First of all, before I comment on the tension and violence, I must explain Shakespeare’s intentions with this first scene. In the prologue, a Chorus explains to the audience what will happen in the play.
“A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life”
This lets the audience know that Romeo and Juliet will die. Therefore when the first scene opens, the ultimate ending of the play is known so that the plot of the play is instead about how the two “star cross’d lovers” reach their untimely end. The author wanted to give the background information, wanted to lay the foundations for the story, in this first scene. With the fight between servants of the houses Montague and Capulet, Shakespeare explains to the audience, the reader, that there is a hate and an all-mighty grudge between the two families – which is a very integral part of the story, as well as creating a great tension that does not leave the play thereafter. Afterwards, the strong reprimand of Prince Escalus to the noble families builds on the tension;
“If ever you disturb our streets again,
Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace.”
It is a warning to them that if they step out of line again the perpetrators will lose their lives. This adds to the already present tension in a very sinister way as the audience and reader will foresee that the chances of the Montagues and Capulets being able to keep the peace is extremely unlikely, and therefore they believe a death is imminent. Finally, the first scene introduces us to Romeo, the main character, and his troubles. The reader learns Romeo is actually in love with a girl, but that it is unrequited love. Shakespeare explains that to him, Romeo, the matters of his family (the Montagues) do not concern him, that he believes the extreme dislike held by the two households for each other is foolish, pointless and that he is against it. When Romeo hears of the fray earlier in the day he asks of it, then says:
“Yet tell me not, for I have heard it all.”
This line sums up the contempt Romeo has for the feud, his exasperation with it as he is “heard it all before”. The events in the opening scene set up what is to come and are incredibly important to the tale.
In Shakespeare’s original on-stage portrayal of the story the techniques used for the creation of tension in the first scene would have been limited compared to what Baz Luhrmann had available to him when making the film version. For Shakespeare to create the tension and the sense of looming violence, his main resource would have been the language that was used – with maybe, to some extent, the use of music also. Whereas this differs immensely to the film version as Luhrmann uses not so much the language, as the advantages of music, lighting and exceptionally quick camera cuts to his advantage in creating the unease that is intended.
To start with the language, it was Shakespeare’s main tool for achieving the desired effects of his play. In Shakespearean times the language used in Romeo and Juliet was very strong and was also the very soul of the play. Surprisingly enough, parts of the speech written by Shakespeare was comical, and laden at times with sexual innuendo. As the first scene opens in the play, two Capulet servants are in a public place. They are discussing how they won’t stand for being insulted, how if insulted they would stand and fight. Their lines are quite humorous with Gregory calling Sampson a coward, and Sampson then speaking about sex and about being sexually active with:
“… and ’tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh.”
All this would have had the audiences rolling around with laughter. But at the same time they were speaking of their great dislike for all Montagues and therefore, on the two Montagues entering (Abram and Balthasar), the atmosphere changes as the reader can sense the animosity between the two parties. The author then establishes the tension more by having the Capulets insulting the Montagues (by biting their thumbs at them which, at the time, was a great insult), and the Montagues being aggressive back:
“Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?”
All the while the tension is mounting, with the language heated and on the verge of being insulting, and then the looming, expected violence finally breaks out as a fight starts. When Tybalt joins the fray he is intent on fighting and his language is that of a brutal, remorseless man:
“Drawn, and talk of peace? I hate the word,
As I hate hell, all Montagues and thee ”
With the fighting being then stopped by civilians the role or tension-creator switches to Prince Escalus when he angrily calls for the fighting to stop (as he is the law-enforcer), and threatens the families with their lives if they disturb the peace. His words are firm, hard and angry leaving a sense that the Prince means what he is saying. But with all this, the most striking aspect of Shakespeare’s language is that as he uses it to great success in concocting tension, it keeps its poetic-ness throughout, gripping the audience or reader.
As for Luhrmann in the film he does not change lines from the play, although he might leave some out, yet the speech and language isn’t used, as it was by Shakespeare, to really create a tension and that sense of menace and threat. Instead the director of the film uses the advantages of cinema to get those intentions across. For example Luhrmann opens with a rowdy crowd of Montagues in a car, raucous and bold, screeching into a garage. Without virtually any words, the director has given the impression that these boys could be troublesome and menacing. There are quick camera cuts, to and fro, adding excitement, and then on showing the Capulet boys, a real tension is made. The language is unnecessary in this case. The great advantage Luhrmann had was the music he could insert at any stage. In the section of scene 1 that was the fight, music contributes enormously to what the director’s intentions are. From spaghetti western style, to dramatic orchestral sounds, added to obvious high-tempo stirring beats, all fitted in at the right time, Luhrmann can replace Shakespeare’s need for language with what is, in my view, a far more effective and successful inclusion of music.
Another contrast between the play and film is the setting. Shakespeare’s classic is set in Verona, Italy but Luhrmann’s modern day adaptation’s setting was, cleverly enough, in Verona Beach, California. The intention was clearly to keep close relation to the original.
There are other differentiations between both versions, with plenty of modern items replacing things from Shakespeare’s era. For example, swords were replaced by guns, obviously enough – but also the part of the chorus being played by a newsreader on television, was a masterful stroke in keeping a Shakespearean device, yet finding a way to fit it in, in an up to date way.
To conclude, Romeo and Juliet on-screen differs enormously from Shakespeare’s original version but I believe that Baz Luhrmann has achieved the difficult task that was adapting the play for film. He keeps the Shakespearean idea of the story, in keeping of the chorus and most importantly the language, but succeeds in reinventing it for a different audience. In my own personal opinion I enjoyed Luhrmann’s interpretation more, simply because he has a wide variety of tools to make the film exciting, which he uses to great effect, even though Shakespeare’s timeless masterpiece is inarguably brilliant, and definitely enjoyed by countless people.