The Modern Performances of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

May 3rd, 2012


Baz Luhrmann’s film adaption of William Shakespeare’s classical play Romeo and Juliet offers a fresh outlook on a work that often does not appeal to the modern audience. Through the use of bright color, dramatic scenes with exaggerated movements, Luhrmann has crafted a visual performance of the text that is engaging to both the classical trained mind and those who know little about Shakespeare.   Contemporary artist Leonid Afremov also uses bright colors and dramatic lines and shading to capture the emotional rawness Shakespeare portrayed in the lover’s turmoil.  His art represents his own performance of Romeo and Juliet, manifesting in the form of a painting.

The original text of Romeo and Juliet is in written form, on black and white paper with simple stage directions, which leaves the majority of the imagery up to the reader.  This becomes a problem with modern readers, especially those in high school (when Shakespeare is most often taught) who are more partial to visual modes of experiencing stories.  We live in an era of televisions, laptops and large cell phones that are constantly catching our attention with bright images and movement.  Luhrmann uses this whirlwind of movement in much of his movie, for example, “In Romeo and Juliet Capulet’s ball is similarly treated.  The first meeting of the lovers takes place amid round-dances so dizzying that even the camera is caught up in the whirl” (Hapgood in Boose 88).

As my high school teacher once said, Shakespeare is supposed to be performed, not read in a classroom; it is a performance meant to be experienced.  Luhrmann effectively traverses between written words that hold the capacity for performance and a visual adaptation that is both modern and holds true to the original text.  Luhrmann’s script is entirely true to Shakespeare’s own text, which can be difficult for modern readers to understand if they are not instructed in classical literature.  Coupled with modern scenery, clothing and technology, Luhrmann is able to connect with the intended youthful audience without disregarding the poetry of Shakespeare’s words.  And this approach worked for its target audience, “Romeo + Juliet constructed itself as a youth culture film and was tested at UC Berkeley for people only under 39, and then came in first at the box office on the weekend of its release” (Boose 13).  Earlier forms of British English can be difficult for a modern audience to connect to, very rarely do we hear “O Romeo, Romeo, /wherefore art thou Romeo? /Deny thy father and refuse thy name, /Or if thou wilt not, /be but sworn my love”?  But adding the visual emotions expressed by the actors, lighting effects and the proper music, and the audience hardly needs to hear words to understand what is going on and how Juliet might be feeling at that moment.  Someone reading the original text of Romeo and Juliet may get bogged down by his archaic, though beautiful language, and give up on reading it altogether.  To include the original text in a modern film adaptation was risky for a director who sought a young audience, and yet it masterfully brought the poetic beauty of the language and the aesthetic ease of the film medium together to create a text that is much more easily understood.  “A movie maker who seeks a popular audience must also mediate boldly between the original theatrical medium and film: ‘cinema creates a different chemistry with the audience, a different taste, and the attention of the audience moves so fast…fantasy gallops in the audience in movies (Zeffirelli 261)’” (Boose 13).

Not only does Luhrmann’s performance of Romeo and Juliet bring the text to life in a modern era, but it provides an entire youth culture with the opportunity to think critically about the text.  The modern viewer can take what they hear along with its visual as a mere part of a much larger text.  “The electronic text…allows the critic to offer a fascinatingly accessible complexity of Shakespeares and intertextualities in a medium that invites interconnection and integration.  In the electronic medium the reader is given access to the context of quotation, and the full experience of a graphic or video sequence.  The result is that the critic is more open to criticism, and the reader becomes more fully a participator in the critical process” (Best 280).  With the amount of Shakespearean film adaptations, the ability to connect texts is endless and invites even those who are not PhD holders to offer their take on how one text plays off another.

