo doesn’t answer she whispers, “I will kiss thy lips. Haply some poison yet doth hang on them” (Shakespeare 5. 3. 177-178). Juliet, unable to cope with the thought of living without Romeo, decides she would rather die, so she kisses him in an effort to ingest enough poison to kill her. Romeo faintly replies with, “Thus with a kiss I die” (Shakespeare 5. 3. 123). Seconds after murmuring this, his head falls to the side, lifeless. Juliet stares at him, tears forming in her eyes. She turns away, and a ragged sob escapes her lips. She is completely silent as she perceives Romeo’s gun and carefully handles it. She observes the weapon, as if deliberating whether or not to use it. Juliet cannot see a way to go on without Romeo, so ultimately she decides to act upon her feelings. She delicately places the gun to her temple and looks up, acknowledging the severity of her actions. Her prolonged silence combined with the absence of any music emphasizes the seriousness of the scene and causes the viewer to feel solemn. The camera cuts from Juliet to an angle farther away, encompassing the entire church, as a gunshot is heard and Juliet’s body slumps forward. The camera returns to the two at an odd angle and pulls out slowly, showing Juliet lying beside Romeo, as peaceful music begins to play softly.
Franco Zeffirelli’s interpretation of Juliet produces a character who acts impulsively, while Baz Luhrmann characterizes her as sensible and coolheaded. In Zeffirelli’s film Juliet, without much thought, tries to kill herself by drinking poison from the vial and shouts out in frustration when that doesn’t work. She seems more strongly affected by Romeo’s death than Luhrmann’s Juliet, who appears somber and contemplative when she puts the gun to her head. Luhrmann’s Juliet is careful, while Zeffirelli’s Juliet is a bit melodramatic. One can conclude from these examples that art is subjective. These directors created two distinct portrayals of a single character from Romeo and Juliet. Although different these two Juliets are both completely valid, because they employ the same information from the original play.
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