The Good, the Bad, and the Neutral: Race Theory in Romeo + Juliet

Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet diverges more from the play on which it is based than just its modern setting- Luhrmann made conscious decisions to insert racial and sexual differences to emphasize certain aspects of the story’s significance. This blog post will focus on race, and how it simultaneously adds to and takes away from the the plague on both the Capulet and Montague houses.

Scholar Nicholas Radel discusses Luhrmann’s choices in his essay “The Ethiop’s Ear: Race, Sexuality, and Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet,” writing,

Luhrmann’s film not does interpret Shakespeare in a traditional way, representing his play’s historic difference from modern concerns; instead, it focuses on seemingly anachronistic, moder social fantasises about race amd sex, interpreting the famous ‘star-crossed’ lovers within the social and sexual divisions of our own society (17).

Radel claims that Luhrmann uses race to highlight modern society and its racism, and I find that this statement is partially true. Unlike in Shakespeare’s play where all of the characters are assumed to be white Italians (and were most likely portrayed by white Englishmen during his time), Luhrmann starts the film by deepening the difference between the Montague and Capulet families by making them different ethnic backgrounds.

The Montague clan is completely white, as established by characters Benvolio, Sampson, and Gregory, and further supported by Romeo and his father, Ted Montague. It is possible that Luhrmann portrayed the Montagues as Irish American, given the characters’ fair skin and hair and light-colored eyes and Catholic religious iconography (many of the characters wear crosses, Romeo has a close relationship with priest Friar Lawrence). Historically there have also been Irish American gangs in the United States, which the Montagues are undoubtedly, given their pack mentality, guns, raunchy behavior, and feud with the Capulets.

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Comparatively, the Capulets are generally portrayed as Latin, given their physical appearance (dark hair, dark eyes, olive/tan skin), accents (Tybalt is portrayed by Colombian American actor John Leguizamo), and like the Montagues, heavy Catholic influence (the major religion in Latin America and Spain).

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The ethnic background of the Capulets, however, is more ambiguous, as there are several conflicting racial markers. Tybalt’s style (as evidenced by the steel-tow cowboy boots pictured above) seems to suggest a “Texan-Mexican” background. The immediate Capulet family is even harder to pin down. Juliet’s mother Gloria Capulet appears to not be of Latin descent as she is blond-haired and blue-eyed- or at least she is not an immigrant, as she does not have a Spanish accent. Radel agrees that the Montagues “are stereotypically coded white,” and goes on to write,

Juliet’s family, for the most part, seems Latin-although, judging from her understated (and sometimes failed) attempt at the accent, the blonde Lady Capulet (Diane Venora) seems to hail from the American South (19-20).

The backgrounds of both Fulgencio Capulet, Juliet’s father, and her Nurse seem to be ambiguous: both have accents, but it is difficult to tell if they are Spanish or Italian. Fulgencio is portrayed in the style of what could be an Italian or more likely Cuban crime boss, and the Nurse comes off as somewhat of an Italian madonna.

Regardless, Juliet’s fair skin and eyes and red hair does not give away her Latin heritage, and it does appear that she takes after her mother much more. Luhrmann also chooses to have Dave Paris, the man Fulgencio wants his daughter to marry, as fair-skinned and blue-eyed, all of this indicating that the Capulets have no problems intermingling with those of other ethnicities, as long as they are not Montagues.

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In deciding to make the two houses two different ethnicities, Luhrmann makes the dichotomy that much more stark. While the families are similar- two households led by men with subservient wives, gangs led by principle cousins, one child who feels like an outsider- their cultural and aesthetic differences make them that much more distinct.

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Even at the Capulets’ costume party, the Montagues crash it dressed as Vikings, Scandinavian warriors (who were generally white), while the Capulets seem to honor the Mexican day of the dead, with Abra and Petruchio dressed as skeltons and Tybalt as “el Diablo.” As Shakespeare favors the Montague family, Luhrmann seems to do so as well, as further exemplified by the families’ costumes. We never see the Capulets outside of an angry, combative nature (there are brief moments in the party scene, but that is all) as we see the Montague boys performing crazy antics, pillaging like the Vikings they are dressed as. Tybalt is literally demonized, portrayed as the devil, making a slightly problematic statement about Mexicans/Hispanics in general.

Luhrmann has made characters who are coded as “neutral” African American, as they are between the Montagues and Capulets in terms of race. These characters include Captain Prince, the chief of police in Verona Beach and Mercutio, Romeo’s best friend.Captain Prince, the other African American character, is also neutral in that he seeks an end to the feud as well- he just wants to stop it. He has no loyalties to either side, and simply works on the unaffiliated side of justice.