Leonid Afremov’s painting “Romeo and Juliet” may not seem like the performance of the original text, not in the sense that a film or play is, but it adapts the story into a personal expression of emotion that a film cannot reach.  Afremov came to America from Israel with an arsenal of paintings that he took to various art galleries in New York City.  Only a few paintings, all with similar “sellable” themes were bought, and Afremov was forced to create paintings that would sell.  Thankfully, he discovered eBay and the ability to sell his painting online.  Luckily for him, his paintings were extremely popular and sold very well.  This demand for his paintings that came directly from consumers allowed Afremov to paint freely the emotions he felt without the constraint of a selective gallery.  This type of artistic freedom is not attainable with Hollywood movies, who must sell the story in order to make money.  This is why Afremov’s painting is one of the rawest performances of the original Romeo and Juliet text.  Afremov channeled the emotions invoked by the story directly onto a blank canvas and ended with a colorful, impressionistic-esque interpretation of two lovers surrounded by overwhelming feelings of both love and hopelessness.  A performance is not simply a play or a film, but it includes the act of taking words on a page and morphing them by one’s own means into that holds artistic merit (at least to its creator).  Phillip Auslander argues that (theatrical) performance is art, but I argue that art is performance; it is a process that changes one text into one entirely different, with its own expression of importance.

Afremov’s painting is just as visual as Baz Luhrmann’s film, though it is a stationary snapshot of two lovers in the midst of an embrace amongst the family turmoil (portrayed by the wild mix of bright and dark lines in the background).  It employs vibrant colors and movement by wispy brushstrokes to capture the viewer’s attention, just like its film counterpart.  Someone can look at that painting and feel the emotion that Shakespeare’s words expressed even if they cannot read, and Afremov created a text that is entirely his own representation of Romeo and Juliet.

Below is a picture of the words “I baked a cupcake.”  These words represent Shakespeare’s original text.  It includes action, the reader knows something is happening and can easily picture it taking place, but it is of his or her own imagination, and will vary with each brain.  The performance of this sentence, me actually baking cupcakes (as pictured below) is Baz Luhrmann’s film: an actual acting out of the words he read on the page.  Again, this varies with each person who acts it out; the way I baked cupcakes is not the same way any other person would, though they would follow similar lines.  And the product of the performance, the cupcake itself, is the artwork by Leonid Afremov.  It includes bright colors, and represents my interpretation of what a cupcake should look like, the ingredients that went into it and how I presented them once baked.  How you enjoy the cupcake, now that is your experience, which varies upon the person and their individual tastes, as is experiencing the movie or artwork.




Works Cited

Auslander, Philip. “Performance: Pt. 1. Identity and the Self.” Google Books. Routledge. Web. 01 May 2012. <>

Best, Michael. “The Text of Performance and the Performance of Text in the Electr.” Computers and the Humanities. 3rd ed. Vol. 36. New York: Springer, 2002. 269-82. JSTOR. Web. 1 May 2012. <>.

Boose, Lynda E., and Richard Burt. Shakespeare, the Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video. London: Routledge, 1997. Print.

Worthen, William B. Shakespeare and the Force of Modern Performance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.


We Are

April 19th, 2012

Like soldiers into battle,
we know not the targets we seek
nor the mines ahead.
We cannot see
the jumpers from the boughs,
the fire lit in quiet,
a flower droops in smoke.

Like cattle into slaughter
we glimpse the pastures never claimed
the prongs we never bore.
We cannot see
the green, the blue, the yellow,
the cool within the shade
of an oak tree ten feet high.

We are the herded squadron
who rest our weary heads
on the bodies of the dead.
We are the blackened eyes,
the charcoal hands
the poisoned ears,
the polished apple.

But who wields the blazing torch
that burns our senses,
and pours the wax into our minds?
Who is the shepherd
of the huddled horde
sealed from the sun and wind and rain?


-Rebecca Turner

Swell to Fall

April 10th, 2012

There’s something odd about the way the ocean flows
back and forth, she comes and goes
at night the sunset draws her in, upon the sand
into a lover’s waiting hand
the ocean swells and throws

And then one day I looked upon and saw her blue
deep within the moonlight’s hue
she came not near the silky sand to rest once more
escaping from a lover’s shore
the darkness fell and grew

What is a shore without its sea, a man alone
fortune speaks such words unknown
a vacant thump that pumps against a barren plot
a bullet strikes without a shot
a king without his throne

Rebecca Turner


March 30th, 2012

You have such perfect skin
she’d always whisper
raking her fingers across my cheek
stopping on the little black stamp
above my lips

Don’t let no one ever
ruin it.
Then she’d slink away
from the soothing depths of my room,
her doting smile swiped
replaced by a black and blue stain.

