Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, 50th Anniversary


Today, March 4th, 2018, marks the 50th Anniversary of the premiere of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film”Romeo and Juliet” at London’s Odeon theater.

With a host of talented actors, rich period costumes and lush cinematography, this gorgeous movie is arguably the best ever adaptation of Shakespeare’s play.  Famous critic Roger Ebert included it in his list of ‘Top 100 Films’. Ebert wrote, “I believe Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet is the most exciting film of Shakespeare ever made.”

The movie won a Golden Globe Award for Best English Language Foreign Film.  It won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography (Pasqualino De Santis) and Best Costume Design (Danilo Donati).  It was also nominated for Best Director and Best Picture, making it the last Shakespearean film to be nominated for Best Picture to date. Coincidentally, the anniversary of its London premiere just happens to fall on the same day as this year’s Academy Awards presentation.

This movie is unique in may ways. Director Zeffirelli had the innovative idea of using  teenage actors for the roles of the star-crossed lovers.  This was the first time in the history of the play’s performances that actual teenagers were cast to play the teenage roles. Olivia Hussey played Juliet and Leonard Whiting played Romeo.

Hussey and Whiting both received Golden Globes for ‘Best New Stars of the Year’.

Zeffirelli also chose unique historical locations, adding to the rich authenticity of the movie, which was set in 14th century Renaissance Italy.  These locations included:

The Palazzo Borghese, which was used for the famous ‘balcony scene’. The Palazzo was built by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in the 16th century. It is located in Artena, 20 miles south of Rome.

“But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!”

The interior church scenes (where Romeo and Juliet are wed) were filmed at a Romanesque church named St. Pietro Somaldi in Lucca, Tuscania, 50 miles northwest of Rome.

“For by your leaves you will not stay alone, till Holy Church incorporate two as one.”

The tomb scene (where both lovers commit suicide) was also filmed in Tuscania.

“O happy dagger, this is thy sheath. There rust and let me die.”

The Palazzo Piccolomini, built in 1460 by Pope Pius II, served as Capulet’s magnificent palace. It is located in Pienza, Siena province.

“His name is Romeo, a Montague, the only son of your great enemy.” 

The dueling scenes  were filmed  in the old Umbrian town of Gubbio.

“A plague on both your houses!”

Some fun facts:

  • Paul McCartney was being considered for the role of Romeo, before Zeffirelli plucked Lenoard Whiting from the London stage. Although I love the Beatles, Paul as Romeo would have been a terrible mistake!

Paul McCartney as Romeo

  • Anjelica Houston was considered for the role of Juliet, but her father, director John Houston, insisted she work on another film (one of his own) at the time.
  • Olivia Hussey was originally rejected because Zeffirelli thought she was overweight. Upon her second reading, she had apparently lost weight and was accepted.
  • During the Italian filming, Zeffirelli once again became concerned with Olivia’s weight and insisted she not be served any pasta on the set. (I know!  Rude, inconsiderate, and possibly damaging — both physically and psychologically — to a teenage girl.)

  • Because there were nude scenes in the film, Zeffirelli had to get special permission to film 16 year old Olivia topless. Len Whiting was already 17 and of legal age for nudity.

  • Sir Laurence Olivier, who happened to be in Italy at the time of filming, reportedly showed up on set asking if he could contribute.  He became the narrator, and also dubbed lines for the actor Antonio Pierfederici who played Lord Montague but had a thick Italian accent. Sir Laurence’s contributions are not listed in the credits and he would accept no pay for them, stating he did this out of his ‘great love for Shakespeare’.  What a guy! 🙂
  • In 1977, Olivia Hussey and Laurence Olivier reunited, along with co star Michael York (who played Tybalt) for the production of  Jesus of Nazareth. Hussey played Mary the Mother of Jesus, Olivier played Nicodemus and York played John the Baptist.

  • Produced with a budget of just $850,000, the movie went on to earn nearly $40 million at the box office and later earned another $18 million in re-releases and rentals.
  • Thom Yorke of Rodiohead reports being very moved by Zeffirelli’s film. He later went on to compose music for the 1996 version of Romeo + Juliet, directed by Baz Luhrmann. Yorke said, “I saw the Zeffirelli version when I was 13, and I cried my eyes out, because I couldn’t understand why the morning after they shagged, they didn’t just run away.”

Many readers of R & J have wondered the same thing. Young love can be messy.

If you have not yet seen this phenomenal movie, I suggest you rent or stream it at once!

And finally, in honor of the 1968 London Premiere, here is a youtube compilation where Queen Elizabeth herself greets the young stars. Hope you like it!






