Asking Students to Interpret Water Imagery in Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet

This past week, I asked students to reflect on the recurring use of water imagery in Luhrmann’s version of Romeo and Juliet and to consider its thematic significance for the film as an interpretation of Shakespeare’s play.  One enterprising student suggested the idea that, in light of the almost deliberately campy religious imagery used throughout the early part of the film, this might be a symbolic form of baptism in which Romeo sheds his former narcissistic love in favor of a new form of love.  This dovetails nicely with Juliet’s famous reflection on Romeo’s name in 2.2, on which Romeo exclaims “Call me but love and I’ll be new baptized.”  The second, and for me more persuasive, option that we produced was the idea that the images of water are all characterized by the need for air: Juliet’s first appearance under the water of her bath, for instance, is a moment of quiet in the middle of the chaotic Capulet household, and Romeo/DiCaprio emphasizes his inability to breathe underwater as he hides in the revised ‘balcony’ scene.  The final image of the film, then, is the two lovers underwater–symbolizing the impossibility of their love’s survival.  It remains a single moment that they must abandon to survive and can only pursue at their own peril.

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