To assess Baz Luhrmann's use of setting in his film, Romeo + Juliet
, we can begin by contrasting the film with the play as it was originally performed in the 16th-century theatre. The key difference between the manner in which the film and the play deal with location is that the film is primarily an image-intensive medium that can visually show the audience the locale. Shakespearean drama, on the other hand, was written to be heard as an auditory experience.
Shakespeare's audience referred to going to hear a play rather than see it, emphasizing that the Elizabethan theater was an aural rather than visual experience. On stage, the characters described the setting in their speeches. The actor's words had to convey all necessary information about plot, characters, and setting because the action took place on a bare, open-air stage, with only a few props and limited costumes. The plays were performed in the afternoon, and the playhouses did not have the advantages of lighting or special effects. For example, the scenes which take place at night make repeated references to objects associated with darkness, such as the moon, stars, and artificial sources of light, such as lamps and torches, to help create a sense of atmosphere and setting.
The Prologue sets the scene in both the play and the film. In Romeo + Juliet, Luhrmann presents the Prologue as a news bulletin that gives the events a feeling of immediacy — the urgency of an on-the-spot news report. The news broadcaster has replaced the Shakespearean Chorus for a modern audience while retaining the Chorus's function of providing commentary on events before they happen.
Luhrmann emphasizes the setting as the Prologue ends. The camera zooms forward to scenes of Verona, with the words "IN FAIR VERONA" flashing on the screen. Luhrmann presents Verona as a modern city, dominated by scenes of chaotic urban violence. Aerial shots pan across the cityscape as police cars and helicopters dart about, and human casualties are strewn across the ground. Watching impassively is an enormous statue of Jesus. These opening shots of a city divided by violence sets the scene for the subsequent action of the film.
These vivid location shots perform the same function as the Prologue for Shakespeare's first audience. A 16th-century playgoer would have associated the hot climate, fiery, passionate nature of the people, and strong sense of family honor with the Italian locale. By comparison, the film puts the viewer in the midst of the strife-torn city infected with crime and decay. The film uses these graphic images of violence to communicate the setting to the audience.
In the film, the first six lines of the Prologue are repeated as a voice-over to accompany more news footage covering the latest outbreak of violence caused by the feud. Media coverage of the civil unrest stresses how the feud affects the entire city. As the voice reads, "Two houses both alike in dignity," the camera pulls back to reveal the photographs of both families on the front page of the city's newspaper. The next two lines of the Prologue are displayed as newspaper headlines and juxtaposed with clips of riot police attempting to restore order on the streets. The media's presentation of the feud illustrates the impact of the "ancient grudge" on the city while importing the play's introductory content in a format familiar to a modern audience.
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