The Universality of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

The Universality of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

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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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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


his inspiration. 




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.

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