The Australian Ballet

The Changing Face of Juliet

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Mary Saunderson

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Norma Shearer

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Olivia Hussey

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Clare Danes

Juliet Capulet: even the name has a melodic sound to it. There is something altogether enchanting about the heroine who takes her own life rather than live without her beloved Romeo. She is a young woman so determined and decided in her choices, while the rest of us struggle with what to eat for breakfast. Captured most famously by Shakespeare’s play, Juliet is a figure that has been revisited and reshaped over time – quite literally, as in the original Elizabethan England, she would have been played by a boy.

While young and naïve, Juliet’s innocence is tempered by her air of decision. Her actions throughout Shakespeare’s play are bold, and she is unwavering in her love for Romeo. In the various representations of Juliet over the years, the essence of the character remains. She is still young, romantic, vivacious and resolute.

While mature actresses aspire to play Lady Macbeth, young actresses covet the role of Juliet. Mary Saunderson, in 1662, was the first woman to tackle the part, almost one hundred years after the play was written. Perhaps the most famous stage Juliet was the English actress Peggy Ashcroft, who played the role opposite Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud’s alternating Romeos in a 1935 production at the New Theatre in London. Ashcroft went on to win an Academy Award, and was made a Dame in 1956.

Today, film Juliets figure most brightly in our imagination, each reflecting their era. In 1936 Norma Shearer took on the part, despite being much older than Juliet’s supposed 14 years. Although the film in which she starred was visually inspired by Verona and great Renaissance painters, Norma Shearer’s Juliet sported the fashions of the time; her hair was curled short and her make-up was pure 1930s glamour.

Italian director Franco Zeffirelli, seeking to capture Juliet’s extreme youth, cast 15-year-old Olivia Hussey as the lead in his 1968 film. The breathtaking Hussey is a timeless Juliet (although it may be argued that her long dark tresses and wide-eyed gaze echoed the flower children of the late sixties). Her highly publicised nude scene certainly revived interest in the play among teenage boys.

Baz Luhrmann’s kaleidoscopic 1996 film Romeo + Juliet offered a modern take on Shakespeare. Claire Danes’ Juliet is the picture of innocence in her winged angel costume and the simple t-shirt and jeans of the American teenager. Danes’ honest portrayal of Juliet is one contemporary audiences can relate to.

Hailee Steinfeld, of True Grit fame, will be the next young actress to play the role, adding yet another face to the many representations of Juliet.

Each Juliet is a product of the time in which she was embodied, and yet she is still relevant today. As a bronze statue, frozen in time, she stands beneath a balcony in Verona. Although her own fate was tragic, she represents hope and good fortune for her many visitors, who like to touch her breast for luck.