Shakespeare’s Juliet: A True Leo!


Juliet 4

Juliet Capulet, from Shakespeare’s famous tragedy ‘Romeo and Juliet’, is one of the few (or perhaps the only?) characters in the Shakespeare canon whose exact age and birthday we know without a doubt.

How do we know?  Shakespeare tells us!

In Act I of the play – before all the romance, sword fights and slayings occur – Juliet’s mother (Lady Capulet) and her Nurse discuss plans for Juliet’s marriage.

Lady Capulet seems a bit clueless about her daughter’s age.  She asks the Nurse:

“Thou knowest my daughter is of a pretty age… She’s not fourteen?”

The Nurse replies:

“I can tell her age unto an hour.  I’ll lay fourteen of my teeth she’s not fourteen! How long till Lammas tide?”

Juliet’s mom replies:  “A fortnight and odd days.”

The Nurse then says: “Even or odd, of all the days of the year, come Lammas Eve at night she shall be fourteen.”

Juliet and nurse

It is around two weeks until Lammas, and the Nurse remembers, to the exact hour, Juliet’s birth the night before.

(We will, for the moment, abandon our horror at the substandard  parenting.  Juliet and her mom do NOT have a close relationship. The Nurse has been Juliet’s pseudo-parent and confidante.  We will also forget our horror at the idea of the adults planning a marriage for a thirteen year old…)

Lammas (also called Lughanasadh) is a traditional Harvest Festival celebrated on August 1st.  Because the Nurse says ‘Lammas Eve at night’ we know Juliet was born on the night of July 31st.

This makes Juliet a Leo!

astrology leo

Not surprising. After all, Leo the Lion is ruled by the sun. They are headstrong and passionate, natural born leaders, and by far the most loving and generous sign of the zodiac.

If you have ever known a true Leo, you know they are loyal, big-hearted, and will stop at nothing to pursue Love.  Juliet lives up to the Leo characteristics.

First, she falls deeply in love with Romeo. At first sight.

Well, you can’t blame her for that.

romeo juliet public domain

Secondly, when Juliet discovers Romeo is from the enemy camp, she comes up with the heartfelt but illogical scheme that they ought to simply change their names  — and then (la la la) their love would be acceptable!

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other word would smell as sweet…  

Romeo, deny thy father and refuse thy name

And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.”

Youth and naivety.  But hey, someone had to be optimistic.

Then, even though she has only known him for a few hours, Juliet says she is willing to lay it all on the line for Romeo:

“And all my fortunes at thy foot I’ll lay

And follow thee my lord throughout the world.”


Later,  Juliet marries Romeo in secret.  Even though she has only known him for one day.

When she learns Romeo has been exiled, Juliet is still determined to lose her virginity and have a night of passion with her husband. She bids the Nurse to arrange it:
“But I a maid, die maiden widowed?

Come, come, come, Nurse, I’ll to my wedding bed

And death if not Romeo take my maidenhead!”

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After that she goes against her father’s wishes when she refuses to marry Count Paris. Here,  Juliet the Leo proves herself headstrong and innovative. A girl of Juliet’s status going against Dad’s orders was definitely taboo.  Of course, Mr. Capulet has no idea what his daughter has actually been up to…

juliet and dad

Later, Juliet risks it all for love once again when she agrees to take Friar Laurence’s really bad, but well meaning advice of swallowing a potion to fake her own death.  Juliet’s actions are the classic heart-over- head moves of a young and passionate Leo.

Shakespeare knew astrology.

shakespeare astrology

And then of course, the shifty and fateful stars cross again. Romeo, thinking Juliet is ACTUALLY dead, drinks poison at her graveside.  Upon awakening to find a dead Romeo, Juliet stabs herself.  She knows life without Romeo is simply not worth living.

Ah well.

But you gotta give the girl credit for trying!

Juliet knew love. She knew love of the highest order, and more importantly she knew a universal law: Love, in its infinite supply, is the one thing that never runs out.  This was perhaps Shakespeare’s hidden meaning.

Although it is often dismissed as a play about ‘those crazy star-crossed teenagers’ who were ‘dumb enough to commit suicide’ — I believe Shakespeare had a bigger message in mind. The world in which they lived refused to allow their love, and yet after their deaths, the Caps and Montagues resolve all conflicts. Love grows and goes on, even in death. Romeo and Juliet are buried together. Love never dies, love is infinite, and there is enough for everyone.

Consider Juliet’s words to Romeo in the famous Balcony Scene:

“And yet I wish for the thing I have.

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,

My love as deep; the more I give to thee

The more I have, for both are infinite.”


