Sex and Violence in Romeo and Juliet

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With Love, Comes Great Violence

“I fear this but a dream, too sweet to be substantial,” are the soft words uttered from star-crossed lovers caught in the chaotic instability that permeates Franco Zeffirilli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968), Baz Lurman’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), and John Madden’s Shakespear and Love (1998). Although there are significant differences in each movie’s portrayal of Juliet and her Romeo, they accurately depict Freud’s ideas concerning love and human tendencies. In “The Einstein-Freud Correspondence,” Freud explains that in nature, violence rules everywhere. Einstein questions mankind’s lust for destruction and Freud affirms that man has two basic instincts: sex and violence. The constant state of instability and antagonism between humankind in nature makes peace unavoidable. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, love can attempt to rebel against the specter of war, but it is always beaten down. Tragically, Romeo and Juliet’s love is inextricably entwined with the aggression that plagues their feuding families. Both Romeo and Juliet try to fight the hostility with love, but all psychical acts (according to Freud) occur in an atmosphere of constraint, and the tension between one’s impulses, and what society will allow, creates an unavoidable instability. Each movie is an interesting interpretation of Shakespeare’s masterpiece; however, Zeffirilli’s Romeo and Juliet is the best representation of true love and human tendencies. Though extremely witty and entertaining, Madden’s Shakespeare in Love does not represent true love and human nature. One of Madden’s central devices is to create a background of events, large and small, drawn from Will Shakespeare's daily life. For example, in the opening scenes Madden shows Will strolling through town hearing lines shouted out from town criers such as “a plague on both your houses!” Moreover, Madden poses Will as at a loss for inspiration. Hence, William gets the foundations of his next play (Romeo and Juliet) from a chance encounter with a rival poet. Madden’s use of time and space is key to the progression of Will’s character. The events in the queen’s quarters, the tensions between the two playhouses, and the auditions for Will’s new play set up the meeting for the beautiful Viola. Madden creates a real narrative outside the realm of the story of Romeo and Juliet which explains how the masterpiece came to be. For example, the battle between two playhouses, The Rose and The Curtain, is transformed into the feud between the two noble houses of Montague and Capulet in imaginary Verona. Another interesting theme is the idea of chaos. In numerous moments it seems all will be lost, but as Henslow says several times when asked how everything will work it, he answers, “I don’t know, it’s a mystery.” Among the chaos, Will’s love and inspiration for fair Viola is the fuel that keeps the fire burning. In other words, Romeo and Juliet's modern adapters direct the spectator's attention to what might have been the inspiration for Shakespeare’s work. Nevertheless, with love, comes violence (as mentioned above). What produces the lovers' calamity is the depth of their feelings. The truth is, even in a world built on such unfavorable foundations, it should take much more to destroy love. William’s and Viola’s love, on the other hand, is not the best testament to true love. It proves much weaker than the civilization. In the final scenes, the queen decrees Viola leave with her husband. Society succeeds in oppressing their love without resistance. If their love were true, they would fight with every last breath to be together.

Lurhman’s Romeo + Juliet, like Madden’s Shakespeare and Love, falls short of true love as well. Unlike Zeffirilli, Lurhman set out with the intention of making a modern day Romeo and Juliet with great success. He plays brilliantly with love in relation to time and nature. He toys with time in the opening gang warfare scene, playing the...
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