Moral Values Evolve to Changing Times In this essay I intend to justify the use of mise-en-scene as it is employed in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version of Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet not as mere aid for background and setting but as a meaningful and important driver to showcase his original work and interpretation of the play regarding social and moral topics.
Luhrmann provides strong visual images as a medium to represent the strong and powerful use of language that Shakespeare invokes through his writing to talk about contemporary topics. Despite the story of Romeo and Juliet being over 500 years old, it is as relevant and appealing today as it was when first performed notwithstanding differences in morals and values between Shakespeare’s audience 500 years ago and contemporary audience. Although old-fashioned, the story of the two lover’s still holds great appeal to this day because of many underlying topics that transcend time such as order and authority, fate, and love. By reading Shakespeare’s original play, the audience can get a sense of the importance and concerns reflected in the Elizabethan era in relation to authority, law and order. A characteristic that was well received by the audience of the time given the similar morals and values shared while at the same time appealing and entertaining the masses.
For instance, Shakespeare explores the consequences of confronting authority which lead to chaos and order breaking down in society demonstrated through character’s disobedience. Something that ultimately result in the tragic deaths of Romeo, Juliet, and of many others characters in the play. When analyzing the play, many characters confronted authority or were disobedient in some way, with the major rule breakers being Romeo and Juliet. For example, both deceived their parents by getting married without their permission, Juliet faked her death in order to not marry Paris, and Romeo committed the most punishable crime by taking away Tybalt’s life. Other characters also defied authority, for instance, the Montague and Capulet boys went against orders of the Prince by continuing violent actions throughout the city of Verona even after his ultimatum. Even the Friar and the Nurse broke the rules because they helped the young couple get married and aided them with their controversial actions. The simple solution to this chaos that Shakespeare offers is just to be obedient by respecting authority and law; A reflection of the morality and values of the time. Otherwise, as seen throughout the play, Shakespeare makes sure that all disobedient actions are punished for their sins.
“All are punished!” –The Prince of Verona (5.3.13). In a sense, Romeo and Juliet is an excellent representative of how important obedience was at the time. In addition to exhibit common shared morals for the Elizabethan era and consequences of disobedience and violence. In contrast, Luhrmann’s modern take on the play also deals with authority. However, instead of displaying morals common to our time or offering solutions to today’s society issues, he provides a very unique and artistic viewpoint on modern society.
From his point of view, as shown in the film, the world is very fast-paced, focused mainly on wealth and power – although this is true to this day,- and less focus on true core values that makes us human such as love and compassion. This general perspective of society is represented throughout the film by bird’s-eye view/elevated shots of the city of Verona involving violent chaotic scenes such as police raids, gang shootings, and other violent actions. The scenes are generally quick and vivid with the camera constantly moving and changing quickly to emphasize the chaotic nature of the scenes. This film is great example of MTV style of editing, also known as post-classical editing, which is known for its non-linear cuts that emphasize location, mood and feeling over character and plot development.
Furthermore, the intense violence displayed in many scenes are similar to the original play as intended; given that violence plays a key role in the play, since it puts in display the transformation and shortfall of morals of many main characters as the plot progresses. The first scene that the audience has on the City of Verona is an extreme long-shot of the city revealing a giant religious statue of Jesus in the center of the city and as the camera zooms in the audience is introduced to the two family household names. The City of Verona is dominated by two prominent skyscrapers and major business owners, Montague and Capulet. As the camera starts to fade in, the camera focuses in the foreground of two photographs of Old Montague and Old Capulet separated by the same statue of Jesus, which insinuates and paves the way for future religious references later on the film.
The two prominent skyscrapers are symbols of wealth and power. The separation between the two by the statue of Jesus can be interpreted as a barrier protecting the city from a clash of the families that are filled with hatred towards each other. Following the introduction of the two household names, the violence is crystallized when the film introduces the Montague and Capulet boys in the gas station scene. Luhrmann intelligently uses the audience’s preconceived notions about certain groups in society to have an opinion on characters even before they are further explored later on the film.
For example, the first shot of Tybalt is focused on his cowboy boots which emphasizes a Western vibe to his character, and this is further supported with western-style music playing in the background. The Montague boys are wearing open Hawaiian shirts and shorts in a convertible car representing their surf shack style of living; laid-back living by the water. In contrast to this style is the arrival of the Capulet boys. They dress in a more conservative manner, wearing suits and tight pants looking more serious in comparison to the Montague boys. These contrasting appearances and behavior of the two groups are easily seen throughout the film by the good use of visual techniques from the director to showcase the incompatibility between the two families. Moving along into the next topic of fate. During Shakespeare’s time people were obsessed with the notions of fate and to what degree we have control over our lives.