Pretty deep for a thirteen year old, eh? But then again, she was a Leo.

Juliet 1








Juliet at Lammas Eve


romeo juliet public domain


My name is Juliet and I was born to the House of Capulet in fair Verona where my story begins.  My birth was on Lammas eve in the night, or so says my wet Nurse, and she ought to  know, having suckled me from her own teats, changed my dirt rags and weaned me with wormwood before my second name day.

The good Master Shakespeare would have you believe I stabbed myself to death for love, unable to live without the lad Romeo after he had foolishly swallowed a measure of poison. Suicide?  Me?  Well now.  If that were true I would not live to spin this tale, would I?

Come closer.  Sit by my side and I will tell you what really happened.

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It was my wet Nurse that cared for me most, for in those days aristocratic women were lack to give attention to their children, save for our wedding prospects and the marriage mules we eventually became. My true mother, the Lady Capulet, had none of me.

“Juliet,” my Nurse told me. “You were born under the star of Leo, on the thirty first day of July, the eve of Lammas or Lughnasadh as I call it.   Because of this your heart will be overwhelmed with love, for Leo the lion knows no boundaries.”

This was my blessing and also my curse.   For better or worse my affections were boundless. Deep as the sea. The more love I gave the more I had for me.  This is the one truth I have always known: love is infinite.

And so it was I fell madly and deeply in love with young Romeo of House Montague.

I had been raised as an aristocrat and it was understood that I be wed before my sixteenth name day. There was a fine man that bid my hand, name of Count Paris. A good enough match this would have been, but when I saw the young Romeo at my father’s masque I was completely smitten. It was as if Cupid’s very arrow had struck my back, never to be released.


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Romeo and his cousins had attended my father’s ball in false pretense, for everyone knew a Montague had no business delving in the affairs of Capulet!  Our families were arch enemies. Our feud, however, was so ancient none could remember whence it started, nor what it was even about.  And so when I fell in love with young Montague I could see no reason why we should not be wed.

Romeo had his surname and I had mine.  Montague and Capulet. What of it?  What’s in a name?  A rose, were it called by any other name — say ‘lily’ or ‘weed’ or even ‘shit’ —  would still, of its very essence, smell as sweet.   There was nothing to a name, and none could convince me otherwise!

It was the good Friar Laurence, a well meaning (but somewhat vacant headed) man of the cloth who agreed to wed us in secret. We had a proper ceremony in a proper church, with only my Nurse as a witness.


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Alas, after our wedding the real troubles began.

Street brawling was forbidden in Verona. Yet a fray could easily start with a malicious word, a wayward glance, even a biting of the thumb!   Anything at all could bring out the temper in  dramatic  rival foes such as our families were.  So often I had begged the men not carry blades in the street!  But  what was I? A mere female, a fluffy thing of ornament. My requests were dismissed, quickly as the sun sinks a horizon or the wind whistles a breeze.  Yet all who lived would regret this!



It was my cousin Tybalt who acted first, slaying Romeo’s friend Mercutio,  who fell to the ground shouting “Worm’s meat! They have made worm’s meat of me!”    With his quick temper Romeo then chased Tybalt, pursuing him to the top of a cobbled road, finally stabbing him straight in the heart.  Tybalt was instantly dead.  Our Prince Escalus, keeper of the peace, was enraged.  Escalus then banished Romeo from Verona, the act of murder  unforgivable.

The benevolent Friar Laurence and my Nurse, in their mercy, arranged that Romeo and I could spend one night together in my chamber before his banishment. For that I have always been grateful.  My maidenhead was hitherto untouched and our act was one of purity.  Lust unfolded, slowly and delicately, flesh touching beneath those bed sheets, later marred by my own blood and the reek of his salt and sex.

With much grief I let him go as the sun rose and the morning lark sang.  If it were not for the strict orders of Escalus, I would never have released my dear Romeo from the passion of our bed chamber.

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My father, in his sadness and panic (and knowing nothing of my marriage to Romeo)  then insisted  I marry the Count Paris immediately. With Tybalt slain I was now the sole heir of Capulet blood, and my father wanted I bear children in haste.  Naturally I refused.  “If you’ll not marry the Count Paris,” my father bellowed, “you shall go to a nunnery! Or live in the streets. Die, starve, I care not what happens to you!”

All of this, mind you, occurred before my fourteenth name day at Lammas eve.

Friar Laurence then came to my aid. Or so he thought. His plan was a silly one at best. Listen close, for this twist in the tale will surely cause you amusement: The Friar bid I take a potion that would make me appear dead!  He said I would lie comatose, without breath for three days.  My family, thinking me no longer quick, would bury me above ground in Capulet’s tomb. After those three days, the potion would wear off and I would rise again,  like Christ himself.  During this time, Romeo would be informed of all and he would ride back to Verona to claim me.

