Before you send your kid off to summer camp, why not spend a few short hours learning Shakespeare in a low-key, no-pressure scenario! I have classes on Shakespeare’s life, Romeo and Juliet, and my celebrated Stage Combat class! Sign up now for all the fun on Outschool.com!
May 29th- June 4rth- Romeo and Juliet Murder Mystery
May 31st- Introduction to Shakespeare– 3PM EST
Course Description: In this one-time course, students will learn about Shakespeare’s life and what made him so remarkable. Knowing more about the man and his theater will help them understand why his plays have been loved for so many years.
June 2nd- Intro to Shakespeare, How to Write Like Shakespeare, and Intro To Romeo and Juliet.
How to Write Like Shakespeare: Learn the basics of iambic pentameter, sonnet form, and Shakespeare’s dramatic structure, and practice writing Shakespearean speeches.
Romeo and Juliet: Why Do We Still Read This Play? In this one-time class, learners will explore the story, characters, and themes of Shakespeare’s play, and grow to understand its timeless appeal.
June 3rd- Shakespeare’s Comedies- 11PM EST or 8:30 IST.
June 10th- Into To Shakespeare, Stage Combat, and Shakespeare’s Comedies.
Romeo and Juliet is still taught more than any other text in American high schools, and since it’s a play not a book, teachers will inevitably want to show a movie in class to show some of the action to the students. Since this is the most recent high-profile film version of Romeo and Juliet, it seems inevitable that this will be the one teachers will show to students, so I will try to review this film from the point of view of an educator, not a Shakespeare fan.
This film was financed by the Swarosvski Crystal Company and in the words of their own chairperson, the film is an extension of the Swarosvki brand. So if I were to describe this film’s concept it would be to dazzle the viewers with expensive costumes, exotic locations, beautiful visuals, and young, attractive actors:
To be clear, I agree with the director that Shakespeare should be updated every few years to keep it fresh and relevant. However, I would argue that this film doesn’t go far enough to make this concept fresh, and this version is destined to age poorly. Without a unique view of the play other than- “love is pretty”, the film lacks vision and is not very distinct. That said, it perhaps is a good way to introduce young people to the play, as we’ll see below:
Changes to The Plot
The Act I Tournament
The film opens, not with two servants fighting (yet), but with a tournament between the Monaegues and Capulets, where they joust instead of fight to avoid bloodshed. It is a striking image to be sure, and it is less confusing than starting a fight over biting a thumb, but it is a little odd that the Prince has this tournament to avoid street fights, and then they wind up fighting anyway over the results of the tournament. It works within the story but it makes the Prince seem dumb and it adds little to the story other than spectacle.
As you can see from this clip, the dialogue of this film is changed liberally. The writers change Shakespeare’s lines to make them sound less Shakespearean. They also heavily cut the speeches to shorten the duration of the film. Cutting long speeches and substituting a word here and there is pretty standard for most Shakespeare movies, but what I find really irritating in this film is the number of lines that they add. It’s generally understood in Shakespeare that a director or actor can subtly change a few lines in a play- change pronouns, change an archaic word or two to make it easier for an audience, but this movie has the dubious record for most lines added to a Shakespeare movie. Some of these lines are paraphrases of the Shakespearean text, like all the dialogue of Sampson and Friar Laurence’s speech explaining the sleeping drug plan to Juliet. Some of the additions are character lines, like the scene where Benvolio admits he wants to woo Rosaline, (which to be fair, is an interesting change and I don’t mind it). Finally, some of the lines are designed to summarize speeches that the script cuts.
I know I sound like a purist here, but I feel that if you’re going to do Romeo and Juliet, use the text of Romeo and Juliet, and don’t change it unless it’s absolutely necessary. If you’re going to do an adaptation like Gnomio and Juliet or Tromeo and Juliet, you can throw out the Shakespearean dialogue and play around with dialogue using the plot and characters Shakespeare wrote. This film does neither- it mangles Shakespeare’s text but rigidly adheres to the story and characters, so it fails to pick a lane between faithful depiction or creative adaptation.
Mercutio is a Montegue now. This matters because in Shakespeare’s version, he was related to the Prince, which is why the Prince takes pity on Romeo for avenging Tybalt’s death. Changing his allegiance robs his death of some of the tragedy that he was a neutral party who got caught up in other people’s quarrels.
Tybalt is in love with Juliet, which admittedly, I’ve seen in other productions. It gives him more motivation to hate Romeo and makes him even more distasteful to the audience.
Sampson and Gregory appear, but they are not named, nor do they bite a thumb.