Another key reason to the success of the play. This is seen throughout the play with various premonitions and foreshadowing that inevitably come into reality and result in the deaths of Romeo, Juliet and other major characters such as Mercutio. As a result of such, this leads the audience to believe that the two young lovers’ outcome has already been determined even before the start of the play and that Romeo and Juliet have to die in order to finally bring peace to Verona. For instance, in the famous balcony scene, Juliet seems to hesitate for a moment as she realized that their increasing attraction and passion towards each other seem to be growing too fast and warns Romeo that it would be ‘unadvised’ to rush things.
Later on, Romeo dreams of himself lying dead as Juliet lays next to him. Furthermore, the Friar also warns Romeo about rushing his marriage by saying to him “those stumble who run fast (2.3.100),” but eventually gives up as he sees that the two are desperately in love.
These are just some examples of foreshadowing that things were not going to progress the way the young lovers desired, but also goes to show that they were responsible for the actions that lead to their tragic deaths. Even though there are not that many circumstance in the play that chance plays a major role, the concept is still present to some degree. For instance, it is only by chance that the Capulet’s messenger, who is almost illiterate, asks Romeo for assistance with the invitation list. At the end, it was Romeo’s decision to attend the ball and if he would not have attended the ball none of this would have transpired.
This just goes to show how we are still able to make our own choices even when circumstances arise by chance and that we are the ultimate decision makers of our future. A very interesting aspect of such, is the contrast between religious symbolism and disobedience of many characters in the film. Luhrmann’s usage of religious symbols and icons are seen from the very first scene of the film when the audience is introduced with the statue of Jesus and the crucifixes symbols in the opening credits. What is more interesting is that the audience is forced to focus is some sort of religion symbolism before a violent act occurs. The director does this by zooming in into objects and having a still shot until the frame is cut and the camera tilts up to a medium shot of a character. The beginning of the gas station scene stands out in this way, as it shows both groups wearing or carrying some sort of religion icon, such as having the image of the Virgin Mary engraved on all the guns shown in the scene. The contrast between religion and violence show that both groups are aware of Christian morals.
Hence, they know what is right and wrong, but they choose to behave in a way that is completely opposite to how they should be based on their religion. Religious symbolism is present throughout the entire film, and even more so at the end of the film. In the last scene that the audience have of the young couple, the church where Juliet lays ‘dead’ is filled with hundreds of roses, lit candles, and big neon cross signs in the pews. In a way, this shows how her family feels guilty for what happened to her and by filling the church with an exuberant amount of religious symbols they are looking for forgiveness, but at the same time the exuberance shown in the church is still a symbol of their relentless distraction of their wealth. Romeo and Juliet is probably the most known love story of all time, and if read today, the reader can get a sense of Elizabethan attitudes towards love.
From a contemporary perspective, the audience feels sorry for the tragic death of Romeo and Juliet and the circumstance that led Juliet to disobey her father’s orders to marry Paris, but this is not the same reaction that the audience at the time would have had. At the time, arranged marriages were very common, so in a certain way the audience would empathize more with Juliet’s father given that his behavior is common and acceptable of the era. However, the audience would still feel sorry for her as she truly loved Romeo and wanted to be with him.
The concept of love is something that everyone can sympathize regardless of the era, which is why Romeo and Juliet remains famous to this day. The very artistic representation of Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet helped a modern audience remain entertained throughout the film using sequencing and symbolism. Symbolism, beyond religion, still plays a key role for plot development in the film. This is relevant in the use of water as a symbol of purity and harmony.
During the ‘balcony’ scene that ends in the two lovers swimming in the pool, water plays a major role in the connection between the two, as well as, showing their purity and clean young conscience. As the scene progresses they grow more intimate and start exploring more about their sexuality. However, this symbol becomes tainted when Romeo kills Tybalt as he falls into a pond located in the middle of the city. Later on the film after Romeo is vanished, he finds himself living in the outsides of Verona, in the deserts.
The seclusion symbolizes the loss of his conscience, love and of any peace of mind that he knew before being vanished. Another technique that the director makes use are extreme close-up shots of the couple to show their intimacy and of objects that represent their love. For example, in the last scene in the tomb, the camera shifts in and out focusing in them and the ring, a physical object that symbolize their love. Despite the vast era differences, Shakespeare’s original play and Baz Luhrmann’s modern adaptation of the play remain relevant representatives to their current morals and society values. Therefore, by comparing the two we can see how much we’ve advanced as a society and how much our morals and values have changed since the Elizabethan era.