Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Wherefore art thou NOT Shakespeare?


Well, that’s a disappoinment.

A closer watch of the trailer for the upcoming Romeo and Juliet adapted by Julian Fellowes reveals that the play has not only been adapted as a screenplay (which is all well and good), but has also had its language adapted. Sneakily, too, it took awhile for the differences from the lines used in the trailer to sink in.

And it wouldn’t be such a disappointment if it weren’t being advertised as:

R&J Trailer Still

R&J Trailer Still 2

Adaptation is a fine thing – it can illuminate the play in ways we never expected. Luhrman’s Romeo+Juliet, while garish and dizzying, gave us a new context for the play and a feeling of vitality and importance though we’ve all known the outcome of the story forever. I honestly cannot see the point of an adaptation in which little to none of the original text is used and it’s set in an all-too-familiar setting. It looks exactly like the lavish Italian set of the famous Zeffirelli film, yet the language is ever-so-slightly (and not-so slightly) tweaked. And why? For time? For clarity? What is the purpose of these textual edits? And why, then, advertise it as Shakespeare’s?

I went through the trailer and picked out the lines used, then looked up what I believed to be their equivalents in the Folger Digital Texts to compare what’s being said. For some, it’s a simple word that’s been changed. For others, it’s an entire phrase that’s been re-edited for some reason.

“On honor of my blood, I’ll strike him dead”
vs “Now, by the stock and honor of my kin, To strike him dead I hold it not a sin.”

“I would not let any harm beset him in my house.”
vs: I would not for the wealth of all this town Here in my house do him disparagement.

“Juliet, if your heart like mine is full then tell the joy that weights us this night,”
“I cannot tell of what is limitless.”
vs: “My bounty as boundless as the sea, My love as deep. The more I give to thee, The more I have, for both are infinite”

“These violent passions can have violent ends.”
vs: “These violent delights have violent ends.”

“Then you are mine no more, so help me God.”
vs: “An you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend. An you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets, For, by my soul, I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee, Nor what is mine shall never do thee good. Trust to ’t; bethink you. I’ll not be forsworn.”

“What have I done but murdered my tomorrow?”
vs: “O, I am Fortune’s fool!”

“There is no world beyond this city’s walls. Just purgatory… Heaven is here where Juliet lives. Every unworthy thing may look on her but Romeo may not.”
vs: “There is no world without Verona walls But purgatory, torture, hell itself… Heaven is here Where Juliet lives, and every cat and dog And little mouse, every unworthy thing, Live here in heaven and may look on her, But Romeo may not.”

“A greater power than we can contradict has thwarted all our plans.”
vs “A greater power than we can contradict Hath thwarted our intents.”
(not too bad, but is Friar Lawrence really saying that to Romeo? That’s supposed to be his line to Juliet in the tomb.)

“O, Furtune Fortune, send him back to me.”
vs: “O Fortune, Fortune, all men call thee fickle. If thou art fickle, what dost thou with him That is renowned for faith? Be fickle, Fortune, For then I hope thou wilt not keep him long, But send him back.”

“Take this vial… and drink through the last drop… and there will be no sign of life within you.”
vs: “Take thou this vial… And this distilling liquor drink thou off… No warmth, no breath shall testify thou livest.”

“Give me my Romeo. And when he shall die, cut him out in little stars. He will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night.”
“Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die, Take him and cut him out in little stars, And he will make the face of heaven so fine That all the world will be in love with night.”

This is a topic we keep coming back to:

“Bless thee, Thou Art Translated”
“Shakespeare… in Other Words”
“All Students Deserve Shakespeare”
“More to Fear from No Fear”

And it was addressed in our May 14th Webinar, of which you can watch an archived recording: Shakespeare in Other Words.

What do you think? What could the purpose of this sly translation be? What is lost or gained by these edits? How could it affect the way the audience perceives Shakespeare?


  • You missed my favorite line, Tybalt’s “Romeo! Come settle with me, boy!” versus “Boy, this shall not excuse the injuries That thou hast done me; therefore turn and draw.” (*)

    I think the movie makers want the “bump” that Shakespeare’s name gives, they just don’t trust that their audience can handle it. I can’t find the spot in this trailer (perhaps it was in the other), but one of the most patronizing additions for me came in the ballroom scene where some random playgoer says something like, “Romeo is a Montague! The Montagues and Capulets are mortal enemies!” Really, genius? Felt like throwing that line in, did you, for people who’ve been asleep for the last 400 years? I can just imagine that couple on date night wandering to the movies and thinking, “Oh hey look, Romeo and Juliet, I wonder what that’s about?”

    (*) Dear screenwriters, for proper Shakespearean use of the word “boy”, go watch the ending to Coriolanus.

