I’ve seen four live productions of Romeo and Juliet, (5 if you include West Side Story). I’ve also watched four films (6 if you include West Side Story and Gnomio and Juliet) and one thing that I’ve noticed again and again, and again is that you can tell the whole story of the play with clothing. This is a story about families who are part of opposite factions whose children secretly meet, marry, die, and fuse the families into one, and their clothes can show each step of that journey.
The feud Nearly every story about a conflict or war uses contrasting colors to show the different factions. Sometimes even real wars become famous for the clothes of the opposing armies. The Revolutionary War between the redcoats and the blue and gold Continentals, the American Civil War between the Rebel Grays and the Yankee Bluebellies. In almost every production I’ve ever seen, the feud in Romeo and Juliet is also demonstrated by the opposing factions wearing distinctive clothing.
Historically, warring factions in Itally during the period the original Romeo and Juliet is set, wore distinctive clothes and banners as well. . In this medieval drawing, you can see Italians in the Ghibelline faction, who were loyal to the Holy Roman Empire, fighting the Guelph faction (red cross), who supported the Pope. Powerful families were constantly fighting and taking sides in the Guelf vs. ghibelines conflict in Verona, which might have inspired the Capulet Montegue feud in Romeo and Juliet.
Even the servants of the nobles got roped into these conflicts, and they literally wore their loyalties on their sleeves. The servants wore a kind of uniform or livery to show what household they belonged to. The servants Gregory and Sampson owe their jobs to Lord Capulet, and are willing to fight to protect his honor. Perhaps Shakespeare started the play with these servants to make this distinction very obvious. Here’s a short overview on Italian Liveries from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
In 1966, director Franco Zepherelli set a trend with his iconic use of color in his movie. He chose to make the Capulets wear warm tones while the Montegues wore blue and silver. Juliet (Olivia Hussey) wore a gorgeous red dress that made her look youthful, passionate, and lovely, while Tybalt (Michael York), wore red, orange, and black to emphasize his anger, and jealousy (which has been associated for centuries with the color orange). By contrast, the Montagues like Romeo (Leonard Whiting) wore blue, making him look peaceful and cool. These color choices not only clearly indicate who belongs to which contrasting factions, but also help telegraph the character’s personalities. Look at the way these costumes make the two lovers stand out even when they’re surrounded by people at the Capulet ball:
Zepherilli’s color choices were most blatantly exploited in the kids film Gnomio and Juliet, where they did away with the names Capulet and Montegue altogether, and just called the two groups of gnomes the Reds and the Blues.
To get Romeo and Juliet to meet and fall in love, Shakespeare gives them a dance scene for them to meet and fall in love. He further makes it clear that when they first meet, Romeo is in disguise. The original source Shakespeare used made the dance a carnival ball, (which even today is celebrated in Italy with masks). Most productions today have Romeo wearing a mask or some other costume so that he is not easily recognizable as a Montague. Masks are a big part of Italian culture, especially in Venice during Carnival:
In the 1996 movie, Baz Luhrman creates a bacchanal costume party, where nobody wears masks but the costumes help telegraph important character points. Mercutio is dressed in drag, which not only displays his vibrant personality but also conveniently distracts everyone from the fact that Romeo is at the Capulet party with no mask on.
Capulet is dressed like a Roman emperor, which emphasizes his role as the patriarch of the Capulet family. Juliet (Claire Danes) is dressed as an angel, to emphasize the celestial imagery Shakespeare uses to describe her. Finally, Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) is dressed as a crusader knight because of the dialogue in the play when he first meets Juliet:
Romeo. [To JULIET] If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:720
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Juliet. Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,725
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
Romeo. Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Juliet. Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
Romeo. O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.730
Juliet. Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.
Romeo. Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.
Juliet. Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
Romeo. Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!735
Give me my sin again.
Juliet. You kiss by the book. Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene V, Lines 719-737.
Notice that Romeo calls Juliet a saint, and later an angel in the famous balcony scene, which explains her costume at the ball. Juliet refers to Romoe as a Pilgrim, which is a cheeky comment on his crusader knight costume. In the Crusades, crusader knights made pilgrimages to the holy land, with the hope that God (and presumably, his angels) would forgive their sins. Romeo’s name even means “Pilgrim.” Luhrman makes clever nods to Shakespeare’s text by dressing Romeo and Juliet in this way, and gives the dialogue a bit of a playful roleplay as the characters make jokes about each other’s costumes- Romeo hopes that he will go on a pilgrimage and that this angel will take his sin with a kiss.
