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Universality of Romeo and Juliet
There seems to be an on-going debate as to
whether we should attempt to "modernize" Shakespeare (or any of the
other classics for that matter). I think that you can look at it
two ways. Both appeal to the universality of the work. Either:
1. It is universal and modernizing it only emphasizes that fact, or
2. It is universal and modernizing it is not necessary. I think you
can play it both ways, and I think Romeo and Juliet is a good example
of this. The story still touches the lives of the audience whether
they see it set in the Elizabethan time period it was written in, or
the present. I even think it works well for other time periods, for
example, I have seen it set in Civil War America. I also think that
it would work equally well set before the Elizabethan era or some time
in the distant future. The story is that universal.
Imagine these scenarios:
Romeo is African-American; Juliet is Caucasian.
Romeo is from Mars; Juliet is from Venus.
Romeo is a backwoods country boy; Juliet is a city girl.
Romeo is Protestant; Juliet is Catholic.
Well, you get the picture, there are any number of variations on the
theme: Boy and Girl come from different worlds. There are great
obstacles between them. In spite of those obstacles they fall in love.
They marry. Catastrophe befalls them. They are separated. Fate works
against them and they die in tragedy. Through their deaths their
different worlds realize their common bonds and lay aside their
differences toward a unified future. It does not matter what the
differences are. The underlying theme still works.
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"The Universality of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet." 123HelpMe.com. 30 Mar 2020
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Now to the question of the language. Should you tell a "different"
story using Shakespeare's words? You could, after all, who could tell
it better? On the other hand, it could work as well to say "the same
thing" using language contemporary to the setting in which your story
is placed. It would depend on your purpose for telling the story. I
believe that Romeo and Juliet is one of those stories, as are
many of Shakespeare's, that transcend the language. I could watch it
in a tongue entirely foreign to me and still be moved by it. It is
somewhat like those who see an Italian opera and are moved to tears in
spite of not understanding one syllable of what they hear. Of course,
understanding the language makes it only that much better as it allows
the viewer to appreciate the mastery of the playwright.
So, what am I trying to say? I guess it is this: It is okay to set a
play or a story in a time and place different from where it was
originally set? This would be one true test to its universality.
At the same time, moving it to a new time and place should not be
necessary if it is well written in the first place. Because it is a
truly universal story, Romeo and Juliet works well in any
setting, including the one in which Shakespeare planted it. (And
let's not forget that Shakespeare himself "borrowed" this story and
made changes to it.) The story transcends the language and so is not
dependent on it, but who could tell it better than the Master
Wordsmith himself? Changing the language is permitted, but not
necessary. If a new playwright wants to tell the same story using
different words, he may, but he should give credit where it is due for
And to another debate in class: Is the 1997 film really William
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet? That is a good question. They
use Shakespeare's words (some of them at least). They act out his
story (more or less). They just don't do it in his setting. I would
have to say it maybe should be called William Shakespeare's Romeo
and Juliet As Seen Through the Eyes of **** (sorry, I didn't write
down the name of the screenwriter/producer). That, however more
accurate, would be a lot of title to deal with and so maybe we should
just leave well enough alone.