Classics Deflated: Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet

Before I started the Shakespeare Project I didn’t have any strong views about Romeo and Juliet. I thought pretty much what you probably think: it’s Shakespeare’s Tragic Tale of Young Love, with some beautiful language that’s become hackneyed through overfamiliarity, like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or for that matter at least a thousand other lines of Shakespeare. Tragic Doomed Youth, end of story. Literally: aren’t the last lines “For never was a story of more woe/Than this of Juliet and her Romeo”?

As I’ll show in My Year with Shakespeare, my vague idea of a straightforward—and rather boring—tragedy couldn’t be more wrong. Once I looked twice, I saw what was obvious: Romeo and Juliet is a filthy, funny, deeply witty, word-drunk, subversive play that is also a Tragic Tale of Young Love. It’s a cliché now to say that Shakespeare is doubleminded, even when it’s clear what that means; well, Romeo and Juliet is doubleminded with a vengeance, and if you don’t get that, you don’t get what this play is all about.

Why is Romeo and Juliet embedded in our culture as a straightforward tragedy? One reason is that though Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a manysided work, few if any of its innumerable adaptations have been. The Tragic Tale of Young Love interpretation goes all the way back to the Romantics and has been reinforced in our time by at least two works: West Side Story and Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film adaptation. My loathing of West Side Story is a subject for another post; this one records my reaction to the Zeffirelli film, which I had never seen before this last week. (I was fourteen when the movie was released but I was still so heavily under the thumb of the Catholic Church that I couldn’t possibly have enjoyed or understood it, even with the controversial nude scene.)

In a nutshell, this film may be one of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, but I give it two thumbs way, way down. It’s certainly the ultimate staging of Romeo and Juliet as a Tragic Tale of Young Love; that’s what makes it almost unwatchable. With the practiced hand of a master, Zeffirelli zeroes in on every trace of irony, humor, and depth and unerringly strips them away.

He gets it wrong at the very beginning. As I’ll explain at length in My Year with Shakespeare, after the prologue in the form of a sonnet—something unprecedented in itself, as far as I know—Shakespeare brings on the Capulet gangsters Sampson and Gregory. They are literally and figuratively spear carriers; their whole purpose is to provoke the quarrel that sets the action going. Any screenwriting instructor would tell his or her charges to get them on, do their job, and get off. Zeffirelli follows the instructor’s advice. But that’s not how Shakespeare wrote the scene. He gave Sampson and Gregory more than thirty lines of wordplay. Why? As I hypothesize in the book, Shakespeare was drunk on language, and rarely more so than in this play. Not long after Sampson and Gregory exit, we get Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, such a celebrated Shakespearean monologue that it’s rarely asked: What is it doing there, looking as if it wandered in from A Midsummer Night’s Dream? And when Romeo and Juliet meet, their first words intertwine into another sonnet. All this word madness is thematically crucial. Do you really think it means nothing when Juliet asks “What’s in a name?” just because you’ve heard the line a thousand times? There’s a level on which the play is all about names, as Romeo later realizes. Words are at the heart of the play, and to minimize their importance at the beginning is to cut out the meaning.

Sampson and Gregory have another function that relates directly to the Tragic Tale of Young Love theme. They, along with Mercutio, show that all Verona is word drunk. In this town, even a pair of lowlifes can play a round of verbal tennis, and the hero’s sidekick can improvise a phantasmagoric paean to the Queen of Dreams. At the top of the pyramid is Juliet, whose language must be extraordinary, and express extraordinary passion, to stand out from this crowd. That it is on both counts is the real triumph of Romeo and Juliet.

Zeffirelli shows no awareness of the importance of language as his spectacle plods on.

