Romeo and Juliet
for Teenagers
A CultureMap®
by Griffin Hanna
Published on 8/30/13

In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio tells the tale of Queen Mab, the fairy who visits sleeping humans, infusing their dreams with their greatest desires. To lawyers Mab injects dreams of fees; to ladies she supplies visions of kisses. But what do teenagers dream? Follow Queen Mab and her “team of little atomies” as she visits teenage brooders, vampires and celebrities, swooping from Wuthering Heights to West Side Story, from Twilight to Shakespeare in Love.

Start reading >>

Romeo and Juliet  (William Shakespeare | play | 1597)
to  Wuthering Heights  (Emily Brontë | novel | 1847)

Most American high school students read The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare’s play about taboo teenage love. And what kind of message does this tale send to hormonal adolescents? The two lovers elope, enjoy a night of sex and commit ritual suicide—a “lamentable” warning indeed. Still, Shakespeare’s teenagers transcend the bloodlust of their warring families with a love so passionate that they die for each other. In this sense it may be a “most excellent” love—albeit probably not one that most parents would wish for their child.

Another contender for “The High School Guidebook to Love,” Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is centered on the tempestuous relationship between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, an orphan raised with her. The highly melodramatic novel has less sex talk than Shakespeare’s teen romance (the most titillating Brontë gets is describing a “lusty dame” as “heaving like a sea after a high wind”), but its thwarted, mutually cruel lovers self-destruct as surely as Romeo and Juliet. Catherine dies young, and her spirit haunts Heathcliff until his death. Only when reunited as ghosts do they seem to find peace together—another unpromising model for impressionable youngsters.

Romeo and Juliet  (William Shakespeare | play | 1597)
to  Twilight  (Stephenie Meyer | novel series | 2005–2008)

Mercutio, the quick-tongued rascal of Romeo and Juliet, knows that language is corruptible. He can seduce anyone into a dialogue of bawdy puns and double entendres. Even his best friend, the dreamy-eyed idealist Romeo, who spends his days crying under a sycamore (“sick” plus “amore” equals “lovesick”), rises to Mercutio’s bait. When Mercutio mentions Cupid, Romeo responds, “I am too sore empierced with his shaft,” referring to his broken heart and…well, you get the rest of the pun.

Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight books, promotes hot teenage abstinence in her first three installments, Twilight (2005), New Moon (2006) and Eclipse (2007). Despite being introduced to Shakespeare’s libidinal lingo in English class, the heroine, Bella, and her vampire boyfriend, Edward, never go further than fondling. It’s not until the final book, Breaking Dawn (2008), that the two flesh out their relationship. Even then, Meyer only hints—a broken headboard, a bruised Bella—at what might have been a particularly dirty deed. It was perhaps that unrevealed act that inspired E.L. James to write an erotic bondage story for a Twilight fan website that would become the phenomenally fast-selling Fifty Shades of Grey (2011).

Wuthering Heights  (Emily Brontë | novel | 1847)
to  Twilight  (Stephenie Meyer | novel series | 2005–2008)

The dark and dangerous man is a staple of romantic fiction. A prototype of this brooding, vengeful character is Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights—spurned by his beloved, Catherine, and destructive to himself and others. Edward Rochester, the male protagonist of Jane Eyre, by Brontë’s sister Charlotte, is another. Over time the brooder has inhabited many forms, his stock-in-trade usually a childhood trauma or a secret, eventually revealed, that makes him sexually irresistible—think of James Dean’s effect on Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

Lately the Heathcliffian outsider has been resurrected as a vampire. On HBO’s True Blood, the bloodsucking Bill Compton glowers and frowns his way into the heart of the heroine, Sookie Stackhouse. The CW’s Vampire Diaries doubles the cocktail with two smoldering vampire brothers vying for the female protagonist. But pale-faced Edward Cullen, mooning over Bella Swan in the Twilight series, is the Heathcliff of choice among teens. Wuthering Heights is Bella’s favorite book, the pages of her copy worn from use. In 2009 when HarperCollins Publishers reissued the novel with a cover nearly identical to that of the Twilight books, bearing the legend “Bella & Edward’s Favorite Book,” sales quadrupled.

Twilight  (Stephenie Meyer | novel series | 2005–2008)
to  Shakespeare in Love  (John Madden (dir.) | film | 1998)

Movies and plays often set the stage for a whirligig of affairs, blurring the line between fiction and reality. Shakespeare in Love is the onscreen story about the offstage love affair between the Bard (Joseph Fiennes) and a cross-dressing actress (Gwyneth Paltrow) that inspires the onstage ardor of Romeo and Juliet. Though Fiennes and his costar did not have a real-life relationship (she was involved with the film’s Mercutio, Ben Affleck), many great romances—Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn—have started on celluloid.