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“Enemies to peace!” Captain Prince says as he looks down on the brawl between Benvolio and Tybalt.

While Mercutio is clearly associated with the Montagues as Romeo’s best friend, he is invited to the Capulet party, making him a neutral figure, simultaneously an important person for Romeo specifically. Radel writes,

Crucially, Mercutio is a border figure in Shakespere’s play. His presence helps mark the liminal space in which Romeo moves from boy to man…Although nothing in Shakespeare’s text suggests that Mercutio is anything but Italian (perhaps a stand-in for an Englishman, but otherwise not racially distinct from Romeo), Luhrmann  discerns his role as mediator between different words of innocence and experience imagined as different worlds of race and sexuality (19).

Mercutio seems to exist outside the feud (“A plague o’ both your houses!”) only until Romeo is in danger of being killed. Tybalt kills him as a result of his intervention, making him a casualty in the Montague/Capulet war. Mercutio’s “blackness” gives him neutrality, yet the exchange of words he has with Tybalt prior to Romeo’s arrival suggest the black/Hispanic racial tensions that exist in American society, giving more reason for Mercutio to go at Tybalt, who asks him if he “consorts” with Romeo.

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Interestingly, tensions between African American and white characters do not exist in Romeo + Juliet. Mercutio’s relationship with the Montagues is a good on; Romeo and his cousins enjoy having Mercutio around, as he is lighthearted and jovial. The close relationship between Romeo and Mercutio seems to indicate that white supremacy does not exist in the Verona Beach imaginary.  In response to viewer and scholar claims that Mercutio could very well just be “the token black friend,” or that he dies for the benefit of the white man (Romeo,” “The Ethiop’s Ear” reads, “In the film, where Mercutio seems to function in some ways as a Hollywood stereotype, his curse seems to reject the image of the black man as sacrificial victim and indict the racist hypocrisy of a society that takes solace in that image” (21).

Finally, Luhrmann’s decision not to portray Juliet as fully Latin may be cause for criticism. The most combative and hence villainized members of the Capulet family, Tybalt and Fulgencio, are also the ones most coded as Hispanic, or at minimum the most ethnically different. Both have distinguished accents and exude the concept of Latin “machismo,” as shown in Tybalt’s overall persona and the way he reacts to Romeo at the party, and how Fulgencio treats his daughter and wife (he threatens to disown Juliet and slaps Gloria) when Juliet refuses to marry Paris.

Romeo and Juliet are epitome of white, heterosexual love, and because the audience of both the play the film are conditioned to identify positively with Romeo and Juliet and reject Tybalt and Lord Capulet, it creates a sort of racist undertone against hispanic culture. In the Verona Beach imaginary, the whites are the heroes, the hispanics are the antagonists, and the African Americans are neutral, giving a slightly different interpretation than the white/black racial tensions, but ultimately still a problematic and racist concept.

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Works Cited

Radel, Nicholas. “The Ethiop’s Ear: Race, Sexuality, and Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.”

Queer or Carnivalesque: Analyzing Mercutio’s Sexual Identity in Romeo + Juliet

Baz Luhrmann’s decision to make the iconic Shakespearean character Mercutio both African American and queer is an interesting one.

Scholar Anthony Johae discusses the prospect of Mercutio’s transgenderness in his essay “Bahktinian Carnivalesque in Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.” Johae explains that past scholars such as Phillipa Hawker have claimed that there is evidence of a homoerotic relationship between Romeo and Mercutio in Luhrmann’s film, and “So upbeat is Mercutio’s mercurial cross-dressing and camp behavior at the Capulet party that it appears as a sign of his transgender identity” (304).

However, instead of making the simple blanket statement that because Mercutio wears a dress he wants to be a woman, Johae offers the idea that Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of “carnivalesque” may be at work, meaning “fancy dress, rather than exposing personality and sexual proclivities, might offer atypical disguises in the spirit of carnival where societal values are provisionally suspended and hierarchies reversed.” Furthermore, Johae quotes Baktin, writing, “’The carnivalistic life is life drawn out of its usual rut, it is to a degree ‘life turned inside out,’ ‘life the wrong way round’” (304). Using this theory, Mercutio is simply participating in a sort of game, and Luhrmann is making a sort of statement.

