Shakespeare Review: Shakespeare Spin Offs

Shakespeare really is timeless and has been interpreted in countless art forms. One way I like to emphasize this fact is by reviewing the forms of pop culture he has inspired. Below is a short post I made earlier about how Romeo and Juliet has been re-interpreted into countless other forms. Check back every month for a new review

Enjoy!

Romeo and Juliet “Spin Offs”

We all know that Romeo and Juliet has been re-interpreted hundreds of times in opera, ballets, radio plays, movies, cartoons, graphic novels, and of course hundreds of theatrical productions like ours. Every interpretation shows not only the director’s personal spin on the story, but also a footprint of the period in which the play was produced. You can learn a lot about an audience’s values, beliefs, and what kinds of entertainment they enjoy by watching their productions, but in my opinion, you can learn even more from the most extreme way to re-interpret a play: SPIN OFFs!

What is a Spin Off? The dictionary defines a spin off as something derived from one or more already existing works, that focuses, in particular, on one aspect of that original work like a character, or theme. A spin-off may be called a “sidequel” when it exists in the same chronological frame of time as its predecessor work, (what some call a “prequel” or “retcon.”

So to qualify as a Romeo and Juliet Spin off, we’re talking about:

  1. A play, movie, or song that keeps a theme or character from Romeo and Juliet, but changes a major aspect of the play.
  2. Something that uses the characters, but not the same plot

So below are some examples of Romeo and Juliet spin offs in theatre, books, music, and movies

Theatre-

Title page of The History and Fall of Caius Marius, by Thomas Otway

  • Background: Caius Marius debuted in 1680. Otway wrote it at the close of the English Civil war, when the English just restored king Charles II to the throne. Unlike the puritans he replaced, Charles loved encouraged all the arts. It is very apparent that Otway was buttering up the king when he created this story. Knowing that King Charles had been exiled to Holland for 20 years and that the theatres had been closed down, he writes a lament into the prologue of the play that wishes for the return of both the monarchy and poetry:

Oh when will he and Poetry return?

When shall we there again behold him sit

Midst shining boxes and a courtly pit.

The Lord of Hearts, and President of Wit?

When that blessed day (quick may it come) appears,

His cares once banished, and his Nation’s fears,

The joyful Muses on their hills shall sing

Triumphant songs of Britain’s happy king.

  • Otway also knew King Charles appreciated bloody and sentimental tragedies, so appropriately, his play is even more outrageous than Shakespeare’s. He keeps the story of young love and feuding fathers, but ups the stakes, making it the feud between two Roman senators, squabbling to gain more power. Nevertheless, Otway keeps enough elements of the story to make it recognizable as a Shakespeare spin-off, especially this passage between Caius and his lover Lavinia:
    • O Marius, Marius! wherefore art thou Marius?
      Deny thy Family, renounce thy Name:
      Or if thou wilt not, be but fworn my Love,
      And I’ll no longer call Metellus Parent.
    • Background: For the polite theatre goers of the 18th and 19th century, Shakespeare was actually considered vulgar and uncooth, so adaptations were very popular. English theatrical impressario David Garrick wrote and starred in his own adaptation of the play in the 1750s. Garrick was largely responsible for bringing Shakespeare’s original plays back in vogue, which is why his version much closer to Shakespeare’s original. Nevertheless, Garrick’s adaptation still counts as a spin off because he had to change Shakespeare’s text  to suit the taste of the time.

Notable differences

      • Garrick keeps all the characters and most of the original dialogue, but he cuts nearly all of Mercutio’s jokes, making him much less interesting as a character.
      • Garrick chose to emphasize the purity of Romeo’s love, so he cut all mentions of Romeo’s previous affair with Rosalind. He also extended the death scene to give Romeo and Juliet a proper farewell. By removing all traces of Romeo’s dalliance with Rosalind, Garrick makes love more noble than it was in Shakespeare’s version. Romeo is no longer a horny young man but a true lover made of marble. Garrick also puts the blame squarely on the parents for the lover’s deaths.
  • West Side Story (1959, revived 2009)

     

    With the race riots of the 1950s and the rise of so-called “juvenile delinquincy” in the 1950s, the scene was set for a new way of interpreting Romeo and Juliet’s violent love. Arthur Laurents and Leonard Berstain re-interpreted Shakespeare’s story to represent racialtensions in America instead of class warfare. They also used the musical to dramatize gang violence in a new way. Though it has none of Shakespeare’s lines, and the characters and settings are quite different, the plot, themes, and some of the rhetoric are unchanged.