    • Thanks for pointing that out, SG!
      I remember hearing the “mortal enemies” line in a trailer for it, too, and wondering why it needed saying. I’m usually all for any movie related to Shakespeare getting made, but I’m not sure I see the point to this one.

    • The screenwriters, movie company, etc. have to assume no one knows about the Capulets, Montagues, etc. This is standard for any writer, wether they’re writing an essay, book or play.

  • As a lover of Shakespeare, I’m horrified at the language alterations. As a lover of Julian Fellowes, I’m excited to see it unfold. And as a lover of Ed Westwick, I absolutely cannot wait to see him wield a sword. That boy is just delicious.

  • Eeeks, not sure I can see this film now. Not only are the reworkings completely unnecessary (audiences have done just fine with unreworked Shakespeare from Branagh, Fiennes, etc.), but they distort Shakespeare’s meaning in places — which I think is the greatest crime. There’s a big difference between “These violent passions can have violent ends” and “These violent delights have violent ends.”

    • That is exactly the problem I have with this kind of textual adaptation, Rosalind, thank you. The meaning is TOTALLY different! It might be a useful learning tool as a comparison of what’s lost in translation, but still – why?

  • As someone who teaches Shakespeare, this grieves me. Too often I find productions that approach Shakespeare as a genre, and not as a playwright. Wouldn’t the latter prove a more interesting venture?

    I’d also love to know what the Folger thinks of the “Shakespeare Can Be Fun!” Texts for kids?? Along the same vein as this discussion

    • You’re a teacher after our own heart. Our Elementary School Programs Coordinator, Lucretia Anderson, says “We do hand out the “Shakespeare Can Be Fun!” books to classrooms participating in Shakespeare Steps Out [our local elementary outreach program] as I feel it is a great entry point for the kids to get into the plot of the story, and shows how students can expand on their own interpretations of the text and characters even as second graders.

      “However, although the author cites that the books can be used as scripts for “Shakespeare” productions, we encourage teachers to use abridged texts of the plays for younger students, instead, to give them the full benefits of exploring the language for themselves.”

      Abridged plays that use Shakespeare’s text can be found in Nick Newlin’s “30 Minute Shakespeare” series, Shakespeare the Animated Tales series by Leon Garfield, and others, if you’re careful. One of our Teaching Artists, Amy Thompson, also wrote a wonderful entry on her chronicle of directing a production of MACBETH with 5th graders on cutting the text:

    • The movie company needs something that makes it different from every other remake. The intended audience for this movie[teens/young adults] will not see it if they feel it’s no different from the other remakes they watched in english class. Most teens find Shakespeare boring and cannot understand his plays, so if it’s the same script with no changes, this new movie would do terrible in box office. Remember, this movie will be viewed in movie theatres world-wide, not the local theatre, and all movie companies want to make money in the millions, and even billions. No theatre or movie company will produce a movie if not even a single line from a book, play, etc. is changed, removed, added, etc., even Shakespeare.

      • I imagine teens will fall into one of two main categories — those who love Shakespeare and will notice the differences and be bothered by them, or those who aren’t enthusiastic about Shakespeare and won’t notice the differences because the language is still “old” sounding.

        There can and should always be changes that show the director’s vision (see Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing for one that was fantastic), but to introduce new lines that still seem as though they are attempting to sound old-fashioned just strikes me as hubris.

      • With all due respect, I think you are underestimating students if you really believe that “Most teens find Shakespeare boring…” My 40-year experience teaching teens is that when they are taught Shakespeare well, and that means the language, their minds explode in the most positive way. Yes, I have had 13-year-olds who have complained of cuts even in the films that use Shakespeare’s language exclusively. And many of them are the students from whom I would least have expected that much attention and that much caring.
        In terms of theater and movie companies –all of them (except Kenneth Branagh’s full-length Hamlet) have cut some of Shakespeare’s language.
        No one objects to cutting. I don’t think anyone here objects to adaptation — the fact that Shakespeare’s plays respond so beautifully to adaptation only proves the universal appeal of his work — across generations and across cultures.
        But I believe the original point of this discussion was to express concern about the kind of “adaptation” that changes Shakespeare’s language and STILL calls it”SHAKESPEARE’S Romeo and Juliet.” (I wish for bolds — I am not using caps to indicate screaming, merely emphasis :). If the filmmakers had said “Julian Fellowes’ ‘Romeo and Juliet’… inspired by William Shakespeare’s play,” what they have done with the story would be far more clearly communicated. And the wording of the title does matter. I would like teens and the rest of us to know that what we will be seeing may be the story line, but not the original language. I can’t help thinking what the national reaction might be if someone modernized the language of the Declaration of Independence and titled it “Jefferson’s ‘Declaration of Independence.” Somehow, for me, the comparison is not horribly inaccurate.
        I hope people go to the movie and enjoy it. I also hope they realize that they are not seeing Shakespeare. I hope students do not come away from the movie thinking that they now know this Shakespearean play. In my classes, we will study the play and then discuss the differences between original play and this film. They will notice the differences, and I know them well enough to predict that many of them will still prefer Shakespeare’s language to the modern.

