Romeo and Juliet is the 1968 film version of the timeless romantic tragedy play by William Shakespeare.
Directed and co-written by Franco Zeffirelli, the film stars Leonard Whiting as Romeo and Olivia Hussey as Juliet. Laurence Olivier spoke the film's prologue and epilogue and dubs the voice of the actor Antonio Pierfederici, who played Old Montague, but was not credited on-screen. The cast also stars Milo O'Shea, Michael York, John McEnery, Bruce Robinson, and Robert Stephens.
“Fair Verona, where we lay our scene”, is the hometown of the Capulets (their house colors being varying bright hues of orange, red and yellow) and the Montagues (with more subdued shades of blue, violet, dark green and black), two reputed houses in the city, each with a long-standing blood feud against one another, which has cost both houses numerous lives over the years, though it is never disclosed what started the feud in the first place.
In recent days, the feud between the two houses has again flared up in its fury. The story begins at daybreak in Verona’s Market Square, where a small fracas breaks out between men of both houses, until Benvolio, a cousin to the Montagues, steps in to attempt to stop it. But Tybalt, the vain, short-tempered nephew of Lady Capulet, draws on Benvolio, and once again a small dispute quickly escalates into an all-out brawl, which soon includes both Old Capulet and Old Montague themselves, both armed with swords.
The frenzied fighting continues until Verona’s ruler Prince Escalus and his guardsmen in full battle array, arrive on horseback and order all involved to throw their weapons to the ground. He reprimands both lords for disturbing the peace for the third time, and promises their execution should it ever happen again. The Prince then orders all to return to their homes and then departs himself.
While tending to the injured, Lady Montague asks about Romeo, who was not involved in the melee. Benvolio tells her of his being awake before sunrise and walking on the edge of town, where he briefly saw Romeo, who ran in the opposite direction when he saw Benvolio; Montague remarks that Romeo has spent a great deal of time there lately. When Romeo appears, Benvolio grills him alone about his unusual behavior, but Romeo is ambiguous and is about to leave when more of the wounded Montague men are carried in. Embittered, Romeo storms off, but Benvolio follows.
Later that day, Old Capulet, after his official reprimand by the Prince, briefly discusses with Count Paris about being a suitor for Juliet, Capulet’s only remaining daughter. But while Capulet reminds Paris that Juliet is still a young girl (nearly fourteen according to the storyline), he suggests that Paris take steps to win her affections at a feast Capulet is holding at his house that night.
While Lady Capulet is being primped and prepared for the feast, she summons Juliet to her presence through her Nurse. Their talk interview begins slightly awkwardly between mother and daughter (Juliet seems more at ease with the Nurse, who in turn seems more affectionate than Juliet's mother), but Lady Capulet informs Juliet of Count Paris' interest and intentions. Juliet replies that she will be a dutiful daughter and "look to like" Paris, if she finds him attractive.
At nightfall, Romeo, Benvolio and a jokester named Mercutio, a cousin to the Prince and Romeo’s closest friend, lead a group of Montague men all wearing masks to crash Capulet's party. En route, Mercutio teases Romeo about being in love (launching into the classic 'Queen Mab' speech), and Romeo, in a moment alone, confides to himself that he has a strong feeling that something is going to happen that will result only in his untimely death. But putting his faith in God (“..but He that hath the steerage of my course, direct my sail.”), he joins the others in crashing the party.
It is during the party that Romeo and Juliet first lay eyes on one another. The attraction is immediate and mutual, but Tybalt recognizes Romeo and angrily protests to his uncle, Old Capulet, who already knows of Romeo’s decent reputation; wanting to avoid more trouble with the Prince, Old Capulet orders Tybalt to ignore him. But when Tybalt refuses to obey, Capulet shouts him down until Lady Capulet, still angry for his involvement in the street brawl earlier that day, steps in to shut them both up.
Later as the party winds down, Romeo and Juliet both learn separately that each is a member of their enemy's family, but the information is too little and too late as the attraction they have for each other is already too strong. As the partygoers make their way home, Romeo climbs over a wall, ditching Mercutio and the others, not knowing until he sees Juliet on her balcony that he has ventured stealthily into Capulet’s garden. The two proclaim and solidify their love for one another, and Juliet tells Romeo that if his intentions are good (i.e., marriage), to send word to her through her contact the following morning, but she’s quick to add that if his intentions are anything less, he is to forget the whole thing and leave her alone.
The two part ways at daybreak, with a jubilant Romeo running directly to the cell of Friar Laurence to tell him of his intentions. At first the Friar storms away in disbelief, but when it dawns on him that marrying the two could finally end the long vendetta between the two families, the Friar has a change of heart and agrees to marry them. Later that morning, Romeo meets with Juliet’s contact, her Nurse who, after being sexually teased and harassed by Mercutio, relays the news to Juliet, who then makes her way to the Friar’s cell and, just like that, Romeo and Juliet are married.
