ROMEO AND JULIET
SUBJECTS — Drama/England;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Fighting; Romantic Relationships, Suicide; Revenge;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Respect; Caring.
1968 Franco Zeffirelli Version: Age: 12+: Rated PG; Drama; 138 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
1996 Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet:” Age: 14+: Rated PG-13 for scenes of contemporary violence and some sensuality; Drama; 120 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
For a great introduction to Romeo and Juliet, see TWM’s Snippet Lesson Plan for “Shakespeare in Love”: An Introduction to Romeo and Juliet.
“Romeo and Juliet” is probably the greatest romantic tragedy ever written. It still has relevance today. Many students (and TWM) prefer the Zeffirelli version, but many teachers report that students love Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet”. For a critique of the Luhrmann version, see Robert Ebert’s Review of this movie. It’s great to have kids watch them both and compare. Perhaps one could be watched in class and the other after school. This is an excellent extra credit project.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
1968 Franco Zeffirelli Version:
Selected Awards: 1968 Academy Awards: Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design; 1969 Golden Globe Awards: Best Foreign Film; Most Promising Newcomer – Female (Hussey); Most Promising Newcomer Male (Whiting);
1968 National Board of Review Awards: Ten Best Films of the Year, Best Director (Zeffirelli); 1968 Academy Award Nominations: Best Picture; Best Director (Zeffirelli).
Featured Actors: Olivia Hussey, Leonard Whiting, Michael York, Milo O’Shea.
Director: Franco Zeffirelli.
1996 Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet”
Selected Awards: 1997 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration; Australian Film Institute Best Foreign Film; British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards (BAFTA) Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music, Best Production Design, Best Screenplay – Adapted, David Lean Award for Direction.
Featured Actors: Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo, Claire Danes as Juliet, Harold Perrineau as Mercutio, Paul Sorvino as Fulgencio Capulet, Pete Postlethwaite as Father Laurence and Miriam Margolyes as the Nurse.
Director: Baz Luhrmann.
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
“Romeo and Juliet” is an excellent introduction to Shakespeare. The story allows children to work through the issue of tragic romantic relationships. This film also displays the great weakness of suicide, the risks of holding grudges, the danger of fighting, and the often-unintended consequences of revenge.
1968 Franco Zeffirelli Version: MINOR. Shakespeare uses some ribald language, e.g., references to maids lying on their backs etc. There is a little nudity. As Romeo and Juliet awaken after they have spent the night together, there is a full view, from the back only, of the body of the actor playing Romeo. The breasts of the actress playing Juliet are shown, very briefly, as she turns to get out of bed.
1996 Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet”: This has a moderate amount of violence. Some of the dialogue is unintelligible.
European-based civilization has had an evolving attitude about how a spouse should be chosen. In Antiquity and the Middle Ages, among the upper classes where issues of property and power were important, children were their parents’ chattel. They married the person their parents selected. Later, children could veto a parents’ choice. Juliet’s father, Capulet, is ambivalent on this issue. At first he tells Paris, Juliet’s suitor:
But woo her, gentle Paris, get her heart,
My will to her consent is but a part,
An she agree, within her scope of choice
Lies my consent and fair according voice.
— Act One, Scene II, lines 16 – 19.
Later, Capulet reverts to the old style, demanding that Juliet marry Paris, on pain of disinheritance.
In later centuries when children were able to choose their spouse, they were still required to obtain the consent of their parents, usually the father, for a marriage. This lasted longer for girls than for boys. The necessity of a father’s consent to marriage figures in many works of art. See Fiddler on the Roof. The final step is the current situation in the United States and Europe in which children simply inform their parents of their choice of a husband or wife. See Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. For more on the West’s rejection of arranged marriages in favor of love-matches, see the Helpful Background Section in the Learning Guide to “Pride and Prejudice“.
Often quoted phrases from this play:
Juliet: It is an honour that I dream not of.
— Act One, Scene III, line 67.
Romeo: O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear:
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!,
— Act One, Scene V, line 46.
Romeo: But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!
— Act Two, Scene II, line 2.