Today’s celebrity pairings often come with a cumbersome third wheel: opinionated, tabloid-fed fans. Devotees of the films made from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, known as Twihards for the tumescence of their devotion, were overjoyed when costars Kristen Stewart (Bella Swan) and Robert Pattinson (Edward Cullen) took their love into the real world. When Stewart was caught on film in 2012 kissing Rupert Sanders, her Snow White and the Huntsman director, Twihards were furious, and Stewart issued a public apology. One particularly devout fan wept over the infidelity: “I thought they were Photoshopped,” she sobbed, referring to the incriminating pictures. “I thought it wasn’t real, but it’s real.”

Shakespeare in Love  (John Madden (dir.) | film | 1998)
to  Romeo and Juliet  (William Shakespeare | play | 1597)

The film Shakespeare in Love presents the play Romeo and Juliet as an original story by William Shakespeare. In reality, Shakespeare relied on several sources, including Arthur Brooke’s 1562 poem, “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet.” Still, Shakespeare’s life may have drawn him to the story. At 18 he married 26-year-old Anne Hathaway, likely a rush to the altar because Hathaway was pregnant. Twelve years later Shakespeare was in London penning the play, and Hathaway was 100 miles away in Stratford-upon-Avon tending to their three kids. Shakespeare’s love for her had apparently flickered out—when he died, all he left her was his “second-best bed” and its furnishings.

The Bard is unhappily married in Shakespeare in Love. He calls his marriage bed “cold” and is so out of love he can’t write. Then he meets the gifted actress Viola, and his talents surge. But that relationship too is doomed. Viola is betrothed, and soon departs for the New World. So Shakespeare imagines a new play, with Viola, henceforth his muse, the sole survivor of a shipwreck in a foreign land—the beginnings of Twelfth Night (which was actually based on Barnabe Rich’s short story “Of Apolonius and Silla”).

Wuthering Heights  (Emily Brontë | novel | 1847)
to  Romeo + Juliet  (Baz Luhrmann (dir.) | film | 1996)

For the attention of teens, Shakespeare must constantly compete with the latest fiction craze, such as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books and Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. Yet even though his English is archaic and his characters speak in iambic pentameter often rife with double meanings, Shakespeare holds his ground, and modern adaptations of his work abound. The Taming of the Shrew, for instance, got a contemporary spin in 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), and Othello became the prep-school tragedy O (2001).

Australian director Baz Luhrmann cast rising young heartthrobs Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in his brightly colored, quick-cut and boom-box loud Romeo + Juliet. Mercutio is a drag queen; Queen Mab is a tab of Ecstasy; Sword is a brand of firearm. Critics both lambasted and praised the film’s intent to appeal to the “MTV generation.” In 2003 MTV tried its own hand at adapting the classics, transplanting Wuthering Heights from England’s foggy moors to a sunny California high school and transforming the vengeful, mysterious Heathcliff into a rock star. The film was not well received: Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times mockingly wrote, “But who says the Heights have to, like, Wuther?”

Romeo and Juliet  (William Shakespeare | play | 1597)
to  West Side Story  (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins (dirs.) | film | 1961)

Romeo and Juliet deals with the bloody, bitter feud between two families: the Montagues and the Capulets. The action takes place in Verona, Italy, perhaps during the political and religious split between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, but Shakespeare’s audience may have drawn parallels with their own time and place. When the play was written, in 1597, England was divided between supporters of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I and Catholic factions that hatched machinations to subvert her government. Shakespeare never mentions specifics regarding any tumult, letting the story deliver its message: The devotion shown by the teenage lovers ultimately ended the feud.

The 1961 film West Side Story, adapted from the 1957 Broadway musical, transferred Romeo and Juliet’s setting to the New York streets. The warring factions became gangs: The Montagues are the white, American-born Jets, while the Capulets are the Sharks, their Puerto Rican rivals. Romeo is renamed Tony; Juliet is Maria (after all, “What’s in a name?”). It was one of the first films to depict a racially mixed relationship, defying the industry’s self-imposed Motion Picture Production Code—effective from 1930 to 1968—which stated, “Miscegenation…is forbidden.” Once again Shakespeare’s lovers showed the way to bridge a divide.

West Side Story  (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins (dirs.) | film | 1961)
to  Romeo + Juliet  (Baz Luhrmann (dir.) | film | 1996)

The film West Side Story was based on the 1957 musical created by a team of Broadway legends: Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Jerome Robbins (choreography). Bernstein disliked the film’s expanded orchestration, and the vocals of the leads, Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood, had to be dubbed by stronger singers (Jimmy Bryant and Marni Nixon). Wood’s dislike for her costar probably also complicated filmmaking: Castmate Russ Tamblyn recalled, “[Natalie] had a ‘shit list’ on her dressing room wall and Richard was [on] top.” Nevertheless, West Side Story won 10 Academy Awards, including best original score.

Perhaps the success of West Side Story and other Romeo and Juliet movie adaptations stems from the accompanying score, updated each time for a new young audience. Italian composer Nino Rota wrote “Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet” for Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film, and Henry Mancini’s cover version that same year catapulted to number one on the U.S. charts. Thirty years later, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke used the 1968 movie as inspiration for “Exit Music (For a Film)” in the score for Romeo + Juliet. That film’s soundtrack, with music by Garbage, Everclear and the Cardigans, reached number two.