Love, And Change The World

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Why Romeo and Juliet Still Matters.

By Anna Goodman, Staff Writer

Like almost all of you, I read Romeo & Juliet in ninth grade. Even if you haven’t, you’ve probably seen it referenced in every YA novel that’s a rip-off of Twilight. A boy and a girl from two noble families that hate each other, fall in love, and then commit suicide when their plan to run away goes wrong, an act that causes their parents to end the feud. Or, as the Bard himself put it, “Two households, both alike in dignity; in fair Verona, where we lay our scene. From ancient grudge break to new mutiny; where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. From forth the fatal loins of these two foes, a pair of star crossed lovers take their life, whose misadventures piteous overthrows do with their death bury their parents’ strife…” Etc, etc.

Nearly every country has adapted the story at least once, whether as plays, musicals, movies, ballets, songs, and even foods, like the popular Brazilian dish Romeu E Julieta (a guava paste and cheese dessert that one website described as, “like the star-crossed lovers, the flavor combination in this recipe is a perfect pairing.”) Obviously, covering every work inspired by the play would take longer than the play itself, so I’ve chosen five that I think did something unique or at least thought-provoking with the original story: a movie musical grounded in discrimination against Puerto Ricans in 1950’s New York City, a film about homophobia set at a military academy, an album with songs about gender-swapped characters in modern day Los Angeles gangs, a novel set in a time of imperialism and colonialism in twentieth-century China, and a stage musical from Italy that portrays all different kinds of love.

All of them underscore the theme that love can change the world. And, all of them express the point that became clear the more I researched: Romeo and Juliet is fundamentally an LGBTQ tale (written by a possibly LGBTQ playwright). It’s about two people who can’t be together, can’t even admit that they have feelings for each other, because of how their parents and society will react, something that a lot of queer people can unfortunately relate to. Of course, there’s also Mercutio. We’ll get to Mercutio. 

West Side Story

Possibly the most famous version, West Side Story is a 1961 movie that updates the feud between noble families to a war between two gangs in 1950’s New York City: the Jets, who are Polish, and the Sharks, who are Puerto Rican. The conflict here is not only gang violence but racism and anti-immigrant sentiment, pure and simple, discussing the contrast between what the US’ ideals are and the realities many people of color face. “Lots of new housing with more space, lots of doors slamming in our face…Buying on credit is so nice, one look at us and they charge twice.” For its time, this movie was shockingly forward thinking. Now, looking back, it’s uncomfortable to watch a group of mostly white actors (with some exceptions) put on heavy makeup and heavy accents to do stereotypical impressions of Puerto Rican people. The remake, made in 2022, does address this, casting people of color for the right roles and shows Tony and Maria, from the Jets and Sharks respectively, navigating this cultural divide with sensitivity. The new movie also adds a trans character: Anybodys, depicted as a “tomboy” in the original movie, but here played by a nonbinary actor. While not making their identity their entire personality, it accurately shows their struggles as well as their eventual acceptance. Both movies are also notable for allowing Maria (the Juliet analogue) to live, while Tony dies and so do others. She, instead of the adult authority figures who are shown as willfully ignorant of the racism, is the one to yell at the two gangs gathered over Tony’s body for their foolishness, and the story ends with her walking away as the one voice of reason.

Private Romeo

This 2012 indie film also updates the story for a modern era, but instead of focusing on racism, the “feud” here is blatant homophobia, most of it coming from Tybalt. It’s a response to the US military’s infamous Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, which stated that openly gay or bisexual people could not be in the military while closeted ones could. The act was only repealed as recently as  2011. The movie consists of only eight actors and follows a group of boys at a military school who put on a production of Romeo and Juliet. The two playing the main roles fall in love in real life as well, speaking just lines from the original play. This is one of the very few adaptations with a happy ending. Instead of a double suicide after one of the lovers takes a drug to simulate death, here the other wakes him up and they decide to face the uncertain future together.