The beauty and breadth of this metaphor are nothing short of phenomenal:
. . . On the surface, Juliet is nothing like the sun. Nevertheless, she shines. Romeo is inexorably drawn by her gravitational pull. She is the center of his universe. She radiates heat. And her brightness can, of course, burn. In these particulars at least, she is indeed the sun. Shakespeare’s schematic transfer tells us everything we need to know about Juliet — and Romeo’s feelings for her — in just four simple words. James Geary, I is an Other pp. 11 & 12.
Juliet: O Romeo, O Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse they name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
— Act Two, Scene II, line 33.
Juliet: What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet:
— Act Two, Scene II, line 43.
Mercutio: A plague o’both your houses! I am sped.
—Act Three, Scene I, line 141.
Romeo: O, I am fortune’s fool!
— Act Three, Scene I, line 95.
Text and line numbers from The Complete Works of Shakespeare Hardin Craig, editor, Scott, Foresman and Company, Glenview, Ill. 1961.
The Zeffirelli production of “Romeo and Juliet” has been criticized for emphasizing the sentimentality and pathos of the story at the expense of tragedy. The hero and heroine do not ripen in understanding, and their deaths are conceived too simply. There is less insight and defiant anger in this production than can be found in the text. Do Juliet and Romeo see how corrupt and flawed their world is? Do they ever understand that love so intense as theirs is self-destructive and cannot last? Do they really come to terms with life and with death? All of these questions can be better answered than they are in this production. This is not to say that this film is not an excellent introduction to the play. Rather it is a beginning. To plumb the depth of this tragedy both children and adults will benefit from seeing several different productions of “Romeo and Juliet,” each with a different emphasis.
2. Romeo and Juliet both have a tragic flaw. What is it?
They love too strongly, and they act rashly. Their love blinds them to the other possibilities of life. Romeo, finding Juliet dead, need not have renounced his life. He could have lived to cherish her memory and bring peace between the Capulets and the Montagues. He could have devoted his life to helping others or become a monk. The same is true of Juliet, when she awoke to find Romeo dying or dead. Instead, they act quickly and do not consider anything but their love.
3. What does this play tell us about people? Another way to put this question is, “What was Shakespeare trying to tell us in this play about the way that people act?”
Shakespeare, as usual, is trying to tell us many things. Here are five of them. One is that young people in love have a tendency to lose their perspective. Neither Romeo nor Juliet should have killed themselves. Finding their spouse/lover dead was a tragedy, but they compounded it by their suicides. Another thing that Shakespeare was trying to say focuses on the Montagues and Capulets. In their hatred of each other, they lost sight of what was important to them and lost their beloved children. A third issue relates to the dangers of revenge. This is more fully developed in other questions. Fourth, he tells us that suicide is not a good solution to our problems. Fifth, he tells us that deception is dangerous and can lead to tragedy. Each of these themes will be explored more fully in questions set out below.
4. Compare the deceptions in this play and the results of the deceptions with the deceptions and their results in Much Ado About Nothing. What is Shakespeare trying to tell us about deception?
In this play, the deception is the direct cause of the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. In “Much Ado About Nothing” there are several deceptions, some for ill and some for good. It is a comedy. After much trouble caused by the deceptions intended to cause problems, the deceptions for good win out. In both plays the message about deception is the same, i.e., it is very risky and can cause great harm.
5. There is one character in the play who serves as a contrast with Juliet’s character. Who is it, and in what way does she contrast with Juliet?
The contrasting character is the nurse with her practical approach to love. Remember how she advised Juliet to forget her then-husband Romeo and marry Paris? This highlights Juliet’s romantic view of love fixed on one person for whom she will sacrifice all. Juliet’s love, like Romeo’s, is innocent, spiritual, and intense. The love suggested by the nurse is none of those.
6. There are two characters in the play who contrast with and highlight elements of Romeo’s character. Who are they, and in what way do they highlight elements of Romeo’s character?
The two characters are Tybalt and Mercutio. Tybalt cannot renounce violence even though Romeo tries to placate him and avoid a fight. In this, Tybalt is a foil for Romeo, not learning something and not changing in the way the major character learns and changes. As for Mercutio, his view of love is practical and coarse. Romeo’s love, like that of Juliet, is romantic, innocent, spiritual, and intense. It is fixed on one person for whom he will sacrifice all.