Eleven years later I sit between the legs of my soul
his arms encircling my shoulders, setting my rhythm
that doting smile I’ve almost forgotten
now basking behind me, before me.
I feel like a  missile disarmed, retracted from burning borders

You have such perfect skin
he’d say with such sincerity
as if he could crawl inside it and be home
Don’t let them ruin it.

Rebecca Turner

Dirty Boots

March 22nd, 2012

They always stood in the corner
warmed by the wood stove
given away by pools
of dust.

The leather’s peeling,
cracked at the toes and ankles
the heels now nearly scraped
from all the work

You’ve told me
“I’ve had these boots
for 15 years, they’re apart of me;
I couldn’t throw them away.”

But they sit in the corner
warmed by the stove


Response to Scholarship Winners’ Readings

March 2nd, 2012

I attended a reading of poetry and one short fiction piece by winners of a creative writing scholarship.  While I enjoyed the experience, I found the works hard to follow because I could not read them.  The writers didn’t read especially fast, so that was not the problem, but I think because I couldn’t see the words, I didn’t follow them or understand the poems as well.  The first poems that were read were awfully depressing.  I think that depressing or sad subjects are very easy to write about in poetry, they have images that are the easiest to conjure up and can be powerful with just a few words.  Not that I have anything against terribly depressing works, but I find that I would much rather listen to something uplifting as opposed to someone getting hit by a train.  The short story was confusing as well, maybe I didn’t get it because I couldn’t see the words and so I just had to go with it, but it didn’t have an ending and I didn’t get the point of it.  I didn’t particularly like the character, though I do think the author did a wonderful job at characterizing him; he was extremely awkward and that’s not always easy to do.  I also think she had a bit too much detail and not enough story, but I could be missing something.

I enjoyed one poem by the third reader, I’m not quite sure but I think it was about uranium and the destruction of nature. I guess I liked it because I connect to nature and I don’t want to see it destroyed.  I also felt he conveyed emotion effectively, but at times it became a little too much and bordered on frantic, but maybe that’s what he was going for.  His other poems I didn’t quite understand and I don’t have any notes on them. Like I said, it was really hard to follow because I was going just off their voice, and they talk more quickly than I read and I can go back and reread.  It would have been nice if there was a handout.

My favorite poem of the afternoon was one of the last ones, about a lake somewhere in Great Britain (I think).  I really enjoyed the poem because while he was reading it, I felt myself being pulled into the scene he was writing about.  The imagery was very peaceful and soothing.  I loved the image of the moss and flowers, how the bark consumes an individual and breathing as the sound of rain.  You could tell the author put a lot of thought and emotion into his words, which made a strong poem.  I also enjoyed his poems because they weren’t completely depressing or super politically driven.  It’s nice to just hear a good poem that’s not trying to pound you over the head.

Closed Doors

February 27th, 2012

There was an obnoxious hum from her bedside table: her phone was buzzing her awake.  And she was having such a good dream.  She snatched the phone and slid the tab to answer the call.  “Hello?”  She mumbled sleepily.

“Karen, we need you to come it right away.”

She knew better than to ask why; it didn’t matter.  She would go in either way, just as she always did.  “I’ll be right in.”  Without trying to shake the bed, she swung her legs onto the floor and rubbed her eyes.  Her scrubs were on the chair next to the bathroom door; they hadn’t even been washed from the day before.  She glanced at the clock before she got out of bed: 1:30 AM.  After she had washed up in the bathroom and changed into her work clothes, she tiptoed out of the room, leaving her husband still sleeping undisturbed.

Arriving at the hospital, Karen grabbed a quick glass of water in the lounge and then went to report her arrival.

“So glad you’re here, both Cindy and Maggie called off tonight.  There’s a rape and stabbing victim in room 16, I think at this point she just needs someone there with her, but you should check her stats anyhow.”