Hopeless Fountain Kingdom

In 2017, singer / songwriter Halsey released their second LP, a concept album reimagining of the play. It borrows heavily from the 1996 Romeo + Juliet movie (which starred Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio) setting the story in a purgatory where people too cruel for heaven but too good for hell are forced to live and two gangs / houses, Aureum and Angelus, are engaged in war. The album makes use of sun and moon imagery as a reference to Romeo and Juliet’s status as star-crossed lovers; the characters themselves are even named Luna and Solis. It also switches the genders, with the “Romeo” analogue played by Halsey herself. Both of the lovers are people of color here, and Hopeless Fountain Kingdom makes its protagonist Luna bisexual to reflect Halsey’s own sexuality. The ending here isn’t exactly happy, but neither does it end in a double suicide. Instead, Luna and Solis acknowledge that their love isn’t working anymore, and go their separate ways. All in all, the album stresses the importance of communication in a relationship, that sometimes it’s better to walk away, and that such a culture of violence as we have in this country breeds an endless cycle: “I am a child of a money hungry, prideful country, hands so bloody, tastes like honey.”

These Violent Delights

This novel focuses on the clash between the Russian White Flowers and the Chinese Scarlet Gang, taking place on the eve of Communist Revolution in Shanghai in 1926. It makes several distinctive changes. Here, Roma Montagov and Juliette Cai (Cai Junli) were lovers in the past and the love at first sight trope is erased. These Violent Delights also adds LGBTQ representation in the form of a romance between the Mercutio and Benvolio analogues, and in the new characters, a trans woman and an aromantic asexual girl. It has an interesting use of languages (mainly English, Chinese, and Russian, but also French and Dutch), often having characters pepper their speech with sayings sans translations, which grounds the story in truth. These Violent Delights also comments on racism, making the astute point that while the two gangs plot to destroy each other for a meaningless war, the English, as colonizers do, are pitting them against each other to take over their city in the process: “These days,” Roma notes poignantly, “the most dangerous people are the powerful white men who feel they have been slighted.”

Romeo E Giuletta 

I decided to save for last what got me reintroduced to this story and made me want to share my thoughts with you. Romeo E Giuletta is an Italian musical, an adaptation of an earlier French one that itself has been performed (translated fully) in over a dozen countries including Mongolia, Mexico, Korea, Israel, and Slovakia. If you happen to be bilingual, there’s a good chance that you can find a version in a language you speak. And just as the original play we started with was set in Verona, we end with this production, which was performed there. It also turns queer subtext into text, as after Mercutio is stabbed by Tybalt, he gives his infamous speech, but then declares his love for Romeo, kisses him, and dies in his arms. It isn’t just the Italian either: in the Russian version, Romeo is killed by a literal kiss from Death (played by a man); in the Portuguese, Mercutio is a crossdresser referred to with male and female pronouns; in the Austrian Mercutio and Tybalt kiss. See? I told you we’d get to Mercutio. (And, if you’re wondering how many languages I’ve seen this in, the answer is, too many.)

One of the greatest strengths of the musical is how it notes love between friends, between cousins, and between parents and children, giving nearly every side character at least one solo explaining who they are, with the Nurse’s S’innamora Gia, about her surrogate daughter growing up too fast, possibly the most powerful. Expanding on them makes the audience realize that each and every one hates this feud; as Lady Capulet states, “We die without knowing why or who for.” Alone, they can do nothing, but when it’s over, when the families decide to give up their foolish fighting and tearfully embrace, it feels like a relief to them all. Meanwhile, Romeo and Giuletta take each others’ hands and walk into white light, as the entire cast, Capulettis in red and Montecchis in blue, alike, sings an impassioned reprise of their wedding song right to the audience: “Ama, e cambia il mondo. Ama, non c’è peccato.  Ama senza confine, senza paura. Ama passa ogni muro, con ogni forza. Ama, e cambia il mondo!” “Love, and change the world. In love there is no sin. Love without boundaries, without fear. Love, pass every wall, with all your strength. Love, and change the world!” Perhaps you’re a cynic, and you’re thinking, “Really?” But in the case of a tale almost half a millennium old, the words still ring true. Curse it to the heavens or champion it as the greatest love story ever told, Romeo & Juliet truly has changed the world. 

As I said before, the versions I’ve mentioned aren’t an exhaustive list. Other popular or interesting ones are the 1995 movie Romeo + Juliet, the kids’ parody Gnomeo and Juliet, the 1960’s movie Romeo and Juliet, the National Theater production of Romeo & Juliet (which was filmed and turned into a movie), or the 1990’s movie Romeo Must Die. For less exact adaptations, the Bollywood movie Bollywood Queen, the Vampire TV show First Kill, the zombie apocalypse romance Warm Bodies, from Benvolio’s perspective Prince Of Shadows, or the YA fantasy novel Endless Water, Starless Sky.