7. Watch West Side Story and compare the stories told by the two films.
The similarities include all of the major themes except for the theme of suicide which is not present in “West Side Story.” The basic structure of the plot (except for the suicides) and the cast of characters are similar. The differences include: the location: Verona vs. New York; the time: the Middle Ages vs. the 1950s; the conflict: families fighting for something that was never clear vs. gangs of young people fighting for turf; the ending: double suicides vs. Tony is killed by a rival gang member and Maria survives; role of the church: an important role vs. no role; the means of injury: swords, knives, and poison vs. guns and knives. There are probably more differences.
1. After Romeo has killed Tybalt, Romeo cries out: “I am fortune’s fool.” What does Shakespeare intend to convey with these words?
Shakespeare is telling us that by giving in to raw instincts for revenge, Romeo has lost his ability to influence events. He is at the mercy of fortune. He dances to the tune of the fates.
2. What were the causes of the death of these lovers?
There are a number of good responses. They include the hatred that surrounded them; bad luck; poor choices by Romeo in killing Tybalt; poor choices by the lovers in committing suicide.
3. In the Zeffirelli version: Notice the choreography of the fight between Romeo and Tybalt. Tybalt is getting the best of Romeo, but when Tybalt goes in for the kill, he leaves himself open for a moment. Romeo recovers just enough to take advantage of that opening, and Tybalt is slain. In Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet,” Romeo offers no resistance to Tybalt at the beach despite the fact that Tybalt beats him mercilessly. But when Tybalt leaves, Romeo follows him and suddenly attacks. Now it is Tybalt who is at disadvantage, and he is killed. Is this a realistic way in which fights can happen? What can we learn from these presentations of “Romeo and Juliet” about the risks of fighting? Suggested Response: Both fights are very realistic and show how risky fighting can be. In the Zeffirelli version, Tybalt has Romeo beaten but in the next second Tybalt is killed. In the Luhrmann version, Romeo is so badly beaten that Tybalt leaves, triumphant, only to be pursued by Romeo and killed. What we can learn from this is that fighting is very, very risky. You don’t know how it will turn out.
See Discussion Question #2 in the Discussion Questions section.
4. Have you ever felt a love so strong that it consumed all of your other relationships and all of your other interests? Is a love like this healthy? What are its risks, and what can people who are swept up in intense relationships do to balance their feelings and lives?
A love as strong as Romeo and Juliet’s is not healthy. Life is a multifaceted experience, and when we focus on one aspect of existence to the exclusion of all others, we risk tragedy. Moreover, this type of intense infatuation usually does not last — because it cannot last. To provide a balance of their feelings, people should also focus on other loving relationships with friends and family.
5. If Romeo or Juliet had close relationships with their parents or other members of their family, would they have been so quick to commit suicide?
The strength of the infatuation of Romeo and Juliet was probably a function of the poverty of the emotional resources of their families. People with strong relationships with family and friends will have a defense against this type of love.
See the Quick Discussion Question.
6. What does the act of suicide say to your relatives and friends?
It says that they are not important enough for you to keep on living. It tells them that you do not love them enough to keep living.
7. Romeo killed Tybalt to avenge the death of Mercutio. As one character in Hamlet, Romeo took revenge for the killing of a loved one without thinking through the consequences. Who was the character, and what were the results of the acts of revenge in each case?
The character was Laertes. (Hamlet, when he stabbed the figure behind the curtain in his mother’s bedroom, is another possibility.) In each instance, the act of revenge was unthinking and brought tragedy and death to the person who committed it. Hamlet’s act in killing Claudius at the end of the play was not of this nature. See response to Question #9.
8. State the law of unintended consequences and give three reasons why it applies with particular force to acts of revenge.