In Gnomio and Juliet, the titular characters meet in a different kind of disguise. Rather than going to a dance with their family, they are both simultaneously trying to sneak into a garden and steal a flower, so they are both wearing black, ninja-inspired outfits. Their black clothing helps them meet and interact without fear of retribution from their parents (since they do not yet know that they are supposed to be enemies. The ninja clothes also establishes that for these two gnomes, love of adventure unites them. Alas though, it doesn’t last; Juliet finds out that Gnomio is a Blue, when they both accidentally fall in a pool, stripping their warpaint off and revealing who they are.
Sometimes the dance shows a fundamental difference between the lovers and the feuding factions. West Side Story is a 20th-century musical that re-imagines the feuding families as juvenile street gangs, who like their Veronese counterparts, wear contrasting colors. The Jets (who represent the Montagues) wear Blue and yellow, while the Sharks (Capulets), wear red and black. The gang members continue wearing these colors on the night of the high school dance, except for Tony and Maria (the Romeo and Juliet analogs). In most productions I’ve seen, (including the 2021 movie), these young lovers wear white throughout the majority of the play, to emphasize the purity of their feelings, and their rejection of violence. Thus, unlike Shakespeare’s version of the story, West Side Story makes the lovers unquestionably purer are more peaceful than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and their clothing makes this clear.
The Merging of the family (8:30-11:00)
Costume Designer Charlene in the 2006 AU production deliberately had the characters change clothes when they get married. Juliet was wearing the same iconic red dress as Olivia Hussey for the first two acts of the play but then changed into a pale blue gown that matches Romeo. The clothes re-enforce the idea that the marriage represents Romeo and Juliet abandoning their family’s conflicts, and simply showing their true colors.
Another way of getting everyone in the family to subconsciously unite in grief would be to costume everyone wearing black except Romeo and Juliet. At the end of the play, The Capulets are already mourning Juliet, (because she faked her death in Act IV), and the Montegues are already mourning Lady Montegue (who died offstage). Just by these circumstances, everyone could come onstage wearing black, uniting in their grief, which is further solidified when they see their children dead onstage.
Not all productions choose to costume the characters like warring factions, but nevertheless, any theatrical production’s costumes must telegraph something about the characters. In these production slides for a production I worked on in 2012, the costumes reflect the distinct personality of each character and show a class difference between the Montagues and the Capulets.
The 2013 Film: Costumes Done Badly
The 2013 movie is more concerned with showing off the beauty of the actor’s faces, and the literal jewels than the clothes:
Most of the actors and costumes are literally in the dark for most of the film, probably because the film was financed by the Swarofski Crystal company, who literally wanted the film to sparkle. Ultimately, like most jewelry, I thought the film was pretty to look at, but the costumes and cinematography had little utilitarian value. The costumes and visual didn’t tell the story efficiently, but mainly was designed to distract the audience with the beauty of the sets, costumes and the attractive young actors. The only thing I liked was a subtle choice to make Juliet’s mask reminiscent of Medusa, the monster in Greek Myth, who could turn people to stone with a look. I liked that the film was subtly implying that love, at first sight, can be lethal.
If you’re like me, you are probably saddened by the loss of the great American actor, Sidney Poitier. He was part of the original cast of the great American play A Raisin In the Sun, and earned countless accolades for his roles on stage and screen like In the Heat Of the Night, Porgey and Bess, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? and The Greatest Story Ever Told.
In this interview, Poitier’s friend Denzel Washington talks about how Poitier was a beacon, not just for black actors but a gold standard for all actors.
Washington also discusses his role in the film Macbeth, in which he plays the title role. As I mentioned in my Much Ado About Nothing review, Denzel is a consummate performer of Shakespeare and I for one can’t wait to see him as Macbeth. This is nor just because he was an absolute joy in Much Ado, but because Denzel is famous for playing characters that start out as good men become violent and evil in films like Training Day, American Gangster, and Flight. I have high hopes that Denzel’s Macbeth will rank among his greatest performances.
Macbeth is now playing at selected theaters and streaming online on Apple+. I plan to see it and hope that you will too.
Just in time for October, I’m offering an online class for kids ages 13-18 about Shakespeare’s most spooky and cursed play:
If you follow this blog you know I’ve written a lot about this play before. Though this class will be more like a game where I teach the class using multimedia, games, and a digital escape room!
I’ll start by speaking to the students in character as Shakespeare, and tell them the story of Macbeth using a multimedia presentation.
