(Screenshot, Claire Danes as Juliet, 1996)
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 26 seconds.
Despite mixed reviews Baz Luhrmann's 1996 Romeo + Juliet has, from a popularity standpoint, become one of the better remembered Shakespeare productions in recent history.
I think Romeo + Juliet is a bad movie for a host of reasons, but there was nothing in the adaptation - from the gunslinging, to the Hawaiian shirts, to the "Verona Beach" California setting - that I felt was traitorous to Shakespeare's concept. Nothing struck me as untrue to Shakespeare's play.
Until the end, when Baz Luhrmann murdered Juliet.
For those who have seen Luhrmann's adaptation, Juliet, played by a young Claire Danes, shoots herself in the head with Romeo's 9mm gun. But if Baz Luhrmann is trying to do real Shakespeare (which he says he is), Juliet can’t shoot herself in the head. The symbolism is dead wrong.
In the play Shakespeare wrote, Juliet sees Romeo dead on the ground and ascertains that he has drunk poison. She desperately tips the empty vial to her own mouth, hoping to die the same way.
Of course it doesn’t work— there’s nothing in the bottle. So she kisses his lips, to see if "haply some poison yet doth hang on them." But as her lips meet his she realizes something— and she delivers the most heartbreaking line of the entire play:
"Thy lips are warm."
From the sensation of warmth from his lips she knows, in an instant, how unlucky they were; how recently he was alive; how close she was to enjoying his company again. Happiness was theirs so nearly. Missed by a hair's breadth, but forever gone.
At her realization we should feel Juliet's sorrow flood our very soul. We should feel a pressure, an aching deep inside our chest. This feeling, and this word we have to describe it, heartache, is not an accident. It's not random. It's not a mistake. We know how Juliet feels in this moment— or, at the very least, we know where she feels it. When we see Juliet spy Romeo's dagger, we know instantly where the knife will go.
Stabbing herself in the heart is deeply symbolic of Juliet's broken heart, but it's also incredibly literal: she sticks the knife where she feels the pain.
The fact that Juliet kills herself in Luhrmann's version is not enough to make her Juliet. All suicides and suicide methods aren't equivalent. They're not just interchangeable in drama, and studies in psychology and sociology tell us that they're not interchangeable in real life either.
When Shakespeare kills a character a certain way, it's a choice. It means something. And the integrity of the character's death should be thoughtfully and creatively maintained, even if not preserved exactly in its original form.
Towards the end of Antony and Cleopatra, Antony tries to commit suicide by falling on his sword. It’s a last-gasp grab for some dignity by Antony— but he botches the attempt, greatly prolonging the time it takes him to actually die. A creative enough director might find a way to change the method of Antony’s honor suicide, but the fact that he fudges it is far too symbolically important to change. A director can’t just decide to kill Antony with a fatal (successful) jump from a cliff á la Last of the Mohicans. He wouldn’t be Antony.
Which brings me back to Baz Luhrmann and his Juliet. The late David Foster Wallace once spoke of why people choose to shoot themselves in the head. They shoot “the terrible master,” he said— that is, their mind. But Juliet's terrible master was never her head. Her death isn't contemplative or cerebral— it's purely emotional. Juliet's mind doesn’t triumph over her or force her hand. Juliet's master is her heart.
The viscerally gruesome idea of Juliet's brains painting the wall is a cheap shock, and it interferes with what we’re actually supposed to be feeling in this moment.
Juliet could have shot herself and still been Juliet. Luhrmann's guns didn't take away from the plot or the spirit of Shakespeare's play. But Shakespeare's Juliet, the real Juliet, would have leaned against the barrel of Romeo's gun and shot herself in the heart.