Comparing Shakespeare's Play to Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet

4 teachers like this lesson
Print Lesson


SWBAT analyze the representation of a subject in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment by viewing Zeffirelli's film and comparing it to the play.

Big Idea

Viewing a movie as a text is entertaining and educational.

Getting Started

5 minutes

Last class, we watched Act 1 of Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet. This class we are going to watch the same scenes in Luhrmann's version and compare them, both to the other movie and to the play itself. As I set up the projector and film, students will take out their movie worksheet, which they started to complete last class, while watching the Zeffirelli movie. Once the worksheet is complete, we will compare the movies to the original text.


Before starting the movie, I like to give students a preview, maybe even a forewarning. This movie is not like the other one; it is loud and fast-paced and modern. For example, instead of Verona, Romeo and Juliet live in Verona Beach, CA. Yet the language is Shakespeare's. I ask that if they are turned off by it at first, they should try to keep an open mind because it does take some getting used to. But if you can adjust, you will begin to ask poignant questions about the text and its message. Luhrmann's choices emphasize elements of the text that we might not see otherwise, such as the perennial nature of the plot; it works in any setting (RL.9-10.7).


Ultimately, this version of the text shows students that Shakespeare is adaptable, unlike the Zefirrelli version, which helps them visualize the setting and characters. The two films provide a well-rounded understanding of the text, which is why I spend two class periods watching movies. I think that they need both in order to truly appreciate the play.


45 minutes

Let me start by saying that this version of the play is not for the Shakespeare purist. It is interpretative and edgy. Nor is it for an immature audience; Mercutio dresses in drag for the Capulet party, moreover, Tybalt's death is intense and intensely violent. 


I pause the movie several times, especially in the first few minutes because it is extremely fast-paced.

  • It opens on an old-school television screen, where a newscaster says the lines of the prologue. It is helpful to stop and ask if they recognize the lines. For those who don't, this acts as a refocusing point.
  • I also stop right when they show the two buildings, which represent the two families; in this version, the families are feuding because their companies are competitors. 
  • I pause when both Capulets and Montagues are present at the gas station, in order to highlight the fact that the clothing still differentiates the families, only it is reversed: Montagues wear wild colors, while the Capulets wear darker clothes. 
  • When Romeo enters the scene, I pause briefly and ask students to focus on what he is writing in his journal: he writes the series of oxymorons from the text. 
  • I also pause at the beginning of the Queen Mab speech. I let them know that because Shakespeare includes minimal stage directions, much of his text is left to interpretation, which Luhrmann uses to his advantage (RL.9-10.5). For instance, this scene suggests that Queen Mab is a euphemism for ecstasy.  


Every time I pause, am I helping understand the content of the movie better, which in turn will help them ask questions that encourage higher-order thinking. I want them to read this movie just as they would (or should) read a text (RL.9-10.1). Pausing the movie also gives students the time to write a few details on their viewing worksheets. Here are two examples: viewing worksheet 1, viewing worksheet 2.

Which is better?

15 minutes

At this point, we will have read Act 1 and watched (and heard) two versions of the same scenes, while taking notes on the worksheet. The students are ready to analyze and evaluate. 


We will take a few minutes to debrief this film specifically, much like we did with the last one (SL.9-10.1). Then we will review the two in conjunction: which film do you prefer? This question we will write first and then discuss (RL.9-10.1 and W.9-10.10). I want students to think about their answer honest before anyone can influence their reactions. This step in the process is critical. Students need to feel invested and responsible while watching movies. They should be a reward, but they are also texts unto themselves and should be treated as such.


Take a look at which film they prefer and why.