I will then test the students’ knowledge with a fun quiz that was inspired by the popular mobile game Among Us. As you know, the game is similar to a scene from the play, so I thought it would be an appropriate way to test the kids’ knowledge.
The final part of the class is a digital escape room I’ve created. I don’t want to give too much away, and you can’t play it unless you sign up for the class, but let’s just say it’s fun, spooky, educational, and challenging!
If you want to sign up now, the course is available every weekend in October, and then by request after that. Register now at Outschool.com. if you take the course, please leave me a good review.
If you’re a teacher and your students are reading Romeoand Juliet, one question that your students might innevitably ask is, who’s to blame? The play ends with The Prince and the Watch trying to ascertain what happened over the past 5 days to Romeo and Juliet. He seems to place blame loosely on everyone, but it does make one wonder- will anyone face consequences for the numerous deaths, damages, anguish, and broken promises that resulted from the double suicides?
In 2021, I decided to create an activity that would allow the students in the English class I worked in to decide who is to blame for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. I developed the project with the help of an English teacher and a real judge. We designed the project so it would test the kids’ knowledge of the play, and their persuassive speaking abilities (which we worked on in a previous unit).
I would like to share the journey of this project, which I think is a lovely way to get kids to engage with English Literature, as well as touching on other topics in high school English courses like persuassive writing, critical thinking, and research.
What kind of trial is it to be?
My original idea was to put Friar Laurence on trial for criminal negligence and/ or conspiracy to assist a suicide, There’s been plenty of classrooms, comedy sketches, and even some juries that blame Friar Laurence for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, including the US Supreme Court, who put him in the dock as part of a mock trial at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington DC bac in 2016. If you go to C-Span’s website, you can watch the full trial itself: https://www.c-span.org/video/?419930-1/federal-judges-discuss-romeo-juliet
Though mock trials have tried Friar Laurence for murder in the past, the teacher I worked with decided we wanted to be sensitive to the issue of suicide and not place the blame for suicide on anyone other than Romeo and Juliet. This is a valid concern- since teenagers do occassionaly encounter suicide, we didn’t want to suggest that anyone could be held responsible for someone else’s suicide. However, if you decide to have a criminal murder or manslaughter trial, you can do so.
Our trial chose to focus on a different sort of negligence: we noted that, although Friar Laurence arguably isn’t guilty of murder, he certainly did perform the wedding of two minors without parental consent, a wedding that their parents absolutely didn’t apprve of, and that arguably caused irreperable financial damages to the houses of Capulet and Montegue. I therefore went about consstructing a criminal trial based on this perceived negligence.
TheCRIMINAL PROHIBITIONS ON THE MARRIAGE OF MINORS ACT
In most states in the United states, parental consent is required to marry a minor, so in reality, Friar Laurence would almost certainly be found guilty of illegal marriage. The judge I worked with wanted to give the case a fighting chance, so she created a fae law that is just for our class called the CRIMINAL PROHIBITIONS ON THE MARRIAGE OF MINORS ACT, which you can read below. This law is designed to provide a loophole for Friar Laurence that allows a clergyman to perform a minor wedding without parental consent if the parents are themselves creating an unsafe and dangerous home. Our teacher liked this aspect of the case, becasue it allows the class to consider the partriarchial values of Lord Capulet, who for most of the play, treats his daugher like a piece of property, and threatens her with dire consequences if she chooses her own husband. This is the central argument of the trial- Was Friar Laurence negligent and irresponsible in marrying Romeo and Juliet, or was he respecting Juliet’s autonomy and trying to free her from an abusive household? Below is a complete description of the project, a presentation I created for the class, and some downloadable materials to get you started. If you have questions or suggestions for other projects, let me know!
A mock trial is an excellent way to engage a student’s critical thinking skills, persuasive writing skills, and challenge their knowledge of a sequence of events. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, several violent deaths occur and at then end of the play it’s ambiguous who will be punished and how. Therefore, to engage students in the play, they can play judge, jury, and lawyers in a trial to answer the question: was Friar Laurence guilty of performing an illegal marriage?
Test the student’s knowledge of the plot of the play
Get them to make persuasive arguments defending and prosecuting the character of Friar Lawrence.
Come to conclusions
Get the Jury to look at the rhetoric of the prosecution and defense.
Quiz on the play to help assign roles- The highest scorers get to be lawyers and prosecutor, the next highest get to be witnesses, and the lowest scorers get to be the jury.
