Brand New Old Stuff


Margaret Marks

All hopeless romantics get dreamy-eyed and sigh whenever the balcony scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet comes up in conversation. Juliet stands on her balcony, innocently murmuring about her meeting with Romeo while the very subject of her musings eagerly climbs the garden wall and trellis leading up to the object of his love, Juliet. Anyone viewing Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet will be sadly disappointed at first to see that the movie doesn’t follow the traditional balcony scene. Instead the clandestine meeting and swearing of mutual love takes place in a swimming pool at the Capulet’s mansion. For all that the setting differs, Romeo + Juliet does use traditional Shakespearean themes and ideas even if they appear in a somewhat untraditional fashion.

Luhrmann doesn’t want to turn his audience off to his new interpretation so he employs comedy to distract the audience from their preconceptions. Luhrmann does use the balcony, but in a comedic way that makes an easy transition for the audience from the conventional balcony to Romeo and Juliet swimming in a pool. Romeo acts like a monumental klutz after ascending the Capulet’s garden wall. While looking up to see Juliet’s window, he trips the surveillance lights, knocks over a few things, and generally makes a racket. This is not the lithe and graceful Romeo the audience usually thinks of as seen in Zefferelli’s version. After climbing the trellis to the balcony, Romeo and the audience expect to see beautiful Juliet through her bedroom curtains at the top of the trellis, but both Romeo and the audience are caught off guard when instead of beautiful Juliet, the plain-faced Nurse appears and almost causes Romeo to fall.

Using water as the medium for Romeo’s wooing of Juliet instead of air brings a richer and deeper symbolism to the scene. Water is associated with being in the womb, baptism, and an unknown world waiting to be discovered similar to outer space. For Romeo and Juliet the pool serves as a medium that distances them from the "real" world. In the water, their love for each other and anything else is possible. After Romeo declares his love for Juliet and she is satisfied that he loves her as she loves him, she goes to get out of the pool, leaving the realm of possibilities for the "real" world. Seeing that Juliet is getting away, Romeo quickly asks her "Wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?" Juliet stops and responds that there isn’t anything else she can give Romeo except the vow of love she already gave without being asked. At Romeo’s marriage proposal, she smiles, jumps into Romeo’s arms and submerges them both in the pool effectively baptizing him as her true love and husband-to-be. As Donaldson points out "the ease with which the lovers find a place to meet [the pool] and kiss augured a more permanent mode in which their love could continue."

Water isn’t the only symbolism Luhrmann uses. The most easily recognized symbolism in the movie is the costumes at the Capulet ball. Romeo arrives at the party looking dashing in his pseudo armor. He is the fairy tale knight, ready to "slay the dragon" and woo his lady love though he carries both a gun and a costume sword. Innocent Juliet is wearing a simple white modest floor length dress with wings and her hair neatly coiled in a ring around her head suggesting an angelic state of being. Both Romeo and Juliet have shed parts of their costume when they meet the second time,. Juliet no longer has her wings and Romeo has taken off his mask and armor, but part of their costumes still remains. Similarly they have revealed some of their feelings for each other during their first meeting at the ball. Alone and together in the pool, the scene becomes right for a complete revelation of desires. Symbols of the Christian faith appear everywhere as well. Juliet’s room, seen earlier in the movie, is full of religious figures, the majority of them angels with a large Virgin Mary in the midst. These are symbols of innocence and purity which always appear when Juliet is on screen. At one point Romeo and Juliet have exchanged vows and Nurse calls Juliet inside. As Nurse moves away from the window, the open curtain reveals a figure of the Virgin Mary in white and then hides it again. This raises suspicions that this will be the last innocent moment of Juliet’s young life.

Luhrmann chose to set Shakespeare’s classic play in modern day, but he keeps much of the original text. Donaldson states that "Romeo + Juliet quotes or cites its text.". Despite some dialogue additions to smooth transitions, the original meanings still come through because of the staging and blocking substituted for omitted lines. For example, lines 27b through 32 in Act 2, Scene 2 are left out because Romeo is standing above Juliet, so she cannot be over his "head as is a windged messenger of heaven." Juliet’s extended posing of the obstacles to her and Romeo’s love and her forward behavior (lines 95-106, Act 2, Scene 2) is also cut but is retained in action by her body language. Instead of Juliet drawing back from a balcony edge or leaning over it, she constantly trades places with Romeo in the pool, first appearing stage left, then right, and so on, while she expresses obstacles to their love and resolutions to those problems from the text retained. The extended farewell at the end of Act II, Scene II (lines 70-182) is cut as Juliet doesn’t call Romeo back for a reason she forgets. Presumably the farewell is omitted because Luhrmann wants to keep the "intense, impatient, threatening, explosive" feeling Goldman states Romeo and Juliet has on stage.

Changing a balcony to a swimming pool seems an awkward echo to a classic play. With a little bit of comedy and brilliant usage of symbolism, Luhrmann makes it work. In no way are the themes or intent of the balcony scene in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet lost. The audience still sees the passionate love between Romeo and Juliet. Due to all the differences updating the play for his film, Luhrmann was smart to change the balcony scene. The traditional scene would have seemed inconsistent with the rest of the film. Despite the omissions of text and change of staging, the audience is still in for a powerful and moving scene.