Yes, it’s good that the play is opened up and looks as if it concerns real people living in real surroundings—an innovation at the time. But it’s not good that Zeffirelli misses few chances for pointless spectacle. That momentous first meeting of Romeo and Juliet is little more than background to an extended, and boring, dance sequence highlighted, if that is the word, by the excruciating song I knew growing up in its Andy Williams incarnation as “A Time for Us” (Nino Rota’s music is generally excruciating, muscling in over the dialogue for the first half of the film). You might think that in that famous sequence, Romeo and Juliet would need to pay attention to each other in order to speak a sonnet. Zeffirelli stages them clasping hands as they stand on opposite sides of a column, not even seeing each other.

There’s no sense that the dialogue forms a sonnet, but at least Zeffirelli didn’t cut it: elsewhere he shows no compunction about cutting and rearranging dialogue. There’s nothing wrong with that in principle but the changes had better supplement rather than obliterate Shakespeare’s effects. Look at the cutting between the fight that ends when Romeo kills Tybalt and the scene in which the Nurse tells Juliet the terrible news. In Shakespeare, the fight and its discovery by the adults happen all in one scene, Act III, scene i. With a change in location to Juliet’s chamber, a new scene begins, and it’s here that the Nurse announces that Tybalt is dead (with a long enough pause to allow Juliet to jump to the conclusion that it’s Romeo). Zeffirelli splices the revelation scene between the death of Tybalt and the arrival of the adults. Shakespeare’s staging is simple and logical. Zeffirelli’s leads to the distracting question how the Nurse, who was not on the scene, had time to rush home and tell Juliet the news before the Capulet parents even arrived in the square. It does not gain dramatic economy. What it does do is enable Zeffirelli to cut the first thirty-five or so lines of Act III scene ii; but this soliloquy of Juliet’s is not only one of the most beautiful in the play, it’s one of the profoundest expressions of her oceanic emotions. On a surface reading this speech is just thirty-five lines of “Come, night, so I can be with my Romeo,” and that message is conventional enough that you might think it could be cut, but what Juliet actually says adds new levels to the play. So a staging that loses lines like

Come, night; come, Romeo; come, thou day in night;
For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night
Whiter than new snow on a raven’s back.
Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night,
Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
O, I have bought the mansion of a love,
But not possess’d it, and, though I am sold,
Not yet enjoy’d: so tedious is this day
As is the night before some festival
To an impatient child that hath new robes
And may not wear them.

does not show the viewer who Juliet really is; a woman whose passion outshines the sun and a thirteen-year-old in the throes of puppy love who even recognizes the comic absurdity of her situation (“an impatient child that hath new robes”).

The movie isn’t all bad. Olivia Hussey, who was actually sixteen when she played the role, remains memorable as Juliet, and one or two of the other cast members acquit themselves respectably. There are a couple of striking visual moments, particularly the Act III scene v passage when the Nurse betrays Juliet (“I think it best you married with the County/O, he’s a lovely gentleman/Romeo’s a dishclout to him”). As the Nurse enfolds the crying Juliet her white wimple and black headdress give her the appearance of a nun, a lovely anticlerical touch that would have gone over my head had I seen the film when I was fifteen (if I had gotten it, I’d have run screaming from the theater). An occasional staging offers a flash of unexpected insight, particularly the early stages of the fight scene, where Tybalt’s and Mercutio’s faces seem to show that they are horseplaying, having a lark that Romeo’s intervention spins tragically out of control. Query whether that’s consistent with their characters, and whether it outweighs the pointless, overlong nature of the scene, the first half of which Mercutio inexplicably spends sitting in a fountain; but at least it’s an interpretation worth thinking about.

In the end, this Romeo and Juliet—long enough to have an intermission—aspires to the condition of opera (even at this stage in his career and even though he had already directed the Burton-Taylor Taming of the Shrew, Zeffirelli was primarily and at heart an opera director), but only achieves the status of an overblown 1960s Epic like The Guns of Navarone, Ryan’s Daughter, and Tora! Tora! Tora! The ultimate irony is that, at least for a time, it was the standard teaching aid to the play in high school. Because isn’t the moral of the Tragic Tale of Young Love interpretation “Adults, don’t force something on your kids that they don’t want”?

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