The film begins with an aerial shot of Verona, Italy, as a narrator speaks Shakespeare’s famous opening lines: “Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene.” He describes the ongoing feud between the families Capulet and Montague, and the “star-cross’d lovers” from the respective families, who will soon take their own lives and end the feud.
In a busy town square, Sampson and Gregory Capulet, dressed in medieval red and yellow outfits, are joking and laughing together when they spot members of their sworn enemies, the Montagues, approaching. The Montagues are dressed in duller colors of dark green and blue and go about their business, greeting a vendor politely, buying various wares, and so on. Sampson spits in their direction and antagonizes one of them, called Abraham. Abraham tries not to take the bait, but when they insist they serve a better lord than he, Abraham counters that they’re lying, prompting Gregory to trip one of the Montagues, knocking him over. Enraged, Abraham draws his sword and demands that they do the same, and the two groups begin dueling violently. Benvolio, a Montague, arrives and attempts to stop them, reminding them that the prince has forbidden them to fight in public, but when Tybalt, a Capulet, arrives with a group of fellow Capulets, he baits Benvolio, and an all-out brawl ensues. Tybalt strikes a Montague in the head. A bell tolls as both families grab their weapons and take to the streets in droves, including the heads of each family, Lords Montague and Capulet themselves. Townsfolk scatter in fear as the street is upended, with food and debris scattered everywhere.
A horn sounds as the prince arrives with a cavalry in tow. The men fighting attempt to flee or drop their weapons, but the brigade corners them on the steps of the church. The prince orders their weapons down and they drop them. He admonishes them for the third recent brawl in the streets, and threatens their lives if they ever do it again. He sends everyone home except the heads of each household, demanding a meeting with them. He and his men then ride away as a horn sounds again.
Calm returns to the streets. Lady Montague tends to an injured boy and asks where her son Romeo is. Benvolio says that he took a walk earlier and saw him in a sycamore grove on the city’s west side, but that he stole into the wood when he saw Benvolio approaching. Lord Montague says that he’s been doing that a lot recently. The three see Romeo coming and Benvolio asks to speak to him alone. Montague and his wife exit. Romeo, a handsome teenager, looks ahead to see Benvolio waiting for him and appears deeply unhappy as he leans against an opposing wall. Benvolio greets him, but Romeo is terribly sad, twirling a bushel of lilacs absent-mindedly in hand. Romeo asks Benvolio if he saw his parents leaving, which Benvolio confirms. Benvolio asks what’s wrong, and Romeo admits to missing something, but concedes no more. He tries to leave and notices a crowd helping a wounded man into a nearby building. He asks what happened, but immediately refuses any answer, lamenting the lack of love the two families’ feud shows, and runs off.
In the Capulet home, Lord Capulet speaks to Paris, wondering if he and Montague can keep a peace. Paris asks what Capulet says to his proposal to marry his daughter. Capulet says that at fourteen she’s too young, and that he should wait two more years before considering marrying her, lest she end up distant and unhappy like her mother, Lady Capulet. He advises Paris to court her as well, since his permission is only one requirement for marrying her; her acceptance is another. He then switches to inviting Paris to come to the great party he’s planning to host at his home that night.
In a bedroom elsewhere in the house, the Nurse tidies up as Lady Capulet sits in a chair being tended to by servants. She asks the Nurse to call to Juliet, who shouts for her in the courtyard. Juliet appears across the way; she is young, bright-eyed, and pretty. The Nurse tells her that her mother would like to see her, and Juliet hurries to the room. Lady Capulet shoos the servants and Nurse away, but quickly asks the Nurse to come back, and says that Juliet’s birthday is coming up on Lammastide (August 1). The Nurse agrees and flies gleefully into a story about how eleven years prior she was weaning Juliet from breastfeeding by putting bitter wormwood on her breast when an earthquake hit. Lord and Lady Capulet were in the city of Mantua at the time. She also recalls cheerfully how her husband, now deceased, once picked the young Juliet up, who had fallen and cut her forehead the day before, and said that when she got older she’d “fall backward” (meaning to have sex). Apparently, the young Juliet had stopped crying and said, “Yes!” which sends the Nurse into a fit of laughter. At this, Lady Capulet tells the Nurse to be quiet. She asks Juliet what she thinks of marriage, and Juliet says she doesn’t dream much of it. Lady Capulet says that Paris wants to marry her, that he’ll be at the feast that night, and that Juliet should look upon him and think his proposal over. A boy named Peter comes in and says that the ladies are wanted downstairs. Juliet says she’ll try to like Paris. As the women exit, the Nurse encourages Juliet to find a man who’ll give her happy nights at the end of happy days.
