Like virtually all works that can be said to occupy the tragic genre, Romeo and Juliet wrestles with philosophical notions of fate, fortune, and determinism. Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet are initially framed as "star-cross'd lovers," and "death-mark'd," in the play's opening verse. The first lines of Lurhmann's film—as well as his directorial decision to insert a flash-forward montage in the beginning scene—also make it immediately apparent to the viewer that their relationship will end in suicide, violence, and death. Throughout the film, Romeo and Juliet's actions amount to a desperate attempt to defy their own cursed circumstances in life—namely, being the progeny of different warring families—by striving to escape Verona and thus the feud's "fatal loins." When at last they put a plan in motion to flee with the help of Father Laurence, fate intervenes once more, leading toward a tragic denouement.
William Shakespeare's original play Romeo and Juliet is not only one of the most famous love stories ever told, but one whose characters often pause to self-consciously examine and muse over the capricious nature and appalling power of love as a human emotion. Luhrmann's adaptation preserves this fact by introducing Romeo in the midst of extreme heartbreak, agonizing over his own susceptibility to love, and the feelings of grief, melancholy, and madness that love engenders in him, while strolling in solitude along Verona Beach. The conflicts between love as a human passion and marriage as an interfamilial contract are also raised. Juliet, for instance, must navigate between two contrasting notions of romantic love: an arranged, convenient, loveless betrothal to Paris, or a passionate, forbidden, perilous affair with Romeo. Love's twofold nature—its ability to inspire joy and bring pleasure, versus its capacity to derange the mind and oppress the spirit—is paraphrased early on by Romeo, as "a madness most discreet, a choking gall and a preserving sweet."
Violence—especially its cyclical, inescapable nature, and unjust, indiscriminate consequences—is a key theme of Romeo + Juliet. The "ancient grudge" between the Montagues and Capulets has produced a foundational cycle of inter-familial violence in Verona from which there is seemingly no escape, ensnaring each subsequent generation of kin. The warlike Tybalt embodies pure violence: "Talk of peace! I hate the word." Tybalt worships at the altar of violence as if it were a religion, and the icon of Jesus on his vest in the opening fray symbolizes the cycle of birth, death, and resurrection that the longstanding feud between the Montague and Capulet clans resembles. The innocent dreamer Mercutio, who is fatally injured in a fight between Romeo and Tybalt, fiercely condemns both families for selfishly sustaining their feud for so many years, despite his close friendship with Romeo and the Montagues. The "plague" he calls upon their houses, which in Luhrmann's film triggers a literal monsoon, is meant to resound as an ethical indictment of all violent actors—whether friend or foe—who jointly share responsibility for perpetuating the cycle of bloodshed.
Religious themes and imagery saturate the film, present in nearly every scene. The title of the film, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, itself incorporates a cross into the title in place of the word "and." In the title card "A pair of star cross'd lovers / take their life," the '+' symbol replaces the letter 't.' Both the Montagues and the Capulets are Christian families, and the Capulets in particular adorn themselves with crucifixes, religious paraphernalia (Abra has a silver grill that says "SIN"), and biblical iconography. Tybalt wears a vest displaying the image of Jesus as he metes out justice to the Montague boys in the film's opening battle, and then later appears in the guise of the devil during the Capulet party sequence. Juliet, on the other hand, is dressed as an angel, and wears white for the entire film. The color white reflects religious ideals of virtue and innocence, such as the image of the white dove, which reflects Father Laurence's desire for peace. The color black, to which Tybalt and the Capulets hew, symbolizes execution and death.
Romeo and Juliet is, among other things, a coming-of-age narrative about a young boy and a young girl who are rapidly developing as thinking and feeling humans as the result of acquiring various experiences and feeling particular emotions for the very first time. Romeo questions his entire previous notion of beauty after seeing Juliet, and Juliet examines whether one's name has any inherent value. In addition to pondering such philosophical notions, Romeo and Juliet each asserts his or her budding identity in strategic ways in order to negotiate the contract of their relationship. Romeo insists on scaling the wall of the Capulet mansion at night, and Juliet threatens to leave until she hears Romeo's proposal vow. The recklessness and haste of this youthful phase of identity is a major theme of the play and film, one which Father Laurence often invokes in his counsel to little avail.
Ideas about fantasy and dreams comprise a pivotal theme in Romeo and Juliet, embodied most obviously in the character Mercutio, whose name literally refers to Mercury, the god of poetry, luck, trickery, and commerce. Mercutio's "Queen Mab" speech ponders the power of "dreams, which are the children of an idle brain." Romeo is first seen daydreaming, caught up in the mentally deranging effects of love brought on by his affair with Rosaline. The Capulet party sequence is crucially a masquerade ball, forcing all the party-goers to abandon their identities, don costumes, and forge a fantastical exterior within the context of the celebration. Mercutio giving Romeo a tablet of ecstasy only heightens and intensifies the already hallucinatory energy of the party. The film argues that fantasy is not always obscuring, but can sometimes be revelatory—Romeo and Juliet both experience ominous premonitions, for instance, in which they are able to intuit the future, though they are not able to avoid their fate. Father Laurence's fantasies about bringing about a truce between the Montagues and Capultes are in vain as well, although they retain a visionary quality in the mise-en-scene of the film.
Death is a sinister current that runs throughout Romeo and Juliet, given that we are told the lovers die in the opening lines of the text. Luhrmann's film uses water imagery and the color blue to denote death and misfortune throughout the film, building various elaborate visual metaphors using its presence in the frame. Romeo and Juliet first lock eyes, for example, through the blue of the aquarium glass, foreshadowing that they will both die. In their first meeting, they fall by accident into a glowing blue swimming pool. When Romeo slays Tybalt, Luhrmann tints the entire scene blue, and captures Tybalt's dead body falling backwards into a fountain, underneath a religious monument floodlit in blue. The last time Juliet sees Romeo before they die, he is disappearing beneath the surface of the pool underneath her window. Finally, the neon blue crosses flanking the aisle Romeo walks down in the film's final scene bespeak his date with death. The archetypal image for the theme of death, which appears in flashback as a freeze-frame at the film's end, is them kissing underneath the blue water.
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