“Fiery” and “saucy” are both endearments that our Prince of Cats garners throughout William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (I.i.107, I.v.82). From these descriptors, it is no surprise that Tybalt is often credited as the primary antagonist in the play. After all, Tybalt, who is prideful and quick to anger, kills Mercutio and through his own death sends the two lovers down the inescapable path of tragedy and mutual destruction. However, it is clear that the character is capable of being treated with more nuance and dimension than such a straightforward interpretation would allow. Through a comparison of Tybalt’s portrayals in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film adaptation to Baz Luhrmann’s take from 1996, the extent of Tybalt’s antagonism proves itself to be remarkably variable.
Zeffirelli’s Tybalt played by Michael York opts for an arguably more sympathetic depiction of Juliet’s cousin. While certainly not without fault, he lacks the more violent and villainous nature of Luhrmann’s portrayed by John Leguizamo. Both are ultimately brought down by pride, but York’s Tybalt acts on an overdeveloped sense of familial honor. Leguizamo’s uses this as an outlet for a more deep-seated loathing. These conclusions will be constructed, principally, via the analysis of three key scenes present in both films. These include Tybalt’s first appearance during the opening brawl, the masquerade, and the duels with Mercutio and Romeo. Outlines of each film’s version of the scene will be accompanied by discussion of the salient differences and similarities with reference to the text where relevant. The argument will culminate with a re-examination of Tybalt’s character and role as antagonist. To alleviate ambiguity, Luhrmann’s will be referred to as Tybalt L, Zeffirelli’s as Tybalt Z, and more general statements not specific to either interpretation as Tybalt.
Zeffirelli’s opening scene is one that closely mirrors the text. As Benvolio attempts to part the fighting servants, Tybalt Z appears. He speaks with a mocking tone when questioning Benvolio’s drawn sword as an instrument of peace but quickly adopts a more serious look as he expresses his hate for “hell, all Montagues, and thee” (I.i.68). The additional line “Now hie thee home, fragment!” is given to Tybalt Z as he wounds Benvolio in the face. A nameless Montague calling Tybalt Z a villain is the last we see of him as the brawl escalates.
While both have appropriately dramatic entrances, Tybalt L exceeds his counterpart in being both more ostentatious and prone to more extreme violence. Tybalt L is prefaced with a shot of a sign saying “Phoenix: Add more fuel to your fire” and then a sudden appearance as the camera pans right from Benvolio. His lighting of a cigar, styled sideburns, and red clothing all contribute to this association with fire despite Benvolio’s line characterizing him as “fiery” being absent (I.i.107). In addition, while Tybalt L does not spill the gasoline himself, he is the...