Did Romeo and Juliet Really Have Sex?
Joseph Giancarlo C. Agdamag
IV – AB Economics
Ateneo de Manila University
The works of William Shakespeare not just launched a thousand adaptations; they also launched a thousand babies.
Whether he admits to it or not, almost all of his literary pieces have allusions to the idea of sexuality. This might be inevitable since many of his works have romantic themes, and as such, sexual scenes and innuendos come into play.
Many literary scholars have already touched upon this topic and authored some books about it. One of which is Stanley Wells. In his book “Looking for Sex in Shakespeare,” he proposes the idea of the legitimacy of one’s readings. He says that “the meanings of art are stimulated and guided by the mind of the artist but exist finally only in the minds of those who experience them.” Hence, like every other work of art, the meaning that the artist wanted to convey originally may be different from how the audience interprets the work on his own. It’s all a matter of perspective.
So, did Shakespeare really mean to provoke his readers with such sexual overtones?
Take for instance, “Romeo and Juliet.” What could be more sexually suggestive among all of Shakespeare’s plays compared to this romantic tale of star-crossed lovers? Valerie Traub gives a perfect description of the sexuality present in this very much adapted Shakespearean tragedy. According to her, “the two lovers attempt to forge an erotic alliance beyond the physical and ideological constraints of the feuding houses of Capulet and Montague. To the extent that their erotic love is given expression in spheres untouched by the feud – the balcony, the bedroom, the abbey, the tomb – they succeed.”
But that is Ms. Traub’s personal interpretation. Basing from various forums in the internet, the reaction of the public is mixed. Given the fact that public portrayals of sex were still prohibited back in Shakespeare’s time, some say that the erotic scenes didn’t actually transpire physically in the play, but they are merely implied. In order for their marriage to become fully consummated, the intercourse act might have indeed happened. Still, there are some who interpret the text in a way such that Romeo and Juliet were both chaste even in their deaths.So indeed, the text is open to various interpretations.
Going back to the title of this essay on whether Romeo and Juliet really had sex, one may answer this question with a resounding “Yes!” if he is going to base his answer on how contemporary media adapted the play. This is true for both theatrical and movie adaptations. Wells argues that “in the theater, lewd meanings have been sought out, relationships once thought to be innocent have been trawled for sexual undertones, and both the comic and the serious aspects of sexual behavior have been stressed in ways that shift the interpretative balance of the plays in which they occur.” Even though Shakespeare is still with us in the present, he may have very little influence on how his plays are going to be staged. After all, each performance is not just the interpretation of one person, but rather a collaborative effort of how directors, writers, designers, actors and other people involved in the production understand the concept behind the material.
The same is true for Hollywood adaptations. There are two notable movies that stand out: Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 “Romeo and Juliet” and Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 “Romeo + Juliet.” Both were huge commercial successes during the time of their release and this might be proof of the immense influence of that particular Shakespeare masterpiece. Nevertheless, despite being separated by a few decades, the two movies share lots of similarities with each other – one of which is the presence of nudity.
In her essay “Nude Shakespeare in film and nineties popular feminism,” Celia Daileader gives a comprehensive account of how Zeffirelli’s sensual film version began the trend of putting overt sexual innuendos in film adaptations of Shakespearean classics. One reason behind this trend is that it may be an effective way for film makers to sell the idea of Shakespeare to mass audiences who belong in an entirely new generation. After all, sex sells. And what could be a better way to lure people than to cast a youthful and gorgeous pair to play the roles of the two lovers. In Zeffirelli’s version, Leonard Whiting, who sort of resembles a modern day Zac Efron, perfectly fits the role of Romeo: his tantalizing male gaze will not just make the audiences swoon, but will also make their underwears drop.
However, it is Oilivia Hussey playing the role of Juliet who injects an abundant supply of sensuality in the movie. According to Daileader, “Olivia Hussey’s touch to her lips, her soft guttural noises during the kiss and after, and that ineffable, almost drugged quality of her gaze, more effectively connote the surprise of adolescent sexual discovery.” Back in her heyday, Olivia Hussey was the perfect representation of a woman behind the wild imaginations of males. In fact, her sexual notoriety still arouses people up to this day. A look into the statistics of this blog would reveal that “Olivia Hussey boobs” is one of top search engine queries that brought people to this website. The same strategy of casting attractive lead actors is employed in Luhrmann’s MTV version, wherein a young and fresh Leonardo de Caprio and a virginal Claire Danes took the roles.
The use of sexual innuendos could be greatly noticed in two particular scenes in both movies: the balcony and the bedroom scenes. The balcony scene of Zeffirelli highlights the voyeurism of Romeo and the excessive exposure of Juliet’s tender cleavage. On the other hand, the device used by Luhrmann in his balcony scene is through the passionate scene of the couple in the pool wherein the wetness of the lovers is suggestive of nakedness.
Zeffirelli’s Balcony Scene (1968):
Lurhmann’s Balcony Scene (1996):
The bedroom scene of the two movies both implied that indeed, Romeo and Juliet had sex (with a lot of foreplay before and some more erotic urges the morning after). There is difference however in the filmmaking techniques used. Zeffirelli focused more on the nakedness of the couple, with the exposure of Whiting’s buttocks and Hussey’s breasts. Alternatively, Luhrmann went for a more romantic approach through “under the sheets” cuddling.
Zeffirelli’s Bedroom Scene (1968):
Luhrmanni’s Bedroom Scene (1996):
Finally, it might be worth mentioning that one particular movie adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” took the play’s sexual nuances to a much higher level. In 1969, “The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet” was released and it was written by Jim Schumacher and directed by Bethel Buckalew. The film takes the form of a comedy and it digs deeper into the sex lives of not just the young couple, but also the sexual episodes of other characters in the play, to the point of exaggeration.
What now? Did Romeo and Juliet really had sex, according to Shakespeare’s text?
As what have been mentioned, thoughts like this depend primarily on the understanding and perception of the reader. Media adaptations might present particular ideas to the audience, but still, these are mere interpretations of individual minds, as well as products of collaborative effort. Whether Shakespeare intentionally implied the sexual innuendos or not, it is highly possible to surmise that his works indeed have lewd meanings attached to them.
So maybe yeah, the tale of Romeo and Juliet is not entirely an innocent love story after all.
Daileader, Celia. “Nude Shakespeare in film and nineties popular feminism.” Alexander, Catherine and Stanley Wells. Shakespeare and Sexuality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 183-200.
Romeo + Juliet. Dir. Baz Luhrmann. 1996.
Romeo and Juliet. Dir. Franco Zeffirelli. 1968.
The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet. Dir. Bethel Buckalew. 1969.
Traub, Valerie. Desire and Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Wells, Stanley. Looking for Sex in Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.