Later that afternoon, Benvolio, reeling from the heat and fearing another fight with the Capulets, begs Mercutio to leave with him from the Square. But Mercutio, the heat getting to him as well, ignores Benvolio’s pleas and opts instead to jump into a nearby fountain to cool off. Moments later the two are accosted by a group of Capulets led by Tybalt, who is still angry over Romeo’s intrusion and his own humiliation at Capulet’s party the night before. During the parlay Romeo, fresh from his clandestine wedding to Juliet, arrives in the Square to meet up with his friends, only to be intercepted by Tybalt who coldly calls him out. But Romeo, to Mercutio’s delight, turns Tybalt down with a handshake instead. Tybalt, feigning disgust at Romeo’s touching his hand, walks over to the fountain Mercutio is swimming in and washes his hand, deliberately splashing Mercutio and Benvolio before walking away laughing. For reasons known only to himself (though his blood relation to The Prince might have been a factor), an offended Mercutio jumps out of the fountain and, despite Romeo’s protesting, calls Tybalt out and the two draw their swords and start fighting. Though it’s more of a friendly duel at first, Tybalt’s anger gradually gets the better of him when Mercutio gains the upper hand.
As Romeo tries to get between the two of them Tybalt accidentally stabs Mercutio in his chest. Seeing blood on the tip of his blade, Tybalt panics, and his men convince him to run. The Montagues loudly cheer Mercutio’s “victory” while he futilely tells those nearby that he’s hurt. He angrily whispers to Romeo that Tybalt got him under Romeo's arm, but covers up the wound using his trademark handkerchief, loudly proclaims “a plague on both your houses”, and then collapses. Everyone, save for Romeo and Benvolio, thinks Mercutio is still joking until Romeo removes Mercutio’s handkerchief revealing the fatal wound, causing the others to recoil in horror as they realize that Mercutio, in what proved to be his very final moments, was totally serious.
In a sudden fit of vengeful rage, Romeo grabs Mercutio’s blood-stained handkerchief and takes off after the retreating Tybalt, with Benvolio and everyone else following in a vain effort to stop him. Romeo catches up with Tybalt, tells of Mercutio’s death, and angrily returns Tybalt’s original challenge to draw.
The two renewed enemies duel furiously, with the fight making its way back to the Square. Romeo is overmatched against Tybalt’s swordsmanship, but despite nearing exhaustion he is driven by deep anger over Mercutio's death and is disarmed by when he tries mimicking one of Tybalt's moves, and Tybalt then disarms himself trying to stick the downed Romeo. The fight deteriorates to fists and wrestling before Tybalt is given another sword by one of his men and charges Romeo who is lying on the ground. But Romeo grabs Tybalt's lost rapier laying nearby and desperately thrusts it at Tybalt; it strikes his heart and Tybalt falls dead. Romeo stands over Tybalt’s body in anguished disbelief as Benvolio screams at Romeo to run, reminding him the Prince will have his life if caught. The Montague men all grab Romeo and frantically drag him away.
News of Tybalt’s death spreads rapidly. Juliet and her Nurse fall over each other in grief upon hearing the news, but Juliet quickly turns on the Nurse when she curses Romeo. Meanwhile, groups from both houses make their way to the Prince’s castle to summon his judgment. A disheveled and enraged Lady Capulet leads her clan, who approach carrying the corpse of Tybalt while Benvolio and the Montagues lead their family to the castle from a different passageway carrying Mercutio’s body. The Prince asks Benvolio who started the deadly fight, but his explanation is somewhat drowned out by disbelieving laughs from the Capulets. Lady Capulet demands Romeo’s execution, but the Prince reminds them all that Romeo killed Tybalt for killing Mercutio, and asks who should answer for Mercutio’s death. Montague pleads for mercy for Romeo, saying that he essentially took the law into his own hands. Angered but barely maintaining his temper, the Prince orders Romeo banished from Verona, but quickly adds that if Romeo is found inside the city, "that hour is his last". The Prince withdraws, but not before glaring at the defiant Lady Capulet for Tybalt’s killing of Mercutio.
Romeo, grieving over his banishment, takes temporary refuge at Friar Laurence’s cell when the Nurse comes with news of Juliet’s grieving- more for Romeo than Tybalt. At this news, a self-loathing Romeo tries to stab himself, but the Friar disarms him and angrily rebukes him for being unable to see how fortunate he is: that he survived the brutal fight with Tybalt, that despite his killing Tybalt Juliet still loves him, and though he should have been sentenced to death, the Prince banished him instead. The Friar sends the Nurse back to hasten everyone else in the house to bed early, and then instructs Romeo to go and comfort Juliet, but leave for the neighboring town of Mantua at daybreak, and wait there for further word from the Friar.