Mock trial where the students take on the roles of witnesses, judge, lawyer, prosecutor, and jury
The Jury delivers a verdict
Before the Trial
Only people who know the plot of the play should be allowed to be the lawyers, so I propose that before the trial starts, each student should be quizzed on the plot of the play. The students who score the highest should be allowed to play the prosecutor and defense lawyer. The third, fourth, and fifth highest scoring students can be The Judge and the two witnesses. Everyone else can be the jury. I would propose that the teacher or teaching assistant play the part of Friar Lawrence, as he/she will have to answer the toughest questions and know the most about the play. Of course, if you have a student with real acting talent, he or she can play Friar Lawrence.
The Trial will take place over at least two days- one day for constructing legal arguments, and one day for the trial itself.
When the trial begins, each person will get a character sheet that details who they are, what their role is, in the trial, and what they know about the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. Unlike other mock trials, this will not be scripted. Think of it more like a D&D character sheet or murder mystery game; the characters are given information but not told what to say. Below is a sample character sheet I made for the Prosecuting Attorney.
The Prosecutor intends to prove that Friar Lawrence performed an illegal marriage because he married two minors without their parent’s consent. The Defense intends to prove that the marriage was legal under the CRIMINAL PROHIBITIONS ON THE MARRIAGE OF MINORS ACT (a fake law made up for our class).
Jury Instructions- The Judge
Opening Statements- Prosecutor and Defense Lawyer
Witness For the Prosecution- Lord Capulet
Cross-Examination- Lord Capulet
Witness For the Defense- Ghost Juliet
Witness For the Prosecution- The Nurse
Cross-Examination- The Nurse
Defendant’s Testimony- Friar Lawrence
Cross-Examination- Friar Lawrence
Witness For the Prosecution- Lady Capulet
Cross-Examination- Lady Capulet
Closing Statements- Prosecutor and Defense Lawyer
Post Trial Instructions- Judge
The Verdict- Jury
Weighing In- Judge
All characters will have a packet explaining who they are, their goal for the trial, and what their character knows about the alleged crime. They also have a copy of the structure of the trial, so they know when to speak. During the pre-trial prep day, the lawyers will decide on questions to ask the witnesses and construct arguments based on their knowledge of the law and the play.
Everyone will receive a copy of the CRIMINAL PROHIBITIONS ON THE MARRIAGE OF MINORS so the prosecution and jury can construct their arguments, and the Jury can judge the effectiveness of those arguments.
CRIMINAL PROHIBITIONS ON THE MARRIAGE OF MINORS ACT
The purpose of this act is to protect the integrity of the family and the independent rights of minor children.
No officiant shall perform the marriage of a minor child without the consent of the child’s parent, unless such minor child has first been determined to be emancipated and such determination was in the minor’s best interest.
Officiant means a person authorized to perform weddings, including but not limited to a priest, minister, friar or pastor.
Minor child means a person 14 years but under the age of 18 years.
The parent of a minor child shall mean the biological father of said child.
The factors used in the determination of emancipation shall include the following;
The demonstrated ability and capacity to manage his/her own affairs,
The demonstrated ability and capacity to live independently,
The wishes of the minor child,
The wishes of the parent,
Any other factors including compensation which could influence the officiant.
7) The factors used in the determination of the best interest of the minor child shall include the following:
The age of the minor child,
The home environment of the minor child, especially if there is a risk of violence or harm to the minor child,
Whether the marriage of the child promotes a union that is beneficial to society,
Whether the minor child can manage his/her own finances.
Whether the minor child has demonstrated other characteristics of maturity
8) An emancipated child shall be entitled to enter into contracts, marry and enjoy the legal rights of an adult without the permission of his/her parent.
9) Whoever violates this law shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree, which is punishable by up to 6 months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.
Jury instructions (to be handed out ot the jury)
The jury need not be given a passive role- they can write down reactions on how effective the lawyers wer in presenting their arguments, which witness gave the best testimony, etc. In most jury trials, judges instruct the jury on how to put aside their personal biases when listening to the evidence, which I’ve written into some instructions below, based on instructions that Judge Taylor gave me.
So, that is my version of the Romeo and Juliet mock trial that you can freely use in your classroom. If you want to use it, please just give me credit. If you want to collaborate with me on your version, send me an email. I hope this project can be a widespread activity that will help students hone their persuasion, analysis, research, and of course, their interpretation of literature in a realistic context.
You can download the entire project for free on my TeachersPayTeachers page: