Romeo & Juliet:
From Globe Theatre to Gun Slinger
Romeo & Juliet is a tragedy known by all. William Shakespeare’s play, written in the 16th Century, survived the test of time and is consistently read, acted, and taught in classrooms all over the world. Following the story of two star-crossed lovers from feuding families, Romeo and Juliet fall in love upon their meeting at a masquerade ball. From that point on, their love is a struggle that ultimately ends in their deaths. A romantic and haunting love story, Romeo & Juliet exists within both the literary and theatrical cannon as a classic.
Romeo & Juliet was, as a play, written not to be read, but to be performed. Many not involved with theatre often forget that all pieces performed were once merely pages with potential. Everything that sees a stage, barring improvisation, started somewhere; the tip of a quill, the snap of a typewriter key, the click of a keyboard. It’s from these strokes that words become sentences become scenes become acts become productions. While the endgame is to have a play produced for the entire world to see and enjoy, it is birthed from a text, and it’s crucial to not forget that. Shakespeare’s texts, some three-dozen plays and more than 200 sonnets, have grown to be staples within the literary canon. Shakespeare is valued by so many that the thought of “changing Shakespeare’s words,” according to The Re-Imagined Text: Shakespeare, Adaptation, & Eighteenth-Century Literary Theory, “seems blasphemous…we revere Shakespeare, with our reverence centering on his text. (Marsden 1)” The play’s popularity stems, not only from the story’s content, but from its relatable themes. Taught in classrooms everywhere, students understand loss, young love, and rivalries. They, along with the greater population, appreciate what the text and its subsequent productions have to offer. It is because the original text is so valuable that adaptations are born.
You cannot have one without the other. Romeo & Juliet, as a play, is meant for the public to enjoy more than it is meant to be read. Since its publishing in the 16th Century, Romeo & Juliet has graced countless stages. The University of Mary Washington Department of Theatre and Dance even reopened its theatre in 2010 after a yearlong renovation with a classic Elizabethan adaptation of Romeo & Juliet. Michael Goldman, a Shakespearean scholar, offers up the explanation that Romeo & Juliet frequents the stage because, when seen, “the plot, the visual spectacle, and the wordplay” all come together to create the telling, and retelling, of one of the most famous stories in history (Goldman 34). While it is relatable and understandable, it’s almost possible to say that the adaptation of text into play makes the connection even stronger.
To complicate matters further, with the changing of the times, theatre was not the only way for society to view a text. As television and film became more popular, the stories gracing silver screens were not simply screenplays, but adaptations of novels and plays. At least three directors, George Cukor in 1936, Franco Zeffirelli in 1968, and Baz Luhrmann in 1996, have adapted the play from stage to screen. The most recent adaptation in 1996 adapted the concept as well. Straying from the typical Elizabethan approach, Luhrmann set his film in Verona Beach, where the Capulets and Montagues fight with Rapier branded automatic weapons instead of swords. Michael Best, author of The Text of Performance and the Performance of Text in the Electronic Edition, an article focused on adaptations of Romeo & Juliet, believes that taking the work from stage to screen, despite his belief that the text itself “is rich,” offers more opportunities for comprehension because “the nature of performance is such that it must sometimes reduce – or clarify – meaning. (Best 270)” Films offer something that play productions do not: second chances. With plays, every production and every adaptation is different because you have one shot to get it right. When an actor crosses the stage, the actor moves with the intention to find her or his mark. In film, if a mark is missed, the crew cuts and goes back to do it again; “the visual rhetoric of the camera is seductively different from the stage the plays were originally imagined for. (Best 276)” Best believes that film offers the angles, the scenery, and the manipulation of shots that plays do not. Because of this, it’s often true that movies have a better chance of getting things right and the “electronic edition can provide tools for the reader, actor, or critic to explore the possibilities both of the basic text and the performance that grows from it. (Best 270)”
The arguments I’ve made for three of the mediums of production Romeo & Juliet has experienced shows how each one stands strongly on its own. Text tells the story, plays both tell show the story, and film takes the visual story to another level completely. There lacks evidence that any of the adaptation processes reflect the text negatively. Sylvan Barnet states that “academic viewers [may be] unhappy” because of the concept chosen for the adaptation, but it’s not always about what academics and critics think (Barnet 207). Plays, both performed and read, are meant to be enjoyed by all. What all who participate, however, must remember is that they would not be here without one another. It’s a reality that William Shakespeare may never have become the influential writer he is today. Without Shakespeare, there would be no Romeo & Juliet and, subsequently, no adaptations of said text. I chose to represent this connection by connecting all three visually. The stage is a to-scale replica of Klein Theatre in duPont hall here on campus. The model is collaged with the pages of Shakespeare’s tragedy to show that you could not have the staged production without the written tale to back it up. Hung in the proscenium of the stage is movie screen featuring a screencap of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet from 1996. The three, together, create a triad of the same text. Whether I am reading the play on my back deck, thinking back to my involvement with the UMW production in 2010, or watching Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes struggle for love, the end result is still the same: two star-crossed lovers fail in finding love and surviving it.
Barnet, Sylvan. “Romeo and Juliet on Stage and Screen.” The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet: With New and Updated Critical Essays and a Revised Bibliography. By William Shakespeare and J. A. Bryant. New York: Penguin, 1998. 198-210.
Best, Michael. “The Text of Performance and the Performance of Text in the Electronic Edition.” Computers and the Humanities 36.3 (2002): 269-82.
Edgecombe, Rodney S. “Trans-Formal Translation: Plays into Ballets, with Special Reference to Kenneth MacMillan’s ‘Romeo and Juliet.” The Yearbook of English Studies 36.1 (2006): 65-78.
Goldman, Michael. “Romeo and Juliet: The Meaning of a Theatrical Experience.” Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1972. 33-34.
Marsden, Jean I. The Re-imagined Text: Shakespeare, Adaptation, & Eighteenth-century Literary Theory. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1995.