That night the two secret newlyweds blissfully consummate their marriage in Juliet’s bedroom; at daybreak Romeo flees to his exile. Immediately after Romeo leaves, Lady Capulet arrives and tells Juliet of the plans she and Old Capulet have made — to give Juliet to Count Paris in marriage, but Juliet, still in tears, angrily refuses the arrangement. When Lady Capulet complains to her husband, he explodes into Juliet’s bedroom and violently gives her an ultimatum: Either marry Count Paris or be disowned. Capulet leaves still enraged and Lady Capulet refuses to help her daughter in any way. Juliet turns to the Nurse for comfort, but even she has had a change of heart about Romeo now that he is gone from Verona and counsels Juliet to marry Paris, saying that this second marriage would be better than Juliet's first. Incredulous, Juliet coldly orders the nurse to inform her parents that she is going to Friar Laurence for counseling and absolution.
Count Paris is consulting with the Friar as Juliet, in mourning dress, makes her way up the steps to his cell. After the Count leaves, Juliet tearfully begs the Friar to help her, swearing she will kill herself rather than be forced to marry Count Paris. The Friar devises a plan: When Juliet returns home, she is to ask forgiveness from her parents and consent to the arranged marriage. The following night, when she is alone in bed, she is to take a potion (made by the Friar himself, who we learn is a skilled apothecary) that simulates death for forty-two hours. While Juliet is under the potion’s spell, the Friar will send word to Romeo telling him of his plan, having him come back to meet him in the tomb. There the two men will wait until Juliet wakes up, and then Romeo and Juliet, together this time for good, will flee to Mantua.
Friar Laurence dispatches an apprentice via donkey to Mantua with a letter for Romeo detailing the Friar’s plans. Meanwhile, Juliet carries out her part of the plan perfectly; two mornings later the Nurse finds Juliet’s “body”, and the Capulets are again faced with burying one of their own with Friar Laurence himself officiating over the “funeral”. As Juliet is being interred into the Capulet family tomb, Romeo’s servant Balthasar, who knows nothing about the Friar’s plan, witnesses the proceedings from nearby, and via horseback beats the Friar’s messenger to Mantua and tearfully tells Romeo what he saw. Angrily challenging the fates to do their worst, Romeo races back to Verona with Balthasar, passing Friar Laurence’s messenger who doesn’t even see them. At nightfall, Romeo and Balthasar arrive at Capulet’s Tomb. Romeo ventures inside alone, and after grieving over Juliet’s “corpse” (and a brief apology to Tybalt, whose body lies on the slab next to Juliet's) drinks a vial of strong poison, which quickly kills him.
Moments later, Friar Laurence makes his way to the tomb, only to be intercepted by Balthasar, who informs him that Romeo is already there. Suddenly afraid, the Friar enters the tomb and, finding Romeo's lifeless body, sees that his worst fears have been realized. Juliet wakes from her deep sleep with the Friar at her side, who informs her that "a greater power than we can contradict hath thwarted our intents", and begs her to come away with him. But when Juliet sees Romeo dead, she refuses to leave, and the Friar runs out in terror. Now alone, Juliet wails over Romeo’s body and, hearing the Prince's watchmen approach, grabs Romeo’s dagger and plunges it into her own heart, falling across his body.
At daybreak, a double funeral as the bodies of the two lovers side-by-side (dressed in the same clothes they wore when they were married) with both Lords, Ladies and their Houses right behind, are carried up the steps of Verona's Temple, where the Prince awaits the twin processions. Prince Escalus implores the two Lords to see the results of their rank hatred and, after making mention of his own loss (Mercutio), declares that everyone has been punished - there is no point to, and no place for, any continued fighting or resentment. At this sobering point the two warring families finally make their long-overdue peace.
- Romeo - Leonard Whiting
- Juliet - Olivia Hussey
- Mercutio - John McEnery
- Friar Lawrence - Milo O'Shea
- The Nurse - Pat Heywood
- Tybalt - Michael York
- Benvolio - Bruce Robinson
- Prince Escalus - Robert Stephens
- Old Capulet - Paul Hardwick
- Lady Capulet - Natasha Perry
- Old Montague - Antonio Pierfederici (voiced by Sir Laurence Olivier, uncredited)
- Lady Montague - Esmeralda Ruspoli
- Peter (a Capulet house boy) - Roy Holder
- Balthasar (Romeo's assistant) - Keith Skinner
- Rosaline - Paola Tedesco (uncredited)
Set in a 15th Century Renaissance period, Romeo & Juliet was filmed entirely in Italy in varying locations:
- The iconic balcony scene was filmed at the Palazzo Borghese, built by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in the 16th Century in Artena, 20 miles south of Rome
- The tomb and church scenes were filmed in Tuscania, 50 miles northwest of Rome, the latter filmed at St. Pietro Romanesque Church
- The scenes in the streets and in Capulet's palace were filmed in Pienza, in Siena province; the building used for the palace was built by Pope Pius II between 1459-62
- The fight scenes were filmed in Gubbio, a town in Umbria province
Romeo & Juliet became the most financially successful film adaptation of a Shakespeare play at the time of its release; it was popular among younger audiences as it was the first contemporary filmed version to use actors who were close to the age of the characters in the original play. Several critics also welcomed the film enthusiastically. It won two 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 most recent Shakespearean film to date to be nominated for Best Picture. Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey both won Golden Globe Awards for Most Promising Newcomers.