By Kathy Silvey
Icebergs happen. Every year I taught Shakespeare's tragedies
to high school students, thirteen years in all, I told them that.
Icebergs happen. They happen, for instance, to lovely young
couples on big ocean liners.
It's not the kids' fault the ocean liner they have boarded
happens to be the Titanic, nor that the ship will hit an iceberg.
It is not their responsibility that there are not enough lifeboats
on board. One of them, the young man, will die, but it will not
be because of anything either of them did wrong. Icebergs
happen, and that means that the film Titanic is, strictly
speaking, not a tragedy.
Leonardo DiCaprio did star in a tragedy, however, when he
took the leading male role in Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet,
and part of the reason the film gets tragedy right is because of
the choices DiCaprio makes as Romeo.
Of all Shakespeare's tragedies, Romeo and Juliet may be the
easiest one to get wrong. It is rumored (by Charles Dickens in
Nicholas Nickleby) that in the 19th century the play was
presented as a comedy, which is to say with an ending in which
the two lovers live--and do so happily, as it were, ever after.
Many more productions of the play over the centuries have
kept the sad ending, the curtain closing over a pair of young
corpses, but have turned the play into melodrama, like Titanic.
In melodrama, everything can hinge on the walking pace of
priests. At the end of Romeo and Juliet, a priest has been
dispatched to Romeo with the message that his beloved still
lives, that she is merely feigning her death, and this is the key.
A slow-moving priest can happen to anyone, even to a lovely
young Veronese couple. If it does, the play is a melodrama.
After all, the lovers cannot be held responsible for the dawdling
of a cleric.
But DiCaprio's Romeo did not give the fastest priest ever
collared sufficient time to deliver his message. His Romeo, and
Claire Dane's Juliet as well, are rash, passionate, impulsive
They are, in a word, teenagers.
And this is the essence of tragedy, that sense, not only that the
hero's death is the hero's fault, but that it is inevitably his fault,
that given who he or she is, the tale could not possibly have
ended otherwise, that the young lovers are fated to die not
because icebergs happen but because they are young lovers.
Just as Hamlet will die, and seven of his nearest and dearest
friends and family members with him, because he is a thinker
and not a doer, and all the ghostly fathers in heaven or hell
cannot make him otherwise. Just as Macbeth will die because
he is ambitious, witches or no witches. Just as Brutus will die
because he believes in and listens to reason and, such folly in a
politician, believes others will listen to reason too, even in
matters about which most people simply cannot be reasonable.
And this is why only tragedy brings catharsis. It is the rightness
of tragedy, the sense not so much that the hero was evil and
deserved his fate but that the hero was who he was and
therefore could not avoid it any more than the Titanic could
avoid an iceberg that makes tragedy the most essentially human
form of drama.
Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo and Claire
Danes as Juliet in Baz Luhrman's Romeo +
Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet delivers his
"To Be or not To Be" speech in his
self-directed 1996 movie.
Three scenes of Leonardo
DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet.