by Carl Pierer
Much has been written about Zeffirelli's adaption of Romeo & Juliet, in particular its focus on the themes of youth and beauty. A neat narrative lends itself to explain the films popularity and immense success: Zeffirelli catered for a teen audience (choosing unknown, very young lead actors, exploring themes of sexuality) in a time where precisely this teen audience was preoccupied with similar explorations – the film was released in 1968 – need more be said? Today, it seems, Zeffirelli's once progressive interpretation has become canonical. The film, to a modern audience, seems a trifle antiquated: the romance, the costumes, the operatic acting all add to its heaviness. Yet, beneath this striking opulence, the film is a subtle and skillful interpretation of Shakespeare's text. It is a nuanced study of the consequences of patriarchal structures based on a phallic conception of masculinity, which has not lost any of its actuality. More so, it treats women as agents by painting them as complicit supporters of the patriarchal hierarchy.
In a brilliant essay, Peter Donaldson has explored some alternative themes dominating Zeffirelli's adaption. One of them is its treatment of the homoerotic undercurrents in Shakespeare's text. Donaldson reads Zeffirelli's film as visually underscoring Shakespeare's social criticism of the patriarchal structures which form the social context of the play. The feud, which produces the tragedy, is understood, on this reading, as a symptom of a much deeper illness: “misogyny and its corollary, male fear of intimacy with other men.” (Donaldson, p. 153)
The text abounds with phallic allusions. Most strikingly, the sword is referred to in an ambiguous manner, evoking sexual associations: “‘Me they shall feel while I am able to stand.' (1.1.27); ‘Draw thy tool' (1.1.31); ‘My naked weapon is out' (1.1.33) (…)” (ibid.) The film further eliminates the ambiguities by rendering the associations explicit. This is perhaps most obvious in the scene of Mercutio's fatal conflict with Tybalt. When Tybalt enters the stage, Mercutio is cooling himself in a fountain, his bottom half in the water. While the provocations are exchanged, Mercutio remains in the water retorting “here's my fiddlestick”, slowly letting his sword rise from underneath the water – clearly evoking phallic imagery (Fig. 1). Donaldson reads these puns as capturing the feud's underlying psychology: competition and assertion of male dominance.
Romeo, by contrast, finds himself outside this competition. He is shown in quite stark opposition to the other male characters – handsome, tender, pacifist. However, Donaldson observes:
There is only one moment – a crucial one – in which the film presents Romeo in terms of the sword/phallus metaphor. After the death of Mercutio, Romeo, unarmed, runs after Tybalt and pushes Mercutio's bloodied handkerchief into his face. Someone throws Romeo a sword and there is a cut to a close-up of his midsection, juxtaposing the caught and extended rapier and the codpiece in a brief, still tableau before the fatal fight. (Donaldson, p. 156)
The moment Romeo is integrated into the phallic symbolism, the tone of the play changes, taking a turn for the dramatic (Fig. 2).
It is curious that Donaldson does not comment on the other male pacific characters, who appear to be not quite as active in the phallic play as Mercutio and Tybalt, yet who cannot extract themselves from its force. Benvolio's role goes uncommented. When, in the opening scene he makes an attempt at preventing a brawl, Tybalt interrupts questioning if he means peace with his drawn, yet loosely dangling rapier: “What drawn and talk of piece?” (1.1.66) Benvolio's unwilling absorption into the phallic symbolism is mirrored in the film through this unraised sword, which he waves in apparent ignorance of the provocation it constitutes. Benvolio is, despite his pacifist intentions, very much part of the society's machoist fabric. Another pacifist, in a completely different position from Benvolio, but similarly unable to withstand the events unfolding force is Friar Lawrence. His introduction in the film echoes Romeo's, as he is shown between flowers, in a calm and non-aggressive masculinity. He remains outside and yet is under the phallus' spell. Towards the very end of the play, when Juliet awakes and he attempts to persuade her to leave the vault, he flees the scene upon the noise announcing the watchmen's arrival. In the film, this noise is presented as fanfares sounding the coming of authority, while Friar Lawrence repeatedly cries “I dare no longer stay” (5.3.159) as he hurries away. Can we not discern the same phallic symbolism here, as when Friar Lawrence implores Romeo, after killing Tybalt, to be a man: “Art thou a man? Thy form cries out thou art. Thy tears are womanish; thy wild acts denote the unreasonable fury of a beast. Unseemly woman in a seeming man” (3.3.108) and notably to stay alive? We have thus two characters with pacifist intentions, one of them too implied in his own assertion of masculinity to remain pacifist, the other too structured by prejudices and inherited ideas to effectively challenge them.
In addition to, or rather as a consequence of the phallic conception of masculinity, Donaldson argues, misogyny pervades the speech of the male characters. In the film, the verbal abuse of most of them is cut, except for Mercutio's, thus highlighting his unease with women. There is hostility towards ‘effeminate' traits in Romeo, and his bond with Mercutio is affirmed in direct opposition to Romeo's being dissociated from the male pack. Responsible for a possible alienation from the group is of course Juliet, since Romeo's love would undermine the constitutive hatred. On the day after the ball, Romeo is greeted by Mercutio and showered with mockery. Mercutio's jest has, at least provisionally, Romeo reaffirm his belonging to the group. His quipping: “Thy wit is a very bitter-sweeting; it is a most sharp sauce.” (2.3.76) – which, in the text is uttered by Mercutio, but in the film by Romeo – is met with applause from the group. In the film, moreover, by having his arm around Romeo and replying: “Why, is not this better now than groaning for love? Now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo, now art thou what thou art by art as well as by nature; for this drivelling love is like a great natural that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole.” (2.3.83), Mercutio re-establishes Romeo as part of the group (Fig. 3). Simultaneously, he renders the group's misogynist identity explicit.
These aspects culminate in the film's intriguing focus on the homoerotic aspects of the play. It is in particular the attractive virility of Mercutio and Tybalt that interact with the more ‘feminine' Romeo. The film depicts a physical closeness between the friends, while the enmity is layered with ambiguities. During the ball, when Romeo first sees Juliet and exalts her beauty, the camera cuts from Juliet to Tybalt, who upon recognising his enemy returns an angry gaze (Fig. 4 – 6). This visual substitution makes the viewer wonder about the true object of Romeo's praise: “I ne'er saw true beauty till this night” (1.5.53). This exchange of observer-observed and the substitutions are played over and over again in this scene. After having noticed Romeo amongst the guests, Tybalt observes the second dance from a position very similar to Romeo's when he later approaches Juliet (“If I profane (…)” (1.5.93)). The film builds up the link between a heterosexual and a homosexual gaze, to be further explored below.
Moreover, it has been observed by Donaldson and others, that the particular framing of Romeo evokes Italian renaissance paintings of beautiful young men. A case in point is the presentation of the male body in the central amorous encounter between Romeo and Juliet. Zeffirelli chooses not to show their sexual intercourse, but directly moves to the morning after. We see Romeo's handsome backside as he lies naked on the bed, while Juliet is covered by sheets and Romeo's embrace (Fig. 7). Throughout the scene, it is clear that the male body is the object of sexual attraction as we observe Romeo from Juliet's perspective. But, as Donaldson astutely observes:
(…) it is not enough to say that Zeffirelli offers a feminine gaze for our identification that is analogous to the customary male look at the female as object of sexual desire. The gaze here is and is not Juliet's; again, as in Romeo's praise of beauty which the camera diverts from Juliet to Tybalt earlier, we have a use of the gaze that invokes a literally unconscious dimension. (…) This gaze draws for its effect on our memory of Tybalt's entrance, of the lovely introduction of Romeo as he is seen by Benvolio, of the close-ups of the singer at the ball, of the moments of tenderness between Romeo and Mercutio, and of the powerful undercurrent of macho denial of feeling between men in the text which Zeffirelli has conditioned us to read as disavowal. Although Romeo is the only male present in the scene, the camera work creates a homoerotic connection even as it portrays heterosexual love. (p.169-70)
Donaldson reads the homoerotic evocations as underlining the play's sense of exclusion and loss, pointing out the analogues between the aubade and the first intimate parting of Mercutio and Romeo. The crucial sentence here is the last, establishing a link between Juliet's presumably heterosexual gaze and the deeper homoeroticism of the scene.
