The Rogue’s Guide to Shakespeare on Film #8 by John King
Romeo and Juliet (1968)
Shakespeare in Love is a meta-narrative that simultaneously enacts Romeo and Juliet while imagining the story behind the play’s composition.
So it’s about time I reviewed a straightforward Romeo and Juliet, so let’s talk about Franco Zeffirelli’s version from 1968.
This is the only good cinematic R&J I know of, apart from Shakespeare in Love.
At the height of the psychedelic era, Zeffirelli went with a traditional setting: the early Renaissance, in a Verona that actually looks like an Italian city from that era.
While I am not against some Modern re-settings of the plays, and not even against anachronistically jumbling several eras, depending on the context, the psychology of Romeo and Juliet, in particular the psychology of Juliet, needs to be understood in a much more patriarchal world.
More on this later.
The male citizenry of Verona seem prone to violence, but that may be because everyone is wearing codpieces that are painfully tight.
My late colleague, Kevin Crawford, once pointed out to me that Zeffirelli’s shrewdness in approaching the violence of this tragedy is to have most of it be realistically awkward and inept. Some of these men and boys might know how to fight, but outside the context of a duel, the result is farcical chaos that nevertheless causes havoc in the marketplace and town. Men’s fists are bent at the wrist as they try to pummel each other in close quarters in the mud, in their colorful, striped breeches. Terrified chickens and furniture get in the way.
The weird scope of the wretched melee of Act I is important, as it sets up the drama, and the heartwarming and heartbreaking turns of the back-to-back fights in Act III.
Oh, right. This is a love story.
While a terrible Romeo can ruin any R&J, the litmus test of any production is the quality of its Juliet, because that is the most difficult part to pull off.
Juliet is smarter than Romeo, yet she “hath not seen the change of fourteen years.”
Romeo is a teenaged serial lovelorn seeker of unrequited love (emo before there was emo), a dope who can’t help falling psychotically in love with women–in fact, he was at the Capulet’s party to prove he could not find another woman more beautiful than Rosaline when he sees Juliet. Zeffirelli carefully shows Romeo watching Rosaline intently, the camera following her dancing–when Juliet is seen behind her, and the camera cannot look away from Olivia Hussey, I mean Juliet.
According to IMDB, Hussey was only fifteen when working on this film; according to math, she was seventeen, or perhaps sixteen, or both, unless the film was made two years prior to its release.
Something about her–her costume, her poise, her youth mixed with such “change”–lets us believe that not only would Romeo find her so much more beautiful than the perfectly beautiful, Rosaline, but that his claim that she has ended his youthful, changeable longings might also be right.
But Olivia Hussey can act. As I said, Juliet is the toughest part, because she must withstand Romeo’s advances and negotiate his commitment to her, all while being dazed by her own feelings of love for him.
Her father seems reluctant to see her wed in Act I, but that changes after her cousin Tybalt’s murder by Romeo.
I remember reading Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade, and asking my teacher why Juliet didn’t just run away to be with Romeo when he was exiled from Verona. When they meet outside her balcony, she even tells Romeo that if they wed, “all my fortunes at thy foot I’ll lay / And follow thee my lord throughout the world.”
Eloping a few days after their secret wedding! Why is that not a better plan than elaborately faking a suicide?
Sure, the Friar is hoping to mend the feud between Montagues and Capulets, but who cares what he wants. Why did Juliet accede to this freakishly dangerous plan when her father threatens to disown her?
Dunno, my teacher said, as she tried to keep a student from smashing another student to death with his desk.
Bad things happen when you read Shakespeare’s plays without seeing them performed.
The answer is, of course, that Juliet cannot easily imagine that she can be a wife, but no longer be a Capulet–no longer be her father’s daughter. Once again, she isn’t yet fourteen.
Juliet trusts the priest, after the nurse betrays her, but swearing that heart and soul she thinks Juliet should marry the plan Paris because of her father’s wishes, and because a relationship with Romeo would be doomed. This after the nurse has been so complicit in her charge’s relationship with Romeo.
When Juliet awakes in the tomb next to Romeo’s corpse, the good Friar whines, “A greater power than we can contradict / Hath thwarted our intents.” Sure, blame God for making that horrible plan backfire.
I can have these observations about the psychodynamics of Romeo and Juliet because the movie is good rather than screamingly stupid (I am looking at you, Baz Luhrmann).
The cast includes Michael York (who you might know as Basil Exposition, Logan of Logan’s Run, or the Brian Roberts from Cabaret), Milo O’Shea, and Leonard Whiting as Romeo. Laurence Olivier visited the set and talked his way into the movie as the prologue, and other voices.
Often when directors stay especially traditional in setting, the effect is dusty boredom, but that isn’t at all the case with this Romeo and Juliet. It’s a gem.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.