Julian Fellowes brushes up his Shakespeare with this latest 'improvement' of Romeo and Juliet

Lord Fellowes has devoted himself to improving Shakespeare, just as the revisers of the Good News Bible helped out the authors appointed by King James.

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The loving couple look properly baby-faced for star-crossed lovers. The location is indeed Verona. And the lines are reverently intoned in the Hollywood manner traditionally used for great literature. But though the dialogue in the latest film of Romeo and Juliet, which opens next month, may sound like Shakespeare to some, it is in fact the latest creation of Lord Fellowes of West Stafford, better known as Julian Fellowes of Gosford Park and Downton Abbey. Those who believe the Earl of Oxford rather than a commoner must be the true author of Romeo and Juliet must be pleased to see a real lord, if only a life peer, given credit for this one.

Previous adaptations have either kept the Elizabethan lingo or, like West Side Story, gone wholly contemporary. Lord Fellowes, however, has devoted himself to improving Shakespeare, just as the revisers of the Good News Bible helped out the authors appointed by King James. Once Juliet drinks the potion, Friar Lawrence originally explains, “No warmth, no breath shall testify thou livest”; now he says “there will be no sign of life within you”. “Within?” Surely Juliet wants to fool her family, not an X-ray technician? “What have I done but murdered my tomorrow!” exclaims Romeo after dispatching Tybalt, instead of “Oh I am fortune’s fool!” Some may be grateful that Fellowes has modernised only to this extent and not gone all the way with respectively “This potion – no motion” and “Oh shit”.

Teachers steeling themselves for another year of this play, may wish that Fellowes had altered the tone as well as the words in competing with the man the film-makers describe, rather cautiously, as “the greatest playwright ever known”. To many teenagers whose grasp of modern, let alone Elizabethan, English is shaky, Fellowes’s Shakespearish may seem near enough to the real thing for the two to be confused. Romantic young girls to whom one  old-timey line is much like another, may believe that Romeo has for hundreds of years enthralled his love with “If your heart like mine is full, then tell the joy that awaits us this night”.

Some of that joy will be visible to the customers – Fellowes has emphasised that there is no nudity in his PG-rated story, but the trailer shows a bare-chested Romeo snogging a Juliet in a flimsy nightdress. While catering to his audience’s fantasies, Fellowes has not forgotten their short attention span. As Romeo and Juliet meet, a scandalised deb who recognises the pair behind their party masks hisses to her friend “the Montagues and Capulets are mortal enemies”.

Though Downton Abbey was criticised for anachronisms we may be confident that Romeo and Juliet, if it includes any soup-eating scenes among the upper classes will get them right. Since Fellowes ridiculed in print a guest in his house who spooned his soup in the wrong direction we know that – in table – if not other manners he is the great arbiter of taste. For such services who would begrudge him the film world’s supreme accolade? The prize is one that Shakespeare himself seems to anticipate. It will be interesting to see whether Fellowes has changed old Montague’s line, when he declares he has been won over by Juliet’s virtues : “I will raise her statue in pure gold”.

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