Making the Grades
I don’t know that anyone has committed suicide after reading Romeo and Juliet. Most high school freshmen just struggle to understand the Shakespearean dialogue. But if any director has made taking your own life—for the sake of love—look romantic, it is Carlo Carlei. And that for me is the problem. His 2013 adaptation of the Bard’s tragic story brings the classic tale to life in a way English Lit teachers are going to adore. Filmed in beautiful Italian locations with detailed costumes and a very capable cast, it embraces all the teenaged angst to be expected. Yet (SPOILER ALERT) when the star-crossed lovers finally kill themselves, it’s all so painless and bloodless and tender. Even when their bodies lie in the church adorned in their finery in front of their grieving families, their cold, dead, but still beautiful hands are entwined in a gesture of affection.
Shakespeare isn’t promoting suicide as much as pointing out the utter foolishness of the Capulet and Montague feud. And that message is as relevant as ever. Though the film is set in the play’s original time frame and uses the original dialogue, the portrayal of swordfights in the streets doesn’t seem al that distant from the gang rivalry today. The Prince of Verona’s (Stellan Skarsgård) issues ineffectual pleas and then threats to stem the fighting among the younger family members. It is apparent both he and the townsfolk have grown weary of the bloody and ongoing disputes. Still, only moments after the Prince berates them, Tybalt (Ed Westwick) and his friends in the Capulet clan throw down the gauntlet in front of the Montague boys. Romeo (Douglas Booth) however, is so taken with Juliet (Hailee Steinfeld) that he is willing to set aside their weapons. Unfortunately his resolve doesn’t last long when his cousin is killed.
While several deaths are depicted, some involving blades, blood and illegal poisons, none are overtly graphic. Yet the rash attitude that leads to these fatalities also afflicts the young lovers. Romeo instantly falls for the masked Juliet at a house party he shouldn’t be attending. And he’s up on her balcony kissing her face and professing his love before he even knows her identity. Romanticizing this impulsive behavior in defending honor and pursuits of the heart is a real concern—especially if parents or teachers don’t take time to discuss it.
By all artistic measures, Romeo and Juliet (2013) is an A movie. Along with Paul Giamatti who gives a brilliant performance as Friar Laurence, this cast includes some lesser-known but talented actors. That lets audiences immerse themselves in the story rather than getting distracted watching famous faces like Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role.
All the same, just because this tale is old doesn’t mean the events surrounding the couple’s fate are ones parents want reenacted. Unfolding over only a few days, the impetuous pursuit of their passion leads this pair to a tragic end—even if they are carried out in a beautiful, candle-lit setting.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Romeo and Juliet (2013).
The Prince of Verona organizes a sporting competition between the Capulets and Montegues in hopes of keeping the fighting off the streets. How is the families’ feud affecting the other residents of the city? What are the reasons for their fighting?
What is the moral dilemma the apothecary faces when Romeo asks him for poison? How does he justify his decision? Can finances dictate moral decisions for some people?
Juliet’s nurse is her close confident and friend. What role did these servants play in the lives of the families they worked for? Why were they often closer to the children than their parents?
Might this story have ended differently if Romeo and Juliet had talked to their parents? Do you think their families might be willing to put aside their differences or did it have to take the death of their children to make them see their foolishness?