Johae establishes that the “carnivalesque” theory does not going pertain to Mercutio, but to other characters as well. He cites Pearce and Luhrmann’s screenplay playing on the words of William Shakespeare’s original play. He writes,

Romeo’s “O speak again, bright angel, for thou art / . . . / As is a winged messenger of heaven” (2.2.26, 28) has provided the prompt for dressing Juliet at the party as an angel with wings. It is probable also that Romeo’s party role as a knight may have come from Juliet’s later reference to him as “my true knight” when she gives the wedding ring to the nurse for her to pass on to Romeo (3.2.142); or recognizing an unintended pun, Juliet’s “Come, gentle Night” (3.2.20) may have suggested to Pearce and Luhrmann the way into Romeo’s disguise. In carnivalesque fashion, Juliet has temporarily been elevated to an angel, whereas in her daily life she enjoys no such freedom and is shut away with her nurse under the authoritarian rule of her father. Similarly, Romeo, who has shown marked delinquent tendencies in his behavior, particularly his imbibing of a purple heart before gatecrashing the Capulet party, briefly takes on an ideal role as a courtly knight; and this accords with Bakhtin’s paradigm of the crowning of the low at carnival and the uncrowning of the high (305).

 

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Just as Mercutio turns into a woman for the night, Romeo and Juliet become what they are not as well: a knight with the best of intentions, and an angel with freedom. Furthermore, Johae also cites the behavior of Lady Capulet and Tybalt, writing,

At the party she puts aside decorum (as is fitting at carnival) and behaves as though she is having an affair with her nephew, the much-younger Tybalt (she kisses him openly). Tybalt is dressed as “Lucifer, Prince of Darkness” (Pearce and Luhrmann 29) and sports horns—a sexual vigor which quickly turns into hatred once he sights Montague men (305).

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All of these scenes are heightened by the fact that until Romeo encounters Juliet for the first time, he is high out of his mind on “Queen Mab,” an ecstasy tablet, given to him by Mercutio. He hallucinates while at the party, and imagines Mercutio’s big performance, in which he is seen wearing a slightly more intricate outfit and larger wig.

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Johae claims that Mercutio’s “cross-dressing” is part of the carnival atmosphere, “where there is no stage, nor a separation of performers from spectators, because ‘everyone communes in the carnival act’” (306). He writes,

Mercutio, the drag queen is “crowned” with a woman’s white wig and “robed” in a white outfit, while in the real world outside of Bacchanalian excess he is a black man who belongs neither to the Hispanic house of Capulet nor to the Caucasian house of Montague—an outsider were it not for his friendship with Romeo—be it platonic or otherwise. He may have been “crowned” drag queen at the Capulet party, but when the party is over he is dragged down by Capulet and Montague hatred. Hence, his last words: “A plague o’ both your houses!” (306).

Going beyond the “carnival” theory, to automatically assume that because Mercutio wears a dress that he wants to be a woman would be incorrect- there is a whole community of gay men, the “drag” community, who dress up and perform as women but have no desire for gender reassignment surgery. This could very much be Mercutio’s case, or it could have nothing to do with a certain sexuality. It could be that he is gender-fluid, or a person who can identify as both genders.

On the assumption that Mercutio is gay, the insinuation of a homoerotic relationship between he and Romeo seems plausible, as Mercutio appears to be jealous when Romeo does not pay attention to him, always sarcastically bringing up Rosaline, the girl he thinks Romeo is still enamored with. There is also the poignant scene where Tybalt makes the comment, “Mercutio, thou art consortest with Romeo?” indicating that the two have a sexual relationship. His words send Mercutio flying at him, drawing his “sword” (really a gun, but the phallic imagery persists). Since the opposite of love is not hate but indifference, Mercutio’s sensitive and defensive reaction to the accusation of homosexuality may indicate that he is gay.

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Regardless, what’s interesting is not only Mercutio’s friendship with Romeo, who is unaffected by Mercutio’s outrageous display of femininity, but Mercutio’s relationship with Benvolio and other Montague boys. None seem to display any homophobia towards Mercutio, which may indicate that Mercutio is not queer in any way, shape, or form, or that in Luhrmann’s Verona Beach universe, it is “okay” to be queer, or both. Mercutio does not seem to be judged for his sexuality or gender identity (aside from Tybalt’s comment), which may make the argument of his cross-dressing being carnivalesque rather than transgenderedness obsolete.

Works Cited

Johae, Anthony. “Bahktinian Carnivalesque in Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.” The Explicator 72.4. (2014): 304-307. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 April 2016.