What is striking about Donaldson's reading is the absence of a proper analysis of the role of women in this patriarchal society. He understands Shakespeare's – and by consequence Zeffirelli's – Juliet as a desiring subject, conscious of her own sexuality, which is clearly at its most striking in the balcony scene, where Romeo appears entirely directed by her. There is a symmetry in the presentation of both of them as beauty to be looked at. While there is a certain voyeuristic flavour to the scene – we observe, with Romeo, how Juliet fantasises about him, in her tight and rather transparent night gown, thus find ourselves in the distinctly privileged position of the unseen observer. However, this is interrupted with close-ups of Romeo, showing his reactions. Through this, Donaldson suggests, an equality between them is established, as both figure in a “to be looked at-ness”. In this rendering of Juliet, he rightly identifies a parity between the genders, and sees Zeffirelli moving “(…) away from the conventions of mainstream cinema and toward a more reciprocal and unpredictable treatment of sexuality” (p.167). In a similar way, he locates a crucial conflict in the strained relationship between Lady and Lord Capulet. Zeffirelli depicts this carefully, suggesting an almost oedipal conflict between Tybalt and Lord Capulet, which is at its clearest during the ball. When Tybalt consults with Lord Capulet about Romeo's presence at the ball, he does not respect the older man's injunction to ignore the fact. After a brief shot that shows Tybalt now observing Romeo, he rushes to Lord Capulet again, who in turn is angered by the young man's lack of calm. The film has Lady Capulet address Tybalt with a line from Capulet: “you are a princox, go, be quiet, or – ” (1.4.199), at which they return to the dancers, while she whispers to Capulet in passing (again with his own words): “for shame – I'll make you quiet.” (1.4.200), thus settling the conflict. There is an obvious upsetting of the patriarchal hierarchy in this scene.
Nonetheless, there seems to be more to the portraits of women in Zeffirelli's adaption. Donaldson's reading seems to fall short of recognising the part women play in upholding the patriarchal structure. While he acutely argues for the importance of misogyny and the phallic conception of masculinity in bringing about the tragedy, the counterpart played by women to perform according to the misogynist expectations goes unmentioned. Zeffirelli elaborates this aspect subtly and with care. Most notably, the scene of conflict between Juliet and her parents when they announce to her that she will be married to Paris shows Juliet comporting herself exactly as expected of a woman in distress. She weeps and is reduced to childlike crying, while the discourse is held by Lord Capulet. The film reinforces what is already present in the text by cutting the preceding quibble between Juliet and Lady Capulet. Juliet, during this scene, speaks with a tear-stained, high-pitched voice and is not seen standing up. She either lies on her bed or remains on the floor after Lord Capulet pushed her there in his anger. This underlines her surrendering to the patriarchal forces, as she falls back into her role as a child.
Zeffirelli's film must thus be understood as a carefully articulated and nuanced adaption of Shakespeare's play. Read with Donaldson, it is much more than the apparent slush film and tragic romance. Rather, it is a subtle critique of a phallic conception of masculinity. Moreover, it gives a progressive picture of the women in the play, not only by showing them as desiring subjects, but also as agents in a patriarchal society.
Donaldson, P. S. (1990). Shakespearean Films/ Shakespearean Directors. Boston: Unwin Hyman.
Levenson, J. L. (2000). The Oxford Shakespeare: Romeo & Juliet. Oxford: Oxford University Press.