These two things also underpin the works of William Shakespeare. After all, his plays must be important to have kept us studying them for over 400 years. The plots, like Coppola’s film, can be hilarious and thrilling yet dark. However, what distinguishes Shakespeare’s plays as such an integral part of our culture are the universal themes that he includes. They are continually relevant to us and insightful at any point in our history.
Romeo and Juliet is just one example of a Shakespeare play that has come to carry much meaning and significance. All VI students will know that this play is much more than a tragic love story. It poses questions to us such as: ‘Is there such a thing as true love?’ and ‘What are the roles of individual action, fate and chance in our lives?’, causing us to ponder the self-destruction and conflict that links the fundamental emotions of love and hate. This play has proved it also has a blockbuster plot for Hollywood success, as seen with the famous Zeffirelli and Luhrmann film adaptions of the play, West Side Story, and even Gnomeo and Juliet.
Coppola’s The Godfather and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet are not just popular tales with gripping plots: they are surprisingly linked in many ways. But how far can parallels be drawn between a 1972 film and a 16th Century play?
First, the most obvious thing that may seem to link these stories is the background of the feud that the action is played against. In both plotlines, the feuds go back a long way between families, highlighting the violence and virility that fathers have come to foster in their sons. In Romeo and Juliet, sons are encouraged to participate in the feud which indicates masculinity and power. Though this may seem to be an integral part of their society, the end of the play shows that this feud can have far greater and more tragic consequences than a few brawls. By the end, the Montagues and Capulets are driven into deeper despair, even with some resolution as the feud is ‘ended’. In The Godfather, fathers lead and encourage their sons in the same way, with Michael eventually taking the Don’s place at the head of the family. The feuds in both storylines are all-consuming: eventually, one event leads to another in a domino effect, escalating into more violence and culminating in tragedy.
Although the stories do not end in the same way, the messages conveyed are the same. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare ends by suggesting a conclusion to the feud and reconciliation, but it seems that it is impossible truly to break the cycles of conflict; gestures of peace are not genuine and resentment remains. As we watch the end of The Godfather, we are also left with the threat of more violence that comes with Michael’s new authority. Though he cannot understand the monster he has become, we can see how the Corleone family have managed to use the feud to their own gain by justifying their individual actions.
These conflicts are extremely destructive, and they seem to be endlessly ingrained into the fabric of their societies.
There is also a focus on the effects of a restrictive, patriarchal society in both The Godfather and Romeo and Juliet. In Shakespeare, it is clear to see that Juliet is thought of as a possession by her father Capulet, who sees her as a political asset rather than a loving family member. Though her importance is constantly doubted as a female character of such youth, Juliet is shown to have more independence and strength than one may think, through her decisions over her relationship with Romeo, her powerful soliloquy in Act 3, and even her death – it is she who stabs herself whilst Romeo uses the ‘female’ weapon of poison. Shakespeare could be argued to use this overriding theme of female oppression as a way to highlight the significance and power that women could actually have. For example, both Lady Montague and Capulet attempt to restrict their husbands from participating in the feud and to restrain their impetuous decisions, however, their husbands overrule them and do not heed their wise advice, leading to a disaster that could have been prevented.
In The Godfather, Coppola highlights this patriarchal society again in his portrayal of Connie’s abusive relationship with Carlo, and also the way that the Don’s wife has a relatively insignificant role as opposed to her ruthless husband; her purpose is to hold the family together as a housewife, and female members are barely involved in the feud at all. Michael’s relationship with his partner Kay can be taken as proof of this oppression. Michael begins the film as an outsider from the family and the feud but with strong loyalty to Kay. As he progresses he becomes more involved in the violence and less concerned about his partner, even turning to marry again. The final scene of the film shows us the extent to which Michael has become the new Don, as we watch the door being shut on Kay as Michael discusses his secret business.
In both stories, women seem to be beaten at the conclusion, with their potential quenched by the power of men. Though the love of Romeo and Juliet and Michael and Kay may be promising, the feud that surrounds them shows that true love cannot coexist with conflict as they are both mutually destructive.
Perhaps the most interesting similarity between these storylines is religion. The ironic title of The Godfather instantly sets us up with an idea of the good, wise figure that such a character is meant to embody in Catholicism, juxtaposed with the evil tyrant Michael has become. The infamous Baptism sequence portrays this link very effectively, as we watch the scenes of Michael’s nephew being baptised as he becomes ‘a Godfather’ offset with the violence that Michael is simultaneously carrying out elsewhere. Religion seems to still be an integral part of their family, but instead of being a force for good they seem to use it wrongly to justify their violent acts; religion does not bring morals to life but instead encourages conflict, as the position of Godfather marks the transition of Michael into the ruthless new Don of the Corleone family.
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet may also ask us to question the integrity of religion in Elizabethan society. By placing Romeo and Juliet’s marriage directly before the scene of Mercutio’s and Tybalt’s deaths in Act 3 scene 1, Shakespeare could be suggesting that marriage and the conformity of religion are directly responsible for the escalation of the tragedy. It is this that later causes Juliet, who is driven by a fear of hell, great turmoil, as she is forced to decide between marrying Paris (an act of bigamy which would send her to hell) or killing herself, which would result in the same fate. Additionally, Friar Lawrence is a key figure of religion and guidance for the lovers, but ultimately he does not succeed in his quest to save them; the conflict in the society is already too overpowering. Some even see Romeo and Juliet as an attempt by Shakespeare to criticise Catholicism to draw favour from Elizabeth I, a Protestant; the irrational behaviour that the Montagues and Capulets display in the feud eventually culminates in great tragedy, and these wild actions would paint Catholics in a negative light.
In both stories, religion is a tool that masks the depth of the feud’s destruction, but Coppola and Shakespeare choose to portray it in such a way that indicates its true insincerity and falsities. “Religion is the opium of the people.”
There are similarities between these two works, but we may ask ourselves: is there a universal formula to make a successful and thought-provoking storyline? We understand and relate to literature through human themes. In over 30 plays, Shakespeare looked at almost every aspect of human life: revenge, betrayal, love, fate, religion, honour and guilt, and each theme generates more questions than answers, allowing us to discuss and pursue them further with other works of literature. The film has the power to make us think about the complexity of life. Comparing Romeo and Juliet and The Godfather can illustrate the importance of key themes in our culture, while contrasting how Coppola dramatizes action in The Godfather on screen with the performance of Shakespeare’s plays at the Globe in a different era.