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Analysis of Film Adaptations of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

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Table of contents

    Before Juliet
    Post mortem

Romeo and Juliet – as characters, as symbols of love, and as symbols of innocence torn apart by a hardheaded society – are cultural icons so ingrained in society that they are often synonymous with the very concepts they represent. After centuries of study and countless productions around the globe, Romeo and Juliet remains, line by line, exactly as it was recorded in the quartos and folios of Shakespeare’s players themselves. Although the text itself is unchanging, different visions of the work offer a wealth of interpretations of this single, 3006-line play. This study will focus on two cinematic representations of the play: Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 work, and Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 production. In each of these films, the final scene of the play serves as the ultimate expression of each filmmaker’s intended message. Zeffirelli, holding true to the text, reveals that despite their attempts to ignore it, the lovers in their final scene remain a part of the suffocating society that rules the rest of their lives, as revealed by the omnipresence of the outside world in their most intimate moments. Luhrmann’s adaptation of the final scene, however, suggests that Romeo and Juliet have created an idealized world inhabited by themselves alone. By studying both directors’ presentations of the events prior to, during, and after the lovers’ encounter in Act Five, scene three, their respective visions come to light. In the final scene of their renditions of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, both Zeffirelli and Luhrmann take artistic liberties in adapting the scene: Zeffirelli in his somewhat selective modification of the script, and Luhrmann in his striking alteration of the original sequence.


Although Zeffirelli has openly admitted to altering Romeo and Juliet in an effort to make it more palatable to younger generations, thus allowing “the plays to be enjoyed by ordinary people,” he does so in a manner that has not “succumbed to the too-easy updating that can come with modern dress” and the “latest teenage fad” (Hapgood 80, 84). Throughout the film, Zeffirelli remains remarkably loyal to the Shakespearean text, making “necessary sacrifices and compromises” only where perceived “non-essentials are concerned” (Hapgood 82).

Before Juliet

Initially, the most striking aspect of the film is its setting. Throughout the film, the city of Verona is depicted using a somewhat subdued, prevalently brown, color scheme. There is an “emphasis on a realistic atmosphere,” with “restrained colors” and a “dusty” feel (Hapgood 86). Balthasar and Romeo’s journey from Mantua to Verona maintains this air; there is no notable difference in the environment as they travel from the region of exile, to Verona itself, and even to the interior of the tomb. Upon arriving at the tomb, Romeo leaves Balthasar outside of the building, hurriedly bidding him farewell (Shakespeare V.III.42). Despite this dismissal, Balthasar awaits Romeo’s return outside the Capulet tomb, thus revealing that the outside world continues to exist of its own accord and without regard to Romeo’s desires. According to the sequential entrances in the play, Paris would be the next character to enter the Capulet tomb – in fact, Shakespeare emphasizes this fact by giving the young bachelor over 30 lines of praise for his lifeless fiance before Romeo cuts his lament short by slaying the prince.

The Zeffirelli version, however, finds Paris to be a “necessary sacrifice” at the altar of the director’s vision. Although this fight sequence was initially shot, it was “finally cut because if Romeo was a murderer,” the “wave of emotion that makes Romeo’s suicide acceptable…wouldn’t have worked” (Hapgood 82). In essence, the director made the decision to purge this aspect of Romeo’s actions in order to make his death more digestible to audiences, rather than leaving them with the bitter aftertaste of Paris’ violent death. In Zefirrelli’s film, Romeo wanders without conflict into the Capulet family tomb. As he enters the dusty and unwelcoming tomb, he passes Juliet’s deceased family members, each at different stages of decomposition. These grim and foreboding images of death confront Romeo with the imminent future of his beloved – she too, in flesh and memory, will decay into nonexistence. Furthermore, by displaying the other deceased Capulets, Zeffirelli suggests that Romeo and Juliet are never fully freed from the society that ultimately leads to their demise – all are destined to die.


After having made his way past the corpses, Romeo comes upon Juliet, lying on a cold stone altar and covered in a thin cloth similar to those adorning the dead bodies he has just passed. After dedicating a mere 6 lines of his soliloquy to his “love” and “wife,” Romeo too quickly shifts focus to Juliet’s slain cousin Tybalt (Romeo and Juliet V.III.92). Although Zeffirelli’s screenplay holds true to Shakespeare’s text in this instance, this action detracts from the final special moments that the lovers share, and again suggests the intrusion of outside influences. As Romeo drinks his vial of poison, he thrashes about in obvious agony and kisses Juliet’s hand. In death, Romeo lies not alongside Juliet, but rather alone on the stone floor of the mausoleum. Upon encountering Balthasar outside the tomb, Friar Laurence rushes inside, only to find Romeo dead and Juliet awakening. Although this is again true to Shakespeare’s text, Zeffirelli reveals that society intrudes on the lovers even during this intensely private moment – his is the first face Juliet sees as she awakens. After Laurence’s hurried abandonment of Juliet in the tomb, the sound of voices outside indicates that the night watch will also interrupt the scene momentarily. The discovery of Romeo’s body evokes a shrill cry from Zeffirelli’s young Juliet, and she rashly chooses to kill herself rather than be seized by the trespassers. The lovers’ death ultimately breeds a “sense of irretrievable loss” caused by the outside world and the standards it enforces (Hapgood 84).

Post mortem

Rather than unnecessarily unveiling the details behind their deaths, Zeffirelli closes the scene immediately after Juliet’s death in the same manner as all other scenes in the film: with a fade into the next scene. The lovers are carried out of the tombs together on platforms, with their families following behind. The Prince stands before the congregation in the open plaza, proclaiming, “all are punished” for the pettiness that led to the loss of the youths (Shakespeare V.III.290). The funeral march proceeds, focusing at first on the faces of the deceased lovers, and then on those attending the funeral. Their families come together in their sorrow and mourning as the narrator speaks of “a glooming peace this morning with it brings; the sun, for sorrow, will not show his head: For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo” (Shakespeare V.III.301-302, 305-306). Lady Capulet and Lady Montague embrace as they walk together in grief, a scenario impossible in the context of Shakespeare’s version.


The final scene of Zeffirelli’s rendition of Romeo and Juliet suggests that the lovers are deeply entwined with the other members of society. With the continual interference and involvement of the outside world, Romeo and Juliet are constantly pulled back into the world that society dictates for them regardless of their attempts to escape it.

Franco Zeffirelli said of Luhrmann’s adaptation: “The film didn’t update the play, it just made a big joke out of it. But apparently the pseudo-culture of young people today wouldn’t have digested the play unless you dressed it up that way, with all those fun and games” (Donaldson 61). Michael Anderegg responded to this criticism by writing, “At first glance, Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet could be mistaken for yet another (mis)appropriation of Shakespeare’s play for purposes of parody or even burlesque, a hip (hop?) retelling aimed at an irredeemably low-brow audience of clueless teenagers inhabiting an intellectually bankrupt culture.” In fact, however, Luhrmann is not “an iconoclast or vulgarian” but rather is a “conserver or restorer intent on breaking down the cultural encrustations that have made Shakespeare ‘highbrow’, rarefied, effeminate, and boring” (Anderegg 70). Jonathan Bate, King Alfred Professor of Literature at the University of Liverpool, endorsed Luhrmann’s work, writing, “The best Shakespeare is always Shakespeare made contemporary, which is why one of the greatest achievements of our time is Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet film” (Anderegg 70).

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Analysis of Film Adaptations of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. (2018, November 04). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 4, 2023, from
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