      • First of all, I have no problem with dialogue being removed; film versions of Shakespeare do that all the time. But, writing new dialogue that wasn’t in the original play is completely unacceptable!
        Second of all, film studios need to accept that, sadly, most teenagers are too stupid to appreciate the genius of Shakespeare.

  • I’m so sad to hear this … and I do not understand why. Does he not understand the visceral, cell-level response one has to hearing a familiar line spoken? I understand that they’re trying to reach a new audience with this production, but must he give such a dramatic thumb-biting to those of us who know the play by heart? Does he really believe the lines he revised are clearer or more accessible? I don’t see it.

    Our company, the Los Angeles Drama Club, presents productions of Shakespeare performed by 8 – 15 year olds, and while we make substantial cuts (I could very much relate to Amy Thompson’s diary entry linked above), the language absolutely stays intact. We did Romeo & Juliet last year, and were very much looking forward to our Players seeing this film. I’m sure we’ll still see it, but now we’ll be constantly taken out of the moment, thinking, “NO! That’s NOT what he/she is supposed to say!!

  • Hi, dear Caitlin! At our school, the teachers of Shakespeare are already in mourning! I love a really well-done adaptation in terms of setting, etc., but hijacking glorious language and distorting it is Shakespearean treason! I know the students will be all excited for this movie, but I really want to do an intervention before they see it and think that they now “know” Shakespeare. Which some of them will, sadly…..

    • That’s a great point, Mrs. Reichelt! How can we turn this (sure to be popular) film into a teaching moment?

  • It offends me on all levels that they would do such a thing. It’s sacrilege, to say the least, but I will more easily forgive and possibly even pay to view the thing if the changes made have kept the play in iambic pentameter.

    • This makes it sound more modern because the intended audience are teens/young adults. The movie company wants to make money before keeping the original play intact (remember this is Hollywood, not the local theatre). People of the time didn’t talk in iambic pentameter everywhere they went. Shakespeare wrote it in a “poetic-like” feel because it was for the theatre. If broadway did Shakespeare, the poetic-like script would fit right in, but for Hollywood it’s an entirely different story. Don’t criticize something until you’ve actually seen it, and can make an unbiased opinion.

      • You’re making good points, Adriyanna, but I feel like perhaps mine is not as clear: Adaptation is GREAT! Getting young people into Shakespeare is GREAT! But adapting an entire script of Shakespeare’s – not just to make a film, which the industry has been doing since the silent era with great success – but still advertising it AS Shakespeare is what’s not quite right here. True, Fellowes has said he is re-writing Shakespeare for this generation (though I don’t think he’d be my pick to speak for the teens of today), but Shakespeare doesn’t necessarily need re-writing in order to land. Editing – sure! Re-cutting – absolutely! Updated context – why not? But re-WRITING?
        I’m looking forward to seeing it – I honestly am. But I hope that audiences of all ages who see this on screen are aware that they’re Fellowes’s words and that’s it’s Fellowes’s Romeo and Juliet – not Shakespeare’s – that they are hearing.

  • I was looking at this quote from the movie and the original line you’ve paired it with:

    —“Juliet, if your heart like mine is full then tell the joy that weights us this night,”
    “I cannot tell of what is limitless.”
    vs: ”My bounty as boundless as the sea, My love as deep. The more I give to thee, The more I have, for both are infinite”—

    And I think it better fits the exchange they have at the wedding in A2S6:

    24 Ah, Juliet, if the measure of thy joy
    25 Be heap’d like mine and that thy skill be more
    26 To blazon it, then sweeten with thy breath
    27 This neighbour air, and let rich music’s tongue
    28 Unfold the imagined happiness that both
    29 Receive in either by this dear encounter.

    30 Conceit, more rich in matter than in words,
    31 Brags of his substance, not of ornament:
    32 They are but beggars that can count their worth;
    33 But my true love is grown to such excess
    34 I cannot sum up sum of half my wealth.

    The movie version is still a robbery, though. Obvs.

      • Devon, thank you so much!

        It was a bit confusing for me to try to figure out what line that could be – but I think you’ve found the correct passage! Maybe they still have “bounty is boundless” somehow, after all!

        And to quote you, “obvs.”

  • The Branagh film is great. The claim, in the ads, that it contains “every word” is not correct. Here is a clue. It is missing, at least a two word line in Act V. Cuts are fine and actors memory is not perfect.
    I doubt any performance has contained ‘every word’. The classroom is one thing. The Theatre is something else. Purity in class. Performance on stage or film. Get over it.

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