Karen nodded to the head nurse behind the counter and went down the hall to room 16.  Before she opened the door, she had to take a deep breath and prepare herself.  She had worked this same floor for fourteen years, but rape victims were still the hardest to see.  After a moment, she twisted the knob and entered the room, closing the door behind her.

The patient before her had bandages covering both her arms, her forehead, one eye and her left foot, which was elevated half a foot from the mattress.   Her cheeks were swollen and the exposed parts of her face were a deep blue and yellowing green.  Karen tried to take in air as she took in the sight, but it was impossible.  She closed her eyes to try and steady her heartrate and breathing.  There was a soft moan from the bed, so Karen moved over to the girl’s side, ignoring her chart.

“I-I tr-” The girl tried to speak, but her voice cracked and her body heaved.

“It’s ok.  You’re in the hospital now, and we’re going to make everything better.  You don’t have to speak.” Karen spoke softly, trying to soothe the poor girl with her voice, but it didnt seem to work.  Her body heaved again

“I-I tried to- I screamed,” she coughed out.  It sounded like a frog’s croak.

“Shh, shh, it’s ok, hon.  You’ll be just fine.”  But Karen knew better, already she could tell these were her last moments.  Both arms were bleeding through their bandages, and her one exposed eye hadn’t even fluttered yet.  Her body was too worn out to fight any longer.  Her heartrate was slowing and her blood pressure was too low for her to even be alive at this point.  She took in a huge breath of air, and Karen look from the screen to the girl. Her back was arched and from her bandaged body came a shrill shriek.  She screamed and thrashed and flung her head back and forth.  Karen jumped to her feet and held down the girl’s arms, but she was flailing too violently to hold down, so she stepped back.  This was it.  The door slammed open and Nurse Farrah ran in.

“Karen!”  She cried desperately, but Karen only shook her head.  The shrieking stopped, her body lay motionless, blood still leaking from her bandages.  Just as a wave’s power swells, it crashes and spreads and leaves nothing on the sand.  Karen looked over at Farrah, who had moved to pull the sheet over the girl’s face.

“She was screaming for two hours before the police finally found her, thrown into a pile of trash, barely breathing.  She was raped, then left for dead.  Apparantly the sick bastard came back later and stabbed her nineteen times.  She was screaming the entire time.  It was on 5th Street, Karen, Fifth Street.  Between the two hours she was raped and stabbed, they think about forty people could hear her,” Farrah’s voice broke.  “But they did nothing.”


Prompt: The phone rings and rings and rings in the middle of the night.  It keeps ringing after the machine picks up.  Finally you answer it—groggy, irritated, and befuddled.  It’s the call we all dread and yet know will come more than once in our lives … Someone is at the hospital, and will not last until morning.  He or she dresses furiously, jumps in his or her car, get to the hospital, cursing at the slowness of traffic, and the stupidity of parking attendants, and arrive at the person’s bedside.  What happens next?  Describe the scene, be detailed.The person has to die and the narrator has to be a witness.  There can be no miracles.You do not have to use this prompt.  First or third person


February 20th, 2012

Just five minutes in and the water is already cold.  His water bill is over a hundred dollars and yet whenever he needs to shower there is never any hot water.  He hears the soft sound of “Rock-a-Bye-Baby” coming from the other side of the bathroom door; Molly must be putting Max down for his nap.  Rinsing the last bit of soap from his hair he sighs.  And then he hears a loud ring echoing from the living room. Without turning off the water he leaps from the shower, still dripping wet, throws an old bathrobe over his body and bolts down the stairs.  He leaves a slick trail behind him and in  his haste he slips on wooden train poised on its track and tumbles into the living room.  “Shit!” His robe has come undone and fallen on the floor but he snatches up the receiver on the fourth ring, just before the machine gets it.

“Can I fucking help you?” He bellows into the phone, the rage spilling out of him like vomit.

A meek voice answers hesitantly, “M-Mr. Charles?” It sounds like a mouse hidden in dust.

“My son is trying to sleep!  Don’t you people have any fucking decency?”  His face is now red as he stands dripping cold water onto the carpet.