Benvolio’s role is merged with Balthazar and the actor is the youngest person in the cast. I honestly like this change a lot- Balthazar is a great character but he is functionally identical to Benvolio in the plot, so merging the two parts makes a lot of sense. Both Balthazar and Benvolio spend the play looking out for Romeo yet Benvolio disappears once Tybalt dies, so giving the actor Balthazar’s lines is a welcome change. Now Benvolio is literally with Romeo to the end, which makes us feel sorry for Romeo and his best friend.
Benvolio is in love with Rosaline and makes a play for her after Romeo falls in love with Juliet. This might be a subtle nod to their relationship in the novel “Romeo’s Ex.”
Rosaline is Juliet’s cousin now, which is not mentioned in Shakespeare’s version.
Rosaline actually speaks, remarking on the foolish nature of silly Romeo, the Montague, and the Capulets. She still has no effect on the plot though, and her dialogue adds nothing.
Concerns for Teachers
If you are a teacher, I would recommend you show parts of the movie, specifically the fights and some of the action in the second half rather than the whole thing, but once you read the rest of this review, you can draw your own conclusions. As I mentioned before the Shakespearean dialogue is heavily cut, new ‘modern’ dialogue is added in, and even some of the action is also changed. Because of this, DO NOT TRY to read the play along with this film, as your students will get extremely frustrated. In my class, I actually played a game where the students write down what the movie changed from the play to try and get them to engage with it. I would also recommend asking questions or quizzing the students on the plot or the famous lines since those are more or less intact.
According to Common Sense Media, the film is relatively tame for students, (which of course was one of the goals of making it), so the violence is toned down, there is little nudity and little cursing (there actually is a little PG-13 language added near the beginning, but not much).
Though the film is populated with English and American actors, the majority of the crew is Italian and principal photography was done in Italy, both on-location in places like Verona, Mantua, Rome, and other Italian locations.
The original story of Romeo and Juliet is set in the 1400s but based on the references to contemporary fashion and music, we can assume Shakespeare set his version around 1593- (the year it was probably written). This production, based on its fashion and architecture is probably set around the early Baroque period, (c. 1600).
This time period was notable for abandoning neck and sleeve ruffs in favor of lace or linen collars (Source: https://fashionintherenaissance.weebly.com/fashion-timeline.html) . The famous pumpkin pants were also replaced with less fussy breeches as well. All these fashion choices are in the Romeo and Juliet movie and it’s fascinating to look at the choices they made for the film in behind-the-scenes documentaries. I shouldn’t be surprised here, but studying this period made me enjoy the film more- I lost myself in the spectacle and ignored their handling of the story.
As you can see from the close-ups above, the Swarovski Crystal company definitely showed off some of their wares in Juliet’s costume. In fact, Swarovski sells a version of Juliet’s wedding ring.
You can also see in these costume renderings the influence of Pre-Raphelite artwork on the costumes, like this famous painting by Francis Dicksee (1884).
Many of the street locations for Romeo and Juliet were filmed at Cinecitta Studios in Italy, but as you can see from this behind-the-scenes footage, most of the film was filmed on location in beautiful real-life baroque buildings in Italy:
Many of the locations remind me of the high baroque architecture of the celebrated Italian sculptor and architect Gian-Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), who had his own Romeo and Juliet-style drama in terms of sordid love affairs, duels, and exiles:
One location I found very interesting to research was the Grotto of Sacro Speco in Subiaco, which was the location for Friar Laurence’s cell. This is a very holy site to many Catholics- it is the celebrated Cave of St. Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine monks. Friar Laurence is a Franciscan monk so this isn’t entirely accurate, but it does provide some wonderful religious eye candy during the scenes at his cell, and it does beautify the wedding scene.
The Music (rant alert)
THE MUSIC NEEDS TO SHUT UP! Especially in the love scenes, I feel like the music is too loud and drowns out the dialogue. I also find it irritating that the score makes so much use of the piano, which wasn’t invented until 1700 since the movie is trying to be historically accurate. To be fair, the loud piano is actually the sound department’s fault, but the fact that pianos didn’t exist at this time took me out almost as much as the overpowering score, (which somehow won two International Film Music Critics Awards (IFMCA)!
Reviewers usually love to rag on whoever plays Romeo and Juliet. It’s kind of a no-win scenario here- If they’re young, they’re inexperienced and thus, don’t know how to speak Shakespeare. If they’re older, they’re too old and shouldn’t have been cast in such a youthful role. So rather than falling into that trap, I’ll be positive about the casting and say what I like about the performances, while criticizing the direction, because I feel that in general, the acting in this film is fine, but there are some odd choices that the director should’ve thought twice about.
