Baz vs. the Bardolaters, or Why William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet Deserves Another Look
Hamilton, Lucy, Literature/Film Quarterly
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet provoked in 1997 almost as much passion and violence of expression as the action of the play itself. Conservative opinion spluttered in outrage at Luhrmann's film. While audiences responded to the latest film with considerable enthusiasm, and cinematic criticism provided enlightening insights,1 those who have allied themselves with Shakespeare-as-bulwark-of-tradition tended to dismiss William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet as a "monumental disaster" (LaSalle) or a "violent swank-trash music video that may make you feel like reaching for the remote control" (Gleiberman 1). Earnest critics decried: "there are `bad films,' there are `worst films of all time,' and then there's Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet." 2 Such a reaction of abhorrence is almost as interesting as the reluctance of academic publications to treat the film as a work worthy of scholarly attention.3
Before beginning a study of Shakespearean interpretations, it is important to note that the sense of definitive scripts, against which adaptations must be measured, is a product of twentieth-century textual scholarship. Biblical study notions of textual purity (or Manichean notions of "good" and "bad" quartos) and authenticity are firmly attached to our understanding of the plays we read and perform, yet these artifacts are modernized for us and any scholarly edition will elucidate the decisions made in the collating of a series of recollections by actors and audience (Holderness). Theoretical developments take us further: Reception theory points out that any text is partly created by the reader/viewer and we generally accept that no interpretation is definitive. In the light of these considerations, it is intriguing to observe critics' ambivalence. A recent text on this subject appears open to the "multiple possibilities" available in interpretations in its introduction (Boose 3); again the chapter by the editors admits that a "single, unified Shakespeare whose works could be covered" has always been an illusion (18), yet mourning, on the following page, "the disappearance of an older sense of the actor as someone who actually knew Shakespeare, who communed with him, understood his mind, and perhaps at times even thought that he himself was Shakespeare." 4 It seems that the author is dead, but that the author-function of Shakespeare makes for an intimidating ghost.
The action of adapting Shakespearean plays into film has mostly been dangerous for those game enough to make the attempt. The plays remain in the realm of prestige entertainment, whereas it has taken many years for film to be accepted as "Art." The dominance of the visual in film can struggle with the preeminence of the word in Elizabethan drama. Given that it had been accepted for critics to despise theatrical productions of Shakespeare's plays, allowing that true appreciation was only possible on the page, film was always destined to face opposition. The Shakespeareans' reluctance or inability to read the visual adaptation of linguistic elements of the plays leaves their comprehension of the cinematic version impoverished and the works, therefore, often despised. Translation of the play to film requires a number of stylistic decisions to be made to assist in conveying stories told often in blank verse, in archaic language, in the presence of an overwhelming tradition of an overwhelming tradition. Olivier opted for a deliberate staginess-Branagh for a stronger cinematic intertextuality in worlds distanced by time and space. Zeffirelli and Luhrmann have taken a work that is strongly familiar to one section of the audience and frighteningly off-putting to the Shakespeare-shy and made it over.
Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, revolutionary in its time, was more apparently traditional in its use of the original, and so the criticism he received, for his cutting of text and casting youthful actors who spoke the lines "sagging with puppyfat" and bereft of poetry, was more muted in nature (Simon 208). …