The line is silent for a moment and he can hear his own frantic breathing through the receiver. “I-I was just calling to inform you that y-your son Davis did not sh-show up for school.”

“I’ll handle it!” He growls and slams the phone down.  He hears a soft whimper behind him and turns around.  Molly is standing silently, a look of stark surprise on her face.  Max is on her hip and has buried his face into her chest.  She stares at him, this wet, rabid creature glowing in agitation completely naked, and finds herself speechless.  Turning away, she walks back up the stairs to try and soothe Max, still not knowing how to react.  He opens his mouth as if to call her back, but he too is speechless.  He only pulls his robe back on and sits on the couch, sinking his head into his hands in shame.

He had told her last week that it was through; no more lashes, no more screaming.  He would get his anger under control, he wanted to be the best father he could for his four sons.  Empty promises now.  His eyes are still red, but not in anger anymore.  He had promised he would seek help, and yet he hadn’t.  The water upstairs turns off and the house seems unbearably quiet.  All he can hear is his own self-defeat.

Then he hears Molly’s voice, smooth and unwavering, like his mother’s used to be when she calmed him.  Soft notes drift down the stairs and he recognizes the melody.  Hot tears find their way down his face and with them fall all his rage.  Molly can always bring him to his knees.  The lulling song continues and draws him from the couch.  He moves like a ghost up the stairs and into the bedroom.   Molly is standing before the crib, her song gently rocking Max to sleep.  He touches her shoulder and pulls himself tightly around her.  He will be better because she deserves it.


Prompt: A man is in the shower.  The phone rings.  Rather than letting the machine pick up, he jumps out, snatches his dark blue bathrobe from the hook on the bathroom door, and races downstairs, dripping.  He trips on a child’s toy, and curses, wishing he had put a phone in the bedroom. What was he thinking?  He picks up the receiver in the middle of the fourth ring—the last one before the machine was to pick up.  The voice on the phone says . . . 

The Best Guy

February 13th, 2012

There was something about the way he hugged his daughter every morning that let Samantha know he was the best guy she had ever met.  She was probably the luckiest woman in all of the Metro area.  She held the morning good-bye kiss a little longer than usual and then waited on the porch as he drove away.  It was terrible to see him go, and Fridays were the worst because she had to wait until Sunday nigh to see him again.  Knowing she shouldn’t dwell in her selfishness, she turned back to the house to get her five-year-old ready for school.  Then her own day would begin.

Around noon Samantha found her mind drifting back six years ago when she first met Dean.  It was at a bar, even though in college she had sworn off all men in bars.  But six years ago she had just turned thirty and had officially given up hope of ever meeting the right guy or getting married.  Alone, she was drinking away her sorrowful thoughts and settling into the idea of being single for the rest of her life.  On her third drink, Dean sat next to her, but she was too engrossed in her own misery to notice him.

Three drinks later he had spilled his whole life story with her.  He was two weeks fresh from a divorce that left him with a summer home in Newport News, supervised weekend visits with his two boys and a bitter, broken heart.  She saw in him the same hopeless cynicism and took him home not two hours after he had sat down next to her.  It was a night of teenage recklessness, but she loved it and it was just what she needed.  The next morning as he left her apartment, she figured she’d never see him again, but they went out ever week for the next six months.

They were married the following June in a modest backyard ceremony just two months after she found out she was pregnant with Carmen.  It was a fast engagement, but now they were settled and couldn’t be happier.  Dean was the best thing that had happened to her.  He was an amazing father and she couldn’t imagine how his ex-wife could leave him out of his sons’ lives so much.  Every Friday evening, Dean had to drive an hour and a half to her house and was forced to stay in her basement just so he could see the kids because she wouldn’t allow him to take the children for a weekend.  His ex-wife was such a wolf with her children, snipping at anyone who tried to come near them.  Samantha felt awful for Dean, who couldn’t truly spend time with his boys and even worse that she could never be a part of their lives either.  Plus the fact that Dean had to stay overnight with that maniac of a woman made her heart yearn for him.  But he was too good of a father to just abandon his boys.  So he made the trip without fail every weekend.  He was such an blessing, so honorable.