When my Nurse heard this preposterous idea, she would have none. “A fake death?” she scoffed.  “The Friar!  Though he fancies himself a worker of dark arts, he is naught but an amateur.  Juliet my child, you will leave this to me,” she said, her cool eyes deep in thought. “I have a much better plan, one that will serve us well.”


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My Nurse then told me of the doppelganger.  This being a double spirit that takes on human countenance.  The doppelganger would look like myself, act as myself, seem in every way to indeed BE myself.  But I, the real Juliet, would be elsewhere.

It was my Nurse who gave me the true potion, a noxious mixture of tansy, vervain and mugwort, with frog sperm and another secret ingredient she refused to reveal.  Upon drinking the potion I could feel my body split, like two halves of a walnut shell.  Then, standing  before me was my double Juliet, a picture of myself in every way; the same hair, the same wide eyes, the same birthmark upon my shoulder. Myself but NOT myself!  Had I not seen this with my own eyes I’d not have believed it.

Doppelganger 3

The doppelganger was obedient. She could  do only as she was told, for that was part of the Nurse’s spell.  This worked out well, for my father adored the docile new Juliet who would adhere to his will.  This Juliet could easily forget the Romeo she had never known, swallow the Friar’s death potion without a blink, even be buried alive in Capulet’s tomb.

As for the real me, I was sick. Devastated.  I wanted my Romeo back and I knew not the outcome of all this.

“Your situation here is hopeless,” the Nurse told me. She peered in a stone of crystal and continued.  “The Friar has sent a messenger to Romeo in Mantua but I assure you, he will not arrive in time.” The Nurse put down the crystal and grabbed my hands. “Juliet, hear me! Your Romeo will never get this message. He will die of grief , and at his own hand.  Yet you can still save yourself!  We will journey to Venice.”

The Nurse’s prophecy came true. Romeo was told only of my so-called death. So distraught was he that he purchased a poison from an unscrupulous apothecary in Mantua.  He then rushed back to Verona. Upon seeing the doppelganger in Capulet’s tomb and thinking it was me, he hastened to imbibe the poison, and so, killing himself.

It was the doppelganger who awakened and, seeing Romeo dead, in turn stabbed herself with his sword.  Her purpose, I must admit, served well; it brought an end to the feud between Capulet and Montague.  Our parents agreed to have us buried side by side, forever ending the silly war that had caused so much grief to all.


As for myself, I stayed on in Venice with my Nurse. She taught me all her tricks of prophecy and potion. Together we created a thriving business.  Oh! The price men would  pay for a doppelganger, one that allowed them to be in two places at one time! The price men would pay for a prophecy, as we scryed our crystals, predicting the future with accuracy.  Soon my Nurse and I acquired a fortune much bigger than all of Capulet and Montague put together.

My one night with Romeo had left me with child. A boy whom my Nurse delivered, though I suckled him myself, changed his dirt rags and vowed never to partake in the cold ways of  my mother, Lady Capulet. My boy grew strong, and I vowed also to teach him of prophecy and potion, just as my Nurse had taught me.


Through all of this I still missed Romeo terribly. Then on one rare, rainy day  as we not often had in Venice, there appeared at my door a stranger dressed in  a hooded cloak and robes.

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I thought at first it was the Friar, come to beg my forgiveness. But no. The stranger moved closer and whispered in my ear, “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?” There was no light on this gray day, but I’d know the voice anywhere. With haste I removed his hood.

“It is the east,” I answered boldly. “And Romeo is the sun!” With that I fell into his arms. My own dear Romeo! But how so?

Unbeknownst to me, the good Nurse had given Romeo a doppelganger of his own!  It was that who drank the poison from Mantua, that who now lie in the coffin with my double.  When enough time had passed so none be suspicious my Nurse arranged this reunion.

I was shocked in joy and ecstasy.  I could not be angry with my Nurse, for her plan had worked only to my benefit.  My love, as ever, was boundless as the sea.  The more I gave of it, the more I had for me.

Ah Master Shakespeare!  If only he’d known the truth. Then mayhap he could have written a tale worth reading!  For you see, I was never the star-crossed lover who took her own life. Oh no.  I am Juliet, with Romeo and our son by my side, with potions and prophecies, my great Venetian mansion and enough gold to last  a lifetime!  I am  Juliet —  who in time and with experience became known as none other than the true Merchant of Venice.


Romeo and Juliet