Romeo (Douglas Booth)
Booth might actually be my favorite film Romeo- he’s beautiful to look at, sweet, impulsive, naive, everything Romeo should be. He also knows how to deliver Shakespeare and can convey complex ideas through poetry. I could argue that he lacks the rage that Romeo should have when killing Tybalt, but I don’t think that’s what he was going for this Romeo is a good guy who is too sheltered and lacks proper guidance, so he makes rash choices because nobody is there to tell him why they are.
Juliet (HailiEe Steinfeld)
I don’t fault Ms. Steinfeld for this, but her worst scenes are sadly, the most famous. Her delivery during the Act I dance and the famous balcony scene is monotonous and dull. I think the director told her to act as if love put her in a trance, but the effect is that she sounds like she’s half asleep. Again, I know she can do Shakespeare because her scenes with the Nurse and Lord Capulet are much better; she’s passionate, articulate, and full of emotion. I think the director failed to give her proper direction to play a love scene realistically, and intentionally slowed the scene down so the audience could pick out the famous lines.
Some people argue that Lord Capulet is actually a good dad, but not this film. As I’ll show you later, this film is trying to play up the forbidden love aspect of the story, and what is more classic than an angry, disapproving father? To this end, even though Damien Lewis starts out jovial and sweet to Juliet, by Act III he is full of resentment and rage:
Tybalt (Edward Westwick)
In my opinion, Ed Westwick steals the show every time he’s on screen. He knows how to speak the Shakespearean lines and he makes the added lines sound Shakespearean (which is to say, actually good). With his fiery gaze and his thick, deep voice, he reminds me of a young Mark Strong and is equally good at playing smarmy yet compelling antagonists. You love to hate this guy, yet you feel sorry when he dies.
Friar Laurence (Paul Giamatti)
Giamatti rivals Pete Postlethwaite for my favorite Friar Laurence. He was a perfect choice and he has an effortless Shakespearean delivery. I think it’s telling that his lines of dialogue are the least altered from Shakespeare- the director knew Giamatti could make them work without any alteration. He also has a great rapport with both Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld.
Moments to Watch For:
This film does well at portraying the forces that rip Romeo and Juliet apart- Tybalt’s maniacal hatred of the Montagues, Lord Capulet’s scheme to marry Juliet, and the influence of maligning fate. For this reason, the film is actually better in the second half, once the romance is over and the tragedy sets in. Again, a lot of this is due to the excellent performances of Ed Westwick as Tybalt, and Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence, who frantically strains his brain to help the lovers and is thwarted at every turn. I wonder if, since the film was adapted by the creator of Downton Abbey, in which Giamatti starred, the writer placed most of the success of the film on Giamatti’s shoulders, intentionally or not.
My Reaction: Shakespeare for Twi-hards.
Forgive me for getting a little conspiracy-theory-ey here but, since the Twilight saga concluded in 2012 and this film came out the next year, I suspect that thisRomeo and Juliet was partially produced to cash in on the success of Twilight. After all, Twilight: New Moon is full of references to Romeo and Juliet:
As the video below demonstrates, Twilight and Romeo and Juliet are both examples of Petrachian love, which is to say, love thwarted, so similar themes and tropes are baked into both stories.
There are also stylistic similarities to how this particular Romeo and Juliet are filmed, such as the lush landscapes, the prevalence of piano in the score, the heavy uses of glamour shots, and even some of the Italian locations evoke Twilight:
Worst of all, I feel that this film tried to make Hailee Steinfeld, an Academy Award-nominated actress, try to act like Bella Swan in the Balcony scene. I think this is why the first half of the film drags and seems slow and dull- it is trying to emulate Twilight’s visual style and forces the actors to adopt a “Twilight School of Acting.”
So in conclusion, the film is uneven- it has talented people working on it, but I think the studio and the company were a little preoccupied with selling the film to a specific group of young people. Does it work for classrooms? For now, but I worry that this version won’t connect with young people for long, and because of its lack of focus and clear direction, it will probably go the way of Twilight– a brief cultural blip that is pretty to look at, but that is quickly forgotten.
If you like this analysis, you might be interested in signing up for one of my Outschool Course on Romeo and Juliet Link down below. Share this class with a friend and you will get $20 USD off!
I’m working on Part II of my Shakespeare’s Star Wars podcast and I thought I’d share some of the clips I’ve been editing together. First is a short clip of Darth Vader saying lines to express his sorrow and anger when Luke plummets down the Cloud City shaft, rather than go with his own father. I wrote the text myself, adapting it from this speech of King Leontes in “The Winter’s Tale:”
Inch-thick, knee-deep, o'er head and
ears a fork'd one!