Section 1 Analysis
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is no doubt among the most well-known stories in the history of English literature, rife with every literary device from strong foreshadowing to dark symbolism, bawdy word-play to clever parallelism, throughout its five acts. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film turns the story into a heart-wrenching live-action journey. Several elements of this version of the story make it unique. For one, this was the first time a film version of the play cast actors who were roughly around the age that Shakespeare intended Romeo and Juliet to be—teenagers, and young ones at that. This notion is crucial to their irrationality and immaturity, and aids in the believability of their melodrama. Additionally, the character of Paris, who plays a significant role in the play, bears little influence on the story in the film. For example, in the play he is seen mourning at Juliet’s grave in Act 5, at which point he is confronted and then killed by Romeo, but his lesser presence in the film warranted removing this scene entirely, a choice that quickens Romeo’s hasty entrance into the tomb but arguably lessens the stakes under which he breaks into it (but more on that later).
The film begins with blatant foreshadowing as the narrator tells us that this story will feature a lover from each of the feuding households in Verona taking their own life to bring the feud to an end. This is a common occurrence throughout the film, as it is in the play: the viewer is constantly reminded that the story will end in tragedy, such that Romeo and Juliet’s untimely deaths in the conclusion is exactly what we expect. This first part of the film features more foreshadowing in the moment where Romeo postulates that crashing the Capulet party will bring about his death. It’s unclear why precisely he feels this way, but alas, his dread proves to be completely justified.
The prologue also brings about a motif to which we will return continuously: the determination of fate by the stars. In the 16th century, it was commonly thought that one’s destiny was linked to the stars, and it’s from this belief that we get the now common phrase “star-cross’d lovers,” used to describe Romeo and Juliet as bring marked by fate. Connecting the stars to fate only reinforces the idea that their story was written for them from the beginning, and that their tragic deaths were predetermined by a course of events, away from which there was no possibility of veering.
While we don’t see much of Romeo’s relationship with his parents, setting up the dynamic of Juliet’s family early on is crucial to the film’s plot. The Nurse is the true maternal figure in Juliet’s life: she nursed and cared for her from a young age, takes real joy in her life, and is the one in whom Juliet confides her secrets. By contrast, Lady Capulet is a cold, distant woman who struggles to present as motherly, as exemplified when she asks the Nurse to leave the room while she talks to Juliet, only to immediately call her back in at the thought of having a difficult conversation with her daughter one-on-one. Finally, Juliet’s father is shown to be the leader of the house, and also as the potential arranger of her marriage to Paris. His status as the patriarch in charge of her life explains his anger later in the film when she defies him by refusing to marry Paris.
It is crucial to note that Romeo begins the narrative completely miserable at the thought of feeling unreciprocated love for a girl named Rosaline, who isn’t a character in either the film or original play, but is only mentioned by name. It’s to be understood from the get-go that Romeo and Juliet are simply too passionate, that their inability to control or contain their emotions eventually gets them killed. The fact that Romeo begins the story beside himself with melancholy over another girl therefore shows us that the high intensity of emotions he expresses around Juliet isn't even unique to her (especially as Friar Lawrence will point out in Section 2: Romeo seems to hop from one girl to the next with ease). Moreover, the fact that Rosaline isn’t even in the story only further demonstrates her insignificance; still Romeo is extremely melancholy at the idea that she doesn’t love him.