H2Oooohhhhhh: The Motif of Water in WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S ROMEO + JULIET
10 July 2011
Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 cinematic interpretation of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet redefines the term visual spectacle. Sometimes absurd and other times surreal, Luhrmann’s shots are vibrant, complex, exaggerated, and always striking. Furthermore, the rapidity of his cuts produces an abundance of these penetrating shots, intentionally thrust upon the audience (sexual language intended…this is, after all, stemming from The Bard). Some critics liken Luhrmann’s embellished and amplified visuals to the narrative’s theme of young love. That is, the visual chaos parallels the chaos created by the young lovers who throw caution to the wind during their whirlwind romance, an intelligent and supportable claim.
However, there is more to Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet than simply the visual as spectacle; not all the striking visuals in Romeo + Juliet are a spectacle, in the flashy or loud sense of the word. Beyond creating chaos and vibrancy, Luhrmann also visual motifs to convey meaning. One of the most striking motifs is water, used in a variety of ways, throughout film. This motif in not borrowed from the literary text; the water motif is used cinematically to enrich and add relevancy to some of the film’s visuals.
The first time the audience sees water is right after one of the opening sequences (a heated gas station brawl between the Montagues and Capulets) when Benvolio (Dash Mihok) finds Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) staring out to the ocean during a bout of depression. For reasons understood retrospectively, Romeo is drawn to the ocean in his time of bewilderment and heartache. Shortly after this scene, the audience first meets Juliet (Claire Danes) underwater in her bathtub. Again, although the significance of these two characters and water is a retrospective realization, it is important to point out both Romeo and Juliet are introduced to the audience with a connection to water. Meaning is derived as the images of water turn into a pattern.
The next time the audience sees water it begins to become clear water is in some way connected to clarity, rejuvenation, and truth. At the Capulet’s costume party, after taking a drug from Mercutio (Harold Perrineau), Romeo, with his mask on, dunks his head in a sink. Up until this point, Romeo’s experience at the party was severely altered due to the powerful effects of the drug; however, the water brings him back to a sober mindset. In pulling his head from the sink, Romeo leaves his mask behind, symbolically leaving behind the pretense inflicted on him by the drug. Thanks to the water, the influenced, artificial Romeo is now gone and the honest Romeo reemerges. In the brief, rather subtle moment, the audience is queued to notice how water pulls Romeo from a deeply affected mindset to a clearer one based in reality.
This moment leads directly into Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting. Still relying on the water motif, Luhrmann stages the characters to first lock eyes through an aquarium full of exotic fish. Building off the sink used moments before, water continues to serve as a repeated symbol of truth. In seeing each other through the water they are seeing each other clearly; not unfiltered, rather filtered (as water is) of the chaos and affected atmosphere surrounding them.
Moreover, a particularly nice touch by Luhrmann is the way he shots Romeo and Juliet looking at each other through the aquarium. As conveyed in this film’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s play, Juliet’s life, up until this moment, revolves around her parents’ expectations and demands. However, when Juliet sees Romeo for the first time, the camera also captures Juliet’s own reflection in the aquarium along with Romeo’s image. This shot is significant because it suggests Juliet finally sees herself and her own wants and desires in her love for Romeo; in some way, in seeing Romeo for the first time Juliet is also seeing herself for the first time. The same is true for Romeo; in seeing Juliet’s image, he also sees his own reflection. Again, the water’s presence suggests to the audience the honesty of the moment and clarity in Romeo and Juliet’s thoughts.
Building further on the motif of water, the famous balcony scene is shot around and in the Capulet’s swimming pool. Just as Romeo was drawn to the beach when heartbroken over Roseline, Juliet is drawn to her pool when reeling with thoughts of Romeo being the son of a Montague, her family’s sworn enemy. Juliet draw to the pool, like Romeo’s to the beach, symbolizes a yearning for clarity, identifying water as a source of truth. As the scene continues Romeo enters and the two end up in the pool professing their love for one another. Once again, as with the sink and aquarium, the water removes the pretense; in the water Romeo is not simply a Montague and Juliet a Capulet. Reality is clearer and simpler when water is present.
As the plot continues, Tybalt (John Leguizamo) and Mercutio begin their fatal fight at the beach and Romeo enters their argument already in progress. In this scene and the one to follow the meaning of water as a motif of truth and clarity becomes more apparent. When Romeo first approaches the fight he is greatly influenced by the water surrounding him at the beach; Romeo is calm and unaffected by the conflict and pretense around him. Romeo refuses to fight Tybalt and attempts to end their long-standing feud. It is not until Tybalt kills Mercutio and flees the scene does the audience see a change in Romeo. In pursuing Tybalt, Romeo is drawn away from the beach into the city. The further Romeo gets from the water the more clouded and affected his mindset becomes (further emphasized visually by the clouds beginning to build in the sky); Romeo becomes fixated on revenge. After a car chase and subsequent crash, Romeo guns down Tybalt in, what appears to be, the city’s center. Fatally wounded, Tybalt falls back into a giant fountain. Importantly, the water in the fountain is not shown until after Tybalt is shot. Luhrmann wisely captures Tybalt’s decent into the water in slow motion as Romeo’s face changes from rage to sorrow. As Tybalt hits the water, Romeo’s eyes well-up with tears and the clear realization of his action hits him. Additionally, it begins to rain and Romeo shouts out the famous line, “I am fortune’s fool,” solidifying to the audience Romeo now, in the presence of water, understands reality in a way he did not when pursuing and murdering Tybalt. During these scenes the audience sees Romeo do a complete 360; he goes from mental clarity to complete chaos and confusion to clarity once more. And, by this point in the film, the presence of water during these swings in Romeo’s mindset are more than just coincidental, intentionally, Luhrmann in using water as a motif for truth and clarity.
Luhrmann also continues connecting water with Juliet and her ability to see reality clearly. After her first (and only) night with Romeo—which, in this film, unlike the play, occurs after Romeo kills Tybalt—he leaves her room and exits into the pool from the prior scene. As soon as Romeo is in the water, Juliet says she “sees [Romeo] at the bottom of a tomb,” which, in the moment, is ominous but inevitably true. Once again, through the water Juliet can sees clearest.
The film’s conclusion is devoid of water, which supports the claim Romeo and Juliet’s death is a result of confusion and mistruth. First, Romeo is banished to the desert, a dry waterless environment, therefore complicating his perception of reality. And, later, in the tomb, far removed from water, Romeo and Juliet die confused and without knowing the truth about what happened to each other.
Hidden in the midst of countless visual images, Luhrmann’s water motif flows subtly and consistently throughout Romeo + Juliet. Each instance of water supports a moment of truth, juxtaposed with the moments of utmost chaos and confusion when water is nowhere to be found. This motif is easily lost in the overall visual spectacle Luhrmann presents; however, sifting through the spectacle reveals the visuals are working in meaningful, complex ways.