Go, play, boy, play: thy mother plays, and I
Play too, but so disgraced a part, whose issue
Will hiss me to my grave: contempt and clamour
Will be my knell. Go, play, boy, play. "Winter's Tale"
I re-purposed this speech as Vader’s angry response to Luke choosing to fall down the air shaft. I think it conveys Vader’s anger, but also his grim determination to turn his son to the dark side:
Inch-thick, knee-deep, o'er head and
ears a fallen one!
Go, fall, boy, fall: So Obi Wan, and I
Fell too, but thou shalt live and come to me again
My master will hiss thee to my path: darkness and pow’r
Will be my friends. Go, fall, boy, fall!
If you listen to the podcast, you can hear that I mainly focused on Vader and Luke and how they convey their emotional journey through soliloquies like this. In the second part, I will talk about the romantic foils to Luke and Vader- Han and Leia! STAY TUNED!
Support the show
If you like my dramatic readings and analyses of the “William Shakespeare’s Star Wars” series, please consider donating to my podcast.
As a parent and a busy man, I often need help winding down at night, and in order to get my kids and myself to sleep at a decent hour, I use sleep stories on YouTube and the app Calm to help me. This is basically a story that’s designed to lull you to sleep and they actually span multiple genres and styles. There are Star Wars sleep stories, superhero sleep stories, Disney characters reading sleep stories, travel sleep stories, and of course, Shakespearean Sleep stories.
What Shakespearean Sleep Stories Are out there?
Some sleep stories feature classical actors reading passages of Shakespeare, like the sonnets or passages from plays, especially A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (for obvious reasons). This approach might work for Shakespeare newbies or children, but honestly, it doesn’t work for me. Taken out of context, a listener can be lulled to sleep by the rich poetry and carefully thought-out imagery, especially in passages from Dream like this:
Titania. Sleep thou, and I will wind thee in my arms.
So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle
Gently entwist; the female ivy so
Enrings the barky fingers of the elm.
O, how I love thee! how I dote on thee! Midsummer Nights Dream, Act IV, Scene i, lines 1584-1585.
So this approach works for some people, but not me. I can't listen to passages like this without thinking of what play it's from, who the character is, what my experience is with the text, and what I would do if I were performing it or teaching it. In short, I'm too much of Shakespeare nerd to enjoy this kind of story.
The Science of Sleep Stories
First off, why do we need to sleep? Sleep resets our brains and helps our bodies heal and adjust to the demands of the day, however, there are many different things that can disrupt our bodies’ delicate process of sleep:
Incidentally, many of Shakespeare’s greatest villains have trouble sleeping, probably because they are hyper-fixated on their crimes and their imminent deaths:
Macbeth. Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep', the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care,
The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast,—
Still it cried 'Sleep no more!' to all the house:
'Glamis hath murder'd sleep, and therefore Cawdor
Shall sleep no more; Macbeth shall sleep no more.' Macbeth, Act II, Scene ii.
So sleep is disrupted by mental overstimulation- we can’t sleep if we’re preoccupied, if we’re angry or afraid, or if we don’t feel safe where we are. So what kinds of stories can make us feel safe, relaxed, or even just bored?
The Craft of Writing Sleep Stories
What I find interesting about sleep stories is what they reveal about attention, psychology, and writing/ storytelling in general. A good sleep story is a carefully composed piece that is carefully designed to break the rules of storytelling. As you can see in the diagram below- a Shakespearean tragedy is designed to build tension and drama until the climax of Act III, then pull you inexorably down toward a tragic conclusion. This structure keeps the reader or audience member engaged mentally and emotionally.
So if a good story, (what I’ll call a waking story) keeps you engaged and attentive, how do you write a story that is designed to fail to do that? Writing a good sleep story depends on intentionally breaking the rules of storytelling so that it doesn’t hold your attention. I’ve noticed that good sleep stories generally follow one of two categories:
Travel stories are very popular in sleep story apps and videos. Taking a viewer away from their daily lives fires their imaginations and prepares them for dreams. However, the travel stories are not about an active adventure with an engaging protagonist, they are passive journeys taken by you. You are passively taken by a plane or a boat, or especially a train, across a large natural landscape like the deserts of the Sahara, the fields of Ireland, or the volcanoes of Iceland. Rather than a high-stakes life or death adventure, the journeys in sleep stories are low-stakes ‘flybys’ for no particular reason, which lets the images of the story seep into your subconscious.
Although the landscape is beautiful in a sleep story, nothing is described in great detail, and no named characters are introduced. A sleep story writer knows that we naturally search for protagonists and supporting characters to connect to and sometimes project our own journeys and desires onto. Without people to connect with, the journey remains unengaging.