Veronica dropped her keys on the foyer table and yelled out to her boys, “Guys! I’m home!”  She heard a racket from the kitchen and then two bobbing heads bolted from the doorway and into her arms.

“Hi mommy!” They cried, giving her kisses everywhere.

“Oh I missed you two so much! Where’s daddy?”

They grabbed her hands and pulled her into the kitchen where she saw Dean in the midst of a huge mess, but with a perfectly set table with a roast and all the side dressings.  Her face broke into a huge smile and she admired the effort her boys had put into a nice dinner for the whole family.

“Come here, gorgeous, you did such a good job.”  Dean came over and wrapped his arm around her waist, puller her close and gave her a deep, open kiss that made her drop her purse on the floor.  “God I missed you.  I wish you didn’t have to spend your whole week with that disgusting excuse for a woman.  You should be here with us, with your sons, with me.”

He pulled back a little and then kissed her on both cheeks.  “You know I want to be, I love it here, and I love you three with all my heart, but I can’t leave Samantha, we’d never survive without her money.  I have to do what’s best for everyone.  And I could never leave Carmen.  What kind of father would that make me?”

Veronica smiled and she knew, he was such a good guy.  He went and swooped up his two sons with one big grasp and kissed them both.  There was something about the way he hugged his sons every night that let Veronica know he was the best guy she had ever met.
Prompt: There was something about the way he… 

Twenty Two

February 3rd, 2012

Silence.  Amber didn’t even know silence could be this awkward.  God, she just had to get on the elevator didn’t she.  Her mother was always telling her to take the stairs, but she didn’t listen.  If only she had, just this one time.

“I think you dropped something.”

“What?”  She didn’t look over, only tilted her head slightly to direct her ear closer toward him.

“My jaw.”

Amber choked back a mortified laugh.  Did she imagine those words?  Something like that would be heard in a movie as a joke it was so pathetically cheesy.  Five years and that was what he came up with.  A pang of sorrow clamped down on her chest, poor Abby.  She felt even worse for her now, having to go through all this and be flattered by it.  Now it makes sense howshe often wondered why she is friends with Abby at all.  At this point it must be pity and the sense of duty Amber was raised with.

She could feel him staring at the side of her head, but she didn’t twist enough to catch him with her peripheral vision.  The man would probably hit on a cactus.  Moving her bag higher on her shoulder she shifted her weight from one leg to the other.  An irritating tingle had begun to spread along the leg she had just relieved.

“The only thing I’ve dropped is my taste for men wearing Express.”

Was the elevator even moving?  She couldn’t remember a time twenty-two stories had taken this long to pass.  That was the last thing she needed, to be stuck in a stifling metal box with Cory Withers.  Again, she felt sorry for Abby.  Why had she put herself in the position to be alone with this absolute parody of a man.

“Clearly your taste in men was never strong to begin with.”

She could hear the fabric of his cheap pants shift as he changed his footing.  Imagining him shoving his hands in his pockets and slumping his shoulders like he was Joseph Smith among apostles made her want to vomit all over the elevator.  But then it would be unbearably rank, even more than it was now.  The elevator was most certainly not moving.

“I must beg your pardon, but the taste I question is not my own, but Abby’s.  My grief for her increases with every second I’m imprisoned in these walls.  Now I wouldn’t go so far as to assume you had anything to do with the elevator malfunction, but I feel the need to remind you that there are camera’s mounted in each elevator, so I wouldn’t try anything.”

“Don’t kid yourself, I would rather be seen giving hickeys to a chimpanzee than come anywhere near you.  And Abby is a common LA street whore who I pulled from South Street when she had track marks running down her arms and a pimp trailing her every move.  She’s about as credible as a sewer rat and smells like one too.”

“Hardly the words of a gentleman, Cory.”

The doors suddenly opened, though Amber had no idea to which floor.  Cory escaped quickly and disappeared down the corridor.  Amber flipped open her cell and dialed Abby’s number.  They would need mojitos after that.


Prompt: Trapped in an elevator, alone, with a person you would walk across the street to avoid.  Write a narrative dialogue