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The Poetics of Paradox: Shakespeare’s Versus Zeffirelli’s Cultures of Violence

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 March 2007

Stanley Wells
Affiliation:
University of Birmingham
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Summary

Shakespeare’s drama has proved the most popular theatrical afterlife of the time-honoured story of Romeo and Juliet, and Franco Zeffirelli’s film (1968) continues to be its most popular filmic afterlife. Zeffirelli’s film deserves its success, especially for its cinematic brilliance in capturing the colourful and passionate intensity of Verona and its legendary lovers. However, Zeffirelli’s version does not fully succeed in rendering Shakespeare’s emphasis on moral philosophy and the rhetoric of paradox for the genre of tragedy. Shakespeare greatly improved upon these elements in his main literary source, Arthur Brooke’s poem The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562), for his own staging of the uses and abuses of human nature. As a result, Zeffirelli lessens Romeo’s stature as a tragic protagonist and underestimates the importance of Friar Lawrence’s philosophical role in the play’s competing definitions of manhood in relation to the problem of violence. Shakespeare’s creation of Romeo as his tragic protagonist is a bit of a paradox in itself. He is arguably the least responsible of all Shakespearian tragic heroes in the canon. Yet Shakespeare also altered Brooke’s poem in ways that complicate and heighten Romeo’s role of tragic responsibility. For example, Brooke's Romeus fights Tybalt in self-defence, after trying to be a peacemaker on behalf of God and the commonwealth; his stated reasons for intervention are religious and political, making no mention of his personal love for Juliet (lines 999—1034).

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Shakespeare Survey , pp. 163 - 180
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 1996

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