Now that February is almost over, it’s time to reflect on Romeo and Juliet, which started as a play by William Shakespeare in the 16th century, and became a text that has been adapted over and over again. Not just that, the narrative is also so heavily embedded within our cultural consciousness – just consider Taylor Swift’s song “Love Story” or even the recent To All the Boys: Always and Forever (Lara Jean references that she and Peter would be like Romeo and Juliet if she went to Berkeley and he went to Stanford, which are competing schools).
Why is this Shakespearean tragedy the love story that endures?
After all, wasn’t Romeo pining for Rosaline right before he sets eyes on Juliet? Doesn’t this suggest that my man was a bit all over the place when it comes to love? Well, love always begins with a sense of infatuation, a curiosity about the other person; their beauty and attractiveness catches your eye, and there is a desire to know more. More importantly, it is his love for Rosaline that leads him to the Capulet party in the first place, since he was hoping to catch a glimpse of her there.
Romeo plays the part of the Petrarchan lover ardently, and the interesting thing is that Juliet doesn’t blindly accept his smooth and hyperbolic words. She calls him out on his use of language, telling him “to swear not by the moon”, because the moon is always changing, and she wants his love for her to be constant. This pushback from Juliet, this banter between them, creates a compelling spark, and the viewers are drawn in despite any reservations. The hushed secrecy of it all, the conspiring words of love they exchange – we want to roll our eyes at the spectacle unfolding, but at the heart of it, we can’t. We were all young once, we all remember that first rush of love that comes with reciprocity, this joyous feeling that someone loves us back in the same way we love them.
This is why, out of all the film adaptations, Baz Luhrmann’s attempt comes the closest to replicating the bard’s intentions. It is a modern setting (which is clear as day from the guns and costuming), but the language used is Shakespeare’s (unlike 2013’s version, with the butchered dialogue), and in the scene where Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo meets Claire Danes’ Juliet, everything is so on-point.
The pair locks eyes through a fish tank (water symbolism is a huge thing in the film), and within those opening moments, we see that interest, that spark, a cute playfulness. Not to mention the swirling beauty of Des’ree’s “I’m Kissing You”, the gorgeous framing of the scene, DiCaprio’s raised eyebrows – it is all perfection. The pair enjoy their meet-cute, before everything goes to hell as they find out who the other is, and what they can never be.
If the Capulets and Montagues weren’t in conflict, Romeo and Juliet’s love story would have been short-lived, a romance that may have dwindled into nothingness given time. But, you see, those are not the love stories we remember or hold to ourselves. It is a tale that cements itself because of the star-crossed lovers element. Romeo and Juliet are not the issue here, it is something external to them, a force greater than the two of them acting on them. Fate is the ultimate villain, for it drags Romeo to a place where he glimpses Juliet and falls for her, and she him, and as this all happens, the pair realise the inevitable outcome of their relationship. So they do what any young, foolish couple would do – they get married.
Is this sheer stupidity? Well, yes, but from their point of view, it would be difficult to deny their relationship if they were already united in holy matrimony. Also, sex was on the brain, as the two clearly consummate their marriage before Romeo is forced to flee. Before the pair have to deal with the consequences of their decision, the existing feud amps up the conflict, and Mercutio and Tybalt die because of it. Romeo is exiled and Juliet conspires with Friar Laurence to fake her own death so that she can be reunited with him, as one does when one’s lover is forced to leave after killing one’s cousin.
But there were other inciting events at play, as Juliet was supposed to marry Paris before being caught in a dilemma she couldn’t see a way out of. A letter is sent to Romeo to tell him of the fake ploy, but the letter never reaches him, so when he sneaks into her tomb to look at her, he thinks she is really dead, leading him to drink poison to join her in death. We find out that he never received the message because Friar John was unable to deliver it since he was quarantined due to an outbreak. Once again, we see that the tragedy is laid on by fate, the pair unable to exercise a true sense of agency when so much is working against them.
Luhrmann’s choice to have Juliet wake up just as Romeo drinks the poison twists the sense of tragedy in a little more, as within that moment Romeo repents his choice, and she is forced to watch him die and kills herself after. Also, both DiCaprio and Danes look so young and vulnerable in that scene, and compared to the 1936 version of Romeo and Juliet, where we get adult actors like Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer, it is different here as we feel the gravitas laid out in this scene. The sense of lament is more poignant because they are so young – they had their whole lives ahead of them, all of which are foiled because two families couldn’t get along.
Romeo and Juliet laid the bare bones for the formula when it comes to tragic love stories; we see it years later in Wuthering Heights, with Cathy and Heathcliff who separated by class differences and an unflinching stubbornness, or even recently with The World to Come, with the pair’s relationship doomed because of their social setting and gender. Compared to love stories where the issues are within the relationship, like Marriage Story, Blue Valentine or even the recent Zendaya and John David Washington film Malcolm and Marie, Romeo and Juliet presents love as the safe cocoon, with the outside world being the space that brings the chaos in.
At the end of the day, we all want to find someone who will fight the world and any dissenting forces with us. Romeo and Juliet’s refusal to cave and give in, while stupid, is also goddamn inspiring. It is only from brave (or foolhardy) acts like this that the status quo can change. Their love story changed the course of the feud, and somewhere down the line, probably gave another young couple a better fighting chance at their own love story.
So, excuse me while I watch Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet for the tenth time – the month of romance is ending, but love is an all-year affair, and so are great movies.
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