The law of unintended consequences holds that whether or not what you do has the effect you intend, it will have consequences that you don’t expect and therefore consequences that you don’t intend. Some unintended consequences can be very unpleasant. Three reasons that the law of unintended consequences applies with particular force to acts of revenge are: (1) In any person’s life, acts of revenge are infrequent. Experience is an excellent teacher. If we have little experience with an action, our anticipation of the consequences will be less accurate than if we have taken the action frequently in the past. (2) Revenge usually affects a number of people, either directly or indirectly. Everyone is different, and when other people are affected by our actions, there is an increased risk that we won’t accurately predict how they’ll react. (3) Revenge is often taken in a rage or a fit of passion. Our actions are often not well considered when we are in such a state. Therefore, the risk that we’ll fail to anticipate some of the consequences is increased.
9. Compare the role of revenge in this play, with the part it played in Hamlet. What is Shakespeare trying to tell us about the revenge in both of these plays?
Shakespeare is trying to tell us that revenge leads to results we do not think of at the time and that are often tragic. Romeo, Laertes and Hamlet (when he stabs the figure behind the curtain in his mother’s bedroom) are committing reflexive unthinking acts of revenge. By the end of his play, Hamlet kills the King, not only for revenge but also for the larger purpose of ridding the state of a cancer. Claudius has demonstrated that he will infect anyone who comes near him and that he cares for no one except himself. For a more complete discussion of this interpretation, see Learning Guide to “Hamlet”
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
1. Describe the moral messages of the play. Another way to put this question is, “What was Shakespeare trying to tell us in this play about the way that people should or should not act?”
There were many things Shakespeare was trying to tell us. Here are a few. One was that when the authority figures in a society (in this case the leaders of the Montague and Capulet families) embrace hatred, they put at risk things that they love and cherish. They also give a license to their young followers to commit acts of violence and aggression. Another message is that the intense and all-consuming love that Romeo and Juliet feel for each other leads to excesses, in this case to suicide. A third major moral message of the play is the evil and unexpected consequences of revenge.
(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)
2. How would Romeo’s life (and Juliet’s) have changed if instead of killing Tybalt, Romeo had dealt peacefully with his anger and he had reported the killing of Mercutio to the Prince?
There is no one correct answer because the question requires a prediction of the future. One good answer is that Tybalt would have been arrested and as a wedding present, the newlyweds could have asked that he be pardoned. This would have helped to resolve the bad feelings of the families.
3. Did the fact that Tybalt had killed Mercutio provide any justification or excuse for Romeo when he killed Tybalt?
No. Romeo took the law into his own hands. The Duke had promised to deal harshly with any breaches of the peace, and Romeo could have relied upon him to punish Tybalt.
4. What effect, if any, does the fact that Tybalt started the fight in which Mercutio was slain have on your evaluation of the ethical positions of Romeo and Tybalt?
It helps, but not much, because Romeo was seeking revenge when he slew Tybalt.
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
5. Had the Montagues and the Capulets forgiven each other, what would have happened to Romeo and Juliet? Justify your answer.
The lovers would not have died, and there would have been no tragedy.
(Do your share to make your school and community better; Cooperate; Stay informed; vote; Be a good neighbor; Obey laws and rules; Respect authority; Protect the environment)
6. How would Romeo’s life (and Juliet’s) have changed if instead of brawling, the Montagues and the Capulets had obeyed the instructions of their Prince and kept the peace?
Romeo and Juliet would have lived, and there would have been no tragedy.
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
Divide the class into groups of 10 or less and assign characters to each student to read. The readings can be among the group or with the rest of the class as audience. Several smaller parts can be assigned to one student. Suggested scenes to read are described in the Bridges to Reading section.
Ask the students to write essays on appropriate questions set out in the Discussion Questions section above.
BRIDGES TO READING
For Teachers: Assign parts to several people in the class and read various scenes. Suggested scenes to read are Act One, Scene V; Act Two, Scene IV; Act Three, Scene I; and Act Three, Scene II. There are annotated editions of Shakespeare’s plays with explanations of the antique phrases set out in the margins or on a page facing the text. You may want to obtain a copy of one of these books from the library before reading scenes from the play.
For Parents: Read scenes from the play as a family. You can compete to see who reads various parts best or just enjoy the beautiful language. After you have read several scenes, see the movie again. If your family has a literary bent, this would be especially fun at family gatherings. All of the aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers can participate.
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:
- Shakespeare on Film by Jack J. Jorgens, Indiana University Press, Bloomington & London, 1977.