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.”