Academic journal article Creative Forum

A Never-Ending Love Story: Multi-Media Inter-Texting with the Bard, Five Centuries Down

Academic journal article Creative Forum

A Never-Ending Love Story: Multi-Media Inter-Texting with the Bard, Five Centuries Down

Article excerpt

My purpose in this article is to trace the inter-woven-ness of four texts Arthur Brooke's The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562); William Shakespeare's paradigmatic "love tragedy" Romeo and Juliet (first performed in 1594-95); Franco Zeffirelli's ethereal film version of the Bardic original (1968); and Baz Luhrmann's "ultra-contemporary" cinematic adaptation William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996). While it is the latter two, the cinematic re-creations, on which this paper concentrates, the two word-texts will also remain key cross-referents for "reading" what the films "do".

Such a task cannot be confined merely to tracing similarities and dissimilarities. One must confront the fundamental way in which rewriter (or adaptor) anxieties about overcoming the claustrophobic "author-ity" of "great" literary predecessors get compounded by the desire to radically reinvent, even when one "transcreates" into/for another medium, pre-existing literary "legends". (1) However, as we enter the phase of self-conscious post-modernism with Luhrmann, the second-time "author" (I use the term Author transgenerically, in keeping with the trans-media transformations which form my concerns here) begins to acknowledge the impossibility of ever being able to give fruition to this compulsive but "impossible" desire to move out of the shadow (Author-ity) of one's literary forebears. This, in turn sets the stage for a contorted and suppressed (2) kind of inter-textuality, one that constantly attempts--and sometimes over-attempts--to divert attention from its inescapable indebtedness to a "true" foundational source by a transferred (ulterior?) gesture of obeisance to another intermediate "source".

The question, then, isn't simply one of what a post-modernist reinterpretation (3) of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet might entail in purely formal "cinematic" terms. Equally germane must be the ideological, socio-cultural and moral-aesthetic implications of such a "dislodging" of Shakespeare's in many ways "foundational" text, embedded as it is in constitutive Renaissance realities, and its "re-lodging" (as with Luhrmann) within a self-conscious latter day pastiche. We would then want to ask exactly how such a renegotiation alters the "message" of a known (and renowned) dramatic text. Let us begin with this dimension of inter-textuality.


Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet stands as an all-time fountain-source for all succeeding love tragedies in the Western world. The typical romantic understanding of the "start-crossed lovers"--what generates the dramatic "conflict" and its gruesome denouement--centers on their victimization by inimical forces. In Shakespeare's case, these are the forces of medieval feudalism with its murderous clan rivalries that leave no opening for the early modern appearance of individual choice in the area of love and sexual partnership. In the canonical imaging of this situation, the lovers (right up to the last scene where they kill themselves) must be kept squeaky clean, untainted by and unimplicated in the gratuitous violence that surrounds them--in fact their love, in its undeserved destruction, stands over against all that the community's violence represents.

What such a reading perspective--that of unblemished innocence does not contend with is the all-inclusive nature of violence of the R&J world, the all-pervasive discourse of revenge that permeates the text and spreads its tentacles everywhere, even drawing into its inescapable vortex the seemingly wide-eyed young lovers who traditionally are taken as positioned entirely outside of this murky abyss of violence. Yet in actuality Romeo does get sucked in, albeit unwillingly, into this aristocratic idealisation of retributive vendettas for one's murdered kinsmen. It is this embroilment in fact that leads to his banishment from Verona.

This tussle between the obligation to privately avenge family "dishonour" and the early modern State's need to maintain civic order by mercilessly punishing violations of emergent city laws introduces the dual and dialectical conception of revenge in Romeo and Juliet--private revenge, and the state's penal-retributive reprisals. …

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