    Notable Differences

    • Instead of two aristocratic households, this play depicts the ongoing fight between white and Puerto-Rican American street gangs in 1950s New York, who fight with guns and switch blades instead of rapiers.
    • Older authority figures are noticably absent in this play. The Prince is reduced to a tired New York police lieutenant, (who it seems has little to no interest in these petty criminals). Also the old lords Capulet and Montegue are replaced by the young gang lords Riff and Bernardo. Riff, leader of the White-only Jets, also displays a Mercutio-esque wit and disdain for authority, while the fiery Bernardo also serves as a Tybalt-like antagonist for the Jets, and for Tony, the Romeo of the piece).
    • Maria, (who fills the Juliet role in West Side Story), actually lives to the end of the musical to deliver a final and terrible speech about how everyone’s hate has destroyed the lives of Tony, Bernardo, and Riff. She even threatens to shoot them all and herself, unless they end their pointless feud now. West Side Story actually goes further than Shakespeare in focusing on young love, and teen violence, and this is apparent with Laurent’s choice of having Maria, not the Prince or any old authority figure, end the gang war.

    Notable Simmilaraties

    • Although none of the characters speak in iambic pentameter, lyricist Steven Sondheim managed to capture a lot of the themes and ideas that Shakespeare uses in Romeo and Juliet. One of the most poignant occurs in the song: “Tonight,” where Tony and Maria meet after the dance on a fire escape (West Side Story’s version of a balcony). Sondheim’s lyric: “Today the minutes seem like hours, the hours go so slowly,” closely echoes Shakespeare’s sentiment: “Good night, good night, a thousand times good night,” and perfectly encapsulates the impatience of the young lovers to see each other, safe and unobserved by the world in the cool, beautiful world of night.

Music

  • Most songs about Romeo and Juliet seem to be less concerned with the plot of Romeo and Juliet, and more about their status as iconic lovers. To be “A Romeo” in our culture means to be a passionate, eloquent lover who will do anything to be with the object of his affection. Romeo’s name has become a kind of shorthand for the archetypal lover. Therefore, singers and songwriters often use the names of the characters to explore ideas about romance; what do we think of when we think of romance, and what is romance really like?
    • Dire Srait’s Romeo and Juliet

      • Of all the songs I’ve seen that mention Romeo, Juliet, or both, this is the only song that actually re-interprets the whole play in one song, while still keeping the names of the characters. Mark Knopler imagines a modern-day Romeo and Juliet who, instead of dying together, merely break up for some unknown reason. The only clue is given in the refrain:
        • Juliet the dice were loaded from the start
          And I bet and you exploded in my heart
          And I forget I forget the movie song
          When you gonna realise it was just that the time was wrong Juliet?
      • Like Shakespeare’s characters, his Romeo and Juliet are star-crossed lovers who cannot escape the forces that tear them apart, like a lot of young romances.
      • Knopfler clearly did his homework when writing this song. He begins the song with a perfect parody of the balcony scene, where he has Romeo singing to Juliet, and having her  say: “Romeo, you nearly gave me a heart attack.” This remark would be a natural response to anyone who suddenly hears a man’s voice while she is standing at the edge of her balcony, particularly when she is alone, in the dark, and in her night gown! Knopfler also shows great skill at simplifying Romeo’s speech, and summarizing the Capulet/Montegue feud, (re-imagined as a street fight).
      • This version of Romeo and Juliet, seems to suggest that most romances follow the pattern of Shakespeare’s play; boy meets girl and makes up her mind that she’s the one, while she is not as sure as he is. They then get to know each other, and then have to say good bye. The song ends with Romeo realizing that Juliet has moved on, though he will forever be in love with her. He then writes a love song and tries to woo again, though it’s not clear whether this is Juliet, or someone else. It certainly seems clear that no matter what, Romeo will never be able to forget his romance with Juliet no matter the outcome. Though the song is not as bloody as Shakespeare’s play, in a way its ending is just as tragic.
    • Love Story
      by Taylor Swift.

      Unfortunately Ms. Swift did not do as much research as Dire Strait’s Mark Knopfler with this song. It mentions the characters of Romeo and Juliet, but has no relation to the plot, the characters are totally unrecognizable except for the names, and the themes are almost completely different. However, this spin-off helps to illustrate how the characters of Romeo and Juliet have become so iconic in our culture that sometimes their actual characteristics are swallowed by their ‘public persona.’

      • Notable Differences
        • There are almost too many differences to count between Ms. Swift’s song and Shakespeare’s play. Juliet’s father never finds out about Romeo until after her death, Juliet is not a princess nor is Romeo a prince, and their idyllic “love story” only lasts about 2 days.
        • There is also an implication that Juliet has committed adultery; in the song Juliet refers to herself in the first person as “a scarlet letter,” which heavily suggests that she has at least been accused of adultery. No such implication exists in Shakespeare’s play. One wonders if Taylor Swift invented this plot twist, or simply was unaware of what Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” is about.
      • Interesting Similarity
        • In the refrain of the song, Juliet asks Romeo to take her “somewhere we can be alone.” Shakespeare’s Juliet suggests that the lovers leave town as soon as they are married, so Miss Swift has that aspect of her character correct.

    Films

    Romeo and Juliet: Sealed With A Kiss (2006).