The story is carefully crafted to have no conflict, no tension, no conflict, and no resolution; The story happens to you like falling asleep in a car after a long drive. If you are in a car and spend hours watching similar landscapes go by your window, the repetition will lull you to sleep, and sleep writers know this! That’s why a sleep story is rarely ever set in big cities or in places that are constantly fluxing or changing like a volcano or the surface of the moon. Instead, sleep stories offer a journey that tells your conscious mind: “nothing to see here,” and starts up the machinery of your imagination; the images of the story become fodder for your unconscious mind, literally “the stuff that dreams are made of!”
The story “A Night In Shakespeare’s London” is almost a day story- it features a young boy actor in Shakespeare’s company bustling through the streets of Elizabethan London, trying to find a replacement crown for Titania, Queen of the Fairies. At first, the story breaks the rules I’ve set out by setting the story in a bustling city and giving the protagonist a name. However, the story is poorly paced (at least for a daytime story); since the boy has no clue where to go, it takes a really long time for him to make progress, and eventually you lose interest. I, therefore, have the unusual job of praising this story for being poorly paced, meandering, and with utterly forgettable characters, because, of course, that is the point. If you leave the app on your phone all night, it sends you a message in the morning that says: “How did the story end? We hope you never find out.”
Lectures in general are stigmatized as being boring and sleep-inducing, (believe me, I know this as someone who talks about Shakespeare for a living). This is why most educators have moved away from lectures as their primary mode of giving information to students; people crave engagement, and nobody likes being talked at for too long. I wish to make it clear that this stereotype of the drolling, lecturer and his drowsy students is almost completely false in today’s world. That said, this stigma is useful for crafting sleep stories. If listeners have a confirmation bias that a lecture will put them to sleep, a sleep story writer can exploit this bias with an intentionally boring lecture that people already expect to put them to sleep.
I’ve heard a couple of intentionally bad lectures on Calm to get myself to sleep. They are generally about uninteresting topics like “The History of the Semicolon, or The Wonderful World of Concrete, or about fictional lore like “The History of the Transformers.” The idea here is that if a topic is interesting, your mind will engage with it and keep you awake. Therefore the challenge is to write a lecture about something nobody will find interesting or useful. This is not as easy as it may seem- I actually wrote a post about Roman concrete because I was actually interested in the topic after hearing it discussed in the lecture I mentioned above! I find that hearing about fictional lore helps in this regard- if something is fictional, it doesn’t actually matter, so listening to, say, the genealogy of a race of dwarves could sufficiently bore me into sleep.
Another thing that helps a sleepy lecture is poor organization. Just like a waking story is organized to build tension and excitement, a good lecture is organized to hook a listener at the beginning, provide clearly organized points that support a major argument, and come to a clear and well-informed conclusion. Therefore, a sleep lecture should have no argument, just a series of facts with no context. It tires your brain if you can’t follow the logic of why someone is telling you these facts and you stop caring.
Austin Tichenor and the Reduced Shakespeare Company hilariously exploit these principles in this clip where Austin tries to read from his book “I Love my Willy,” while Adam Long and Reed Martin dance around ridiculously in the background. If you cared about what Austin was saying, the antics of the other two would be irritating, but Austin carefully made sure he never gets to the point and gets sidetracked talking about textual variants of Troilus and Cressida:
You can imagine Adam and Reed as being like your own subconscious, desperately trying to entertain you after being subjected to an intentionally bad lecture, which tricks your brain into falling asleep.
What I would Do:
I think I’ve established by now that writing a sleep story is actually harder than it might appear. In a sense, this could be considered its own form of literature with its own genres and literary conventions. Learning about this unexpectedly complex form of writing has inspired me to try it myself, but I need your help: I want to write my own sleep story and put it on my podcast, but I want you to help me choose. Vote below, leave a comment, or email me on the “About Me” page and I’ll create a sleep story by the end of the month with your suggestions! Till now, hope you can get along without my dulcet voice or my slumber-inducing writing!
Well today is May 4rth, when a lot of people have chosen to celebrate one of the most iconic movies of the 20th century: Star Wars! And why not? The story is full of conflict, introspection, love, change, the conflict between fathers and sons, and occasionally guidance from ghosts. Wait, that sounds familiar- it’s a lot like Shakespeare! Yes, the movie has a lot of parallels with the Shakespearean canon, and I’d like to share some of those similarities here. Below is a post I did for the American Shakespeare Center about how the Star Wars prequels parallel Shakespeare’s history saga of Henry the Sixth: