I have watched Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968) twice and it is such an amazing film. Although I know the story and how it ends, I always get emotional at the end. The cinematography, music, and acting is just so well done.
I was fascinated when I learned that Franco Zeffirelli was actually a quite successful opera director before he went into film! He directed pieces all over, including the Metropolitan opera, and he even worked with Maria Callas. I’m not sure if he ever directed Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, but I think it would be safe to assume that he had at least probably seen it. Zeffirelli purposefully cast two young and unknown actors, Olivia Hussy (Juliet) and Leonard Whiting (Romeo), because he didn’t want stardom to interfere with how the audiences viewed the actors and the story.
I would like to discuss some general aspects that create the context and world that Juliet is in, and also some moments that are specific to Juliet and have really helped me understand her character.
The theme song of the movie, “What is a Youth?” occurs throughout at moments of change or development within Juliet, Romeo, or their relationship together. I love how this musical theme unifies the work and emphasizes these important moments. It reminds me of how Gounod uses recurring musical themes to create unity and depth in meaning. Here are those moments:
- Juliet is drawn back into the party by the singer/music. Everyone else is captivated by the singer, but Romeo and Juliet are both looking for each other in the crowded room.
- The moment of their first kiss. (In Youtube video, 4:40)
- Balcony scene (occurs many times!)
- When they vow their love to each other, when Juliet calls him back, their final kiss, when Romeo finally leaves
- Wedding night
- Their final farewell
- Juliette feels betrayed by the Nurse when she says she should just marry Paris, and she decides to go to Friar Laurence’s cell for help
- Finale scene (the song is basically playing the entire scene)
- When Romeo discovers Juliet’s body in the tomb, when he drinks the poison, when Juliet stabs herself and dies
The idea of authority: Who is in charge here?? The fathers/families? The Duke/Government? God? Friar Laurence? Romeo and/or Juliet? FATE? It seems like there are so many different entities of authority in this story that really leave it void of any actual control. It feels like the simple love between Romeo and Juliet gets crushed and lost within everyone trying to control the situation. (Really Juliet is the one who has no absolutely no autonomy, until she takes the sleeping potion, and again when she actually dies.)
Capeulet/Montague rivalry: What is the deal here? Why is this such an intense rivalry? The opening scene is a brawl between the two families, and it is complete MAYHEM. Where does this rivalry originate?
Juliet’s relationship with her parents and Nurse:
- In the opera, Capulet is so endearing, loving, and soft towards Juliet, but in the movie he is super harsh, and even emotionally, verbally and borderline physically abusive.
- Juliet’s mother is omitted in the opera, but in the movie Juliet is very careful to please her mother: she fixes her hair, makes sure her dress is just right, and says exactly what her mother wants to hear.
- Juliet and the Nurse have a very loving and close relationship. Juliet seems the most like herself with the nurse; they are playful, giggly, and the Nurse is involved with keeping the relationship with Romeo a secret. The moment where the Nurse tells Juliet she should just marry Paris, Juliet feels so betrayed and like her last source of comfort has forsaken her.
- Juliet is so young and innocent compared to everyone else. When she is first dancing, she has a pleasant, but almost blank look on her face; like she’s just trying to remember the dance steps! She is trying to follow all the rules and please both her father and mother with how she presents herself in the public eye.
- She has some fire to her and is somewhat annoyed at everyone’s seriousness. There is a moment when she is looking for Romeo and an older lady looks at her. She smiles politely, but when the lady looks away Juliet smirks/rolls her eyes at her. (In Youtube video, about 1:20.) Again this also just shows how young Juliet is and how she doesn’t want to be bothered with love.
- During the Moresca dance, the music and speed increases and increases and Juliet finally has to escape the whirling and spinning because she gets dizzy. This is an interesting metaphor to her getting swept away with everyone else’s commands or even her love for Romeo.
- Before Romeo surprises her, Juliet is just daydreaming about being with Romeo. She draws his name in the air with her hands, and she is simply dreaming of what it would be like if they gave up their names to be together. She is so innocent and child-like, and none of these dreams are necessarily reality for her… until Romeo shows up at her window.
- Even though Juliet is so childish and naive — she is also very thoughtful and headstrong. She tells Romeo to not string her along unless he actually loves her. She is the one that proposes to Romeo and turns her daydreams into reality.
- There is a pull between her love and her fear. In this scene, there are moments where she and Romeo are embracing and kissing, and then her eyes open and she is in full panic. She seems very swept away by his charms, but also understands the reality and violence that could occur as a consequence of their love.
- When the Nurse takes too long getting back from meeting with Romeo, Juliet is very aggressive in questioning her. She gets angry and forceful with the nurse.
- When her mother tells her she will marry Paris, Juliet is PISSED. She is distraught and angry and yells at her mother.
- When she goes to Friar Laurence to find some escape, she again is very aggressive and forceful. She won’t take no for an answer. When he explains the potion to her, she grabs at it and says “Give me! Give me!” with almost a snarl on her face. In this moment, she seems like an even younger child and her desperation has caused her to regress in maturity.
I wonder when the moment occurs that Juliette transforms from a polite, people-pleaser to this angry and aggressive individual who is taking charge of her own life. Is it the wedding night when she loses her virginity and becomes closely connected with Romeo? It’s interesting that she gains some autonomy by choosing her relationship with Romeo over loyalty to her family, but in the end she ends up losing herself yet again, to the very same source that led her to her independence in the first place.