      • In terms of sheer weirdness, I think this spin-off sets the bar incredibly high: Romeo and Juliet told as the story of two seals on an iceberg!
      • To be sure, this movie’s re-interpretations of time and place was highly imaginative- they made The Prince into a fat, ugly elephant seal who is also engaged to be married to Juliet, (though how a seal gets married I have no idea). The Prince Seal is simultaneously the authority figure, the antagonist, a metaphor for age and decay, and a bully which Romeo must overcome. The film also interprets the feud as a fight between two different colored seals which really happens in nature. Finally, putting the play on an icy glacier beautifully illustrates the themes of love, isolation, and the merciless power of nature to create and destroy.
      • BUT COME ON…. SEALS! Although the concept seems to make sense, the dialogue is terrible, and young seals aren’t good analogues for teenage lovers. There are few species  on Earth that I would less like to see make out than two seals. One could imagine Romeo trying desperately to get rid of his fish breath before the balcony scene, (which takes place on a rock sticking up out of the water).
      • If not for another notable example below, I would be tempted to say that based on this example, Romeo and Juliet  has no place as a children’s movie. Based on the way the producers watered down the violence, and constantly hid the presence of sex and death behind cutesy innuendo, one would think that there is no way to translate Romeo and Juliet into a children’s movie without completely missing the point of the story. Fortunately, this is not the case (stay tuned).

      Romeo Must Die (2000).

      • Although this film has virtually no connection with the characters or themes of Shakespeare’s play, it’s title tells an interesting story. Like West Side Story, the plot of this film centers around two gangs divided along racial lines, and two lovers from opposite sides who get caught up in the middle of their dispute. However, unlike every other spin-off of Romeo and Juliet I’ve encountered, this film is an action story more than a romance. It is the only time someone has used the violence, not the romance ofRomeo and Juliet, to get the audience to understand the plot of the film.
      • Major Differences: As I said before, the film’s plot has more to do with West Side Storythan with Romeo and Juliet. It centers around two California gangs, (one black, one asian), and their fight for dominance over Oakland. The two lovers Han Sing (Jet Li) and  Trish O’Day (Aaliyah), must fight their way out of their families’ controlling influence. Rather than being a somewhat effeminate aristocrat, Han is just as violent as the people he is trying to overcome, which makes him quite different from any other Romeo-type.
    • Gnomeo and Juliet

      Like I said in the review for “Romeo and Juliet: Sealed With A Kiss,” adapting Shakespeare’s play for children seemed to me like an impossible undertaking, until I saw this film. This interpretation had all the romance and danger of Romeo and Juliet, with all the wry humor of Shrek.

      Major Differences: This computer animated film is set in two adjoining houses in England, with two families of garden gnomes duking it out for supremacy. Though this seems like a ridiculous concept, it gives the film a great amount of charm, watching these two gnomes trot across the garden with their plaster feet, riding around on lawnmowers, and of course the fact that they are gnomes makes even Tybalt look cute. Gnomeo is a cocky, self-assured gnome who first looks for adventure before finding love. Juliet is even more of a spitfire than her human counterpart, and is able to perform midnight catburgling into a nearby greenhouse. It’s their desire for fun and adventure that makes these two compatible, and makes their love easy for even a child to understand.

      The film’s cleverness doesn’t stop there: the filmmakers inserted all kinds of Shakespearean jokes to make the play easier to understand and to entertain the audience. For example, the Capulet and Montegue households on “Verona Avenue” have the addresses 2B and another 2B crossed off, (punning on Hamlet’s most famous line). In addition, when we first meet Juliet, she argues with her father (voiced by Michael Caine) to let her off a small white platform that he forbids her from leaving. Because she’s a gnome, her father literally puts her on a pedestal, which beautifully illustrates the relationship between Juliet and Lord Capulet.

      Perhaps the most clever thing about Gnomeo and Juliet, is that the film makes you very aware that this is an homage, rather than a re-interpretation of the story. At the opening of the film, a tiny gnome with a ridiculously long hat says: “The story you’re about to see has been told before… A LOT.” This immediately reminds the audience that, although this film will give you the general idea of Shakespeare’s play, the real play is full of more violence and sex than a children’s movie will allow. At one point, Gnomeo even converses with an animated statue of Shakespeare himself, as a way of further conceding the homage, yet recognizing the difference between an adult-themed play, and a children’s movie.

Books

Romeo’s Ex: Rosalind’s Story by Lisa Fieldler

Technically speaking, this book is a sidequel, a prequel story that happened before the events of the play. Since we never meet Rosalind in the play, Lisa Fieldler’s book is the only account of who she is! This story imagines Rosalind as a kind, studious young girl who is apprenticed to a Healer, and thus not interested in being romantically entangled. The twist is that Rosalind is actually related to Juliet Capulet, and therefore has a vested interest into both their fates. In the meantime, she herself falls in love and has to make a thoroughly modern choice between love and her career as a healer.

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