Contrast Of Romeo And Juliet An West Side Story

Contrast of Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story
Essay submitted by Bob Garrard
Three Hundred Fifty Years of Blind Love: A Contraposition of Shakespeare and
Robbins Romeo and Juliet
Andy Warhol once said, They say that time changes things, but actually you have to change them
yourself. Two hundred fifty years passed between the original Romeo and Juliet and the premiere
of West Side Story on Broadway in 1957. However, time did not change the message of the
story, simply the creators unique visions evolved. Shakespeares delivery of the timeless tale of
desperate love in his classic Romeo and Juliet proves to only intensify through retelling and
modern interpretation. Audiences cherish Romeo and Juliet as one of the most beloved plays of
all time from the Elizabethan Age to the present. Romeo and Juliet have attained the role as the
quintessential lovers, and the noun, a Romeo, is synonymous with lover. Shakespeares
Romeo and Juliet is closely based on Arthur Brooke’s tale, The Tragicall History of Romeus and
Juliet. The language, attitudes, and customs detailed in the play are generally English, in spite of
Brookes original Italian setting. In 1949, choreographer Jerome Robbins decided to retell
Brooke and Shakespeares romantic tragedy using song and dance, elements of racism and
nationalism, and a modern vernacular. Robbins called upon the musical talents of composer
Leonard Bernstein and the words of Arthur Laurents for the script and book. The love story
proved to have universal appeal throughout all artistic forms, as it had already been adjusted for
opera and ballet. The contemporary adaptation of this timeless classic alters details and deepens
the message of hatred, but maintains Brooke and Shakespeares vision. The relationships
between the characters, plot sequence, and theme of hatred in West Side Story and Romeo and
Juliet intertwine resulting in two similar, yet varying versions of the most famous love story of all
The relationships between the characters of West Side Story and Shakespeares Romeo and
Juliet are reflective of their respective time periods and the original story. Maria and Juliet
represent a slightly practical counterpart to both Tonys and Romeos idealistic nature. Marias
brother Bernardo and Juliets cousin Tybalt portray impulsively stubborn and violent characters
who both die from wounds inflicted by the male lead. Lieutenant Schrank is similar to Prince
Escalus, although Schrank is unfair in his treatment and attitude towards one gang- the Sharks.

Anita and Nurse both take on the role as Juliets confidant and trusted friend, often tampering
with their roles as messengers. The mischievously tomboyish Anybodys, who desperately wants
to be a Jet, would best fit into the role of Balthasar, since it was she who aided Tony in escaping
after the rumble, as well as later informing the other Jets that Tony was being hunted. Finally, the
character of Doc appears to fulfill the role of Friar Laurence because both possess somewhat of a
peacekeeping nature. Doc attempts to get through to Tony by dramatically pleading, Why do
you live like theres a war on? Why do you kill? (2.5). All of the characters are consistent to the
heart and soul of the story as well as the slightly differing plots.
West Side Story maintains Romeo and Juliets intricate and exciting plot using appropriate
adaptations to accommodate mid-twentieth-century pop culture. For instance, both artistic forms
portray mutual disrespect between the parties. At the dawn of Romeo and Juliet, Capulets
cohorts harass Montagues. I will bite my thumb at them; which is a disgrace to them, if they
bear it, boasts Sampson (1.1.42-43). In the opening scene of West Side Story, several members
of a Puerto Rican gang insult A-rab, a member of the opposing gang. It is here where Lieutenant
Schrank becomes aware of the potential rumble. In Romeo and Juliet Escalus, Prince of Verona,
threatens, If ever you disturb our streets again, your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace
(1.1.103-104). In West Side Story, Schrank mediates in his own way when he declares, I got a
hot surprise for you: you hoodlums don’t own the streets(1.1). Later, another similarity takes
place. Riff convinces Tony to attend the dance at the gym just as Benvolio persuades Romeo to
attend the Capulets masquerade. Tony confesses to Riff that he’s reachin’ out for
something(1.2), just what, he doesn’t know. Riff encourages Tony by proposing, Maybe what
you’re waitin’ for’ll be twitchin’ at the dance! (1.2). Shakespeare and director Jerome Robbins
choose to draw the audiences attention to the dramatic lovers by giving them unique and eminent
qualities. At the Capulet ball in Shakespeares Romeo and Juliet, all of the characters speak in
blank verse, but when Romeo and Juliet converse, they speak in sonnet form. Throughout the
dance at the gym in West Side Story, both of the gangs members dance a mambo, but Tony and
Maria dance a cha-cha. Bernstein and Robbins translated Shakespeare’s spoken word into
modern dance techniques (Gravely 1). Along with the dance atmosphere, the discovery of the
doomed love affair is interpreted in a unique fashion in West Side Story, possibly losing passion in
the adaptation. Upon the revelation by Juliets kinfolk of her new love for the enemy in both
versions, the leading lady responds in similar manners. Couldn’t you see he’s one of them? (1.4.)
Bernardo asks Maria, his sister. No; I saw only him, (1.4) she replies. Sixteenth-century Juliet’s
exclamation was starkly more eloquent:
My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!
Prodigious birth of love it is to me,
That I must love a loathed enemy. (1.5.140-143)
The balcony scene is mirrored in West Side Story as the fire escape scene. Romeo
metaphorically asks Juliet to arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon (2.2.4). During the fire
escape scene, Tony and Maria sing Leonard Bernsteins s melody, Tonight:
Tonight, tonight,
The world is full of light,
With suns and moons all over the place.

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Tonight, tonight,
The world is wild and bright,
Going mad, shooting sparks into space. (2.5)
Before drawing apart, both lovers agree to meet the following day. Romeo and Juliet are to
convene by the hour of nine (2.2.182) and Tony and Maria at sundown (2.5). The
tumultuously intense meeting inspires the young romantic lead to negotiate peace in both versions.

Tony, at the request of Maria, tries to stop the violent affairs by pleading, Bernardo youve got it
wrong/ Are you chicken? / You wont understand (2.5). Just as Romeo defends his pacific
nature by explaining, O sweet Juliet, / Thy beauty hath made me effeminate / And my temper
softened valours steel (3.1.109-111). Despite Romeo and Tonys courageous efforts, Mercutio
assaults Tybalt, which culminates with Riffs attacks on Bernardo. Both episodes result in the
deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, and Riff and Bernardo. Ironically, the peacemaker himself, in both
works, murders his beloveds relative:
I do protest, I never injured thee
But love thee better than thou canst devise,
Till thou shalt know the reason of my love:
And so, good Capulet, which name I tender
As dearly as my own, be satisfied. (3.1.71-75)
While Romeo is forced into exile for his action, Tony is so horrified by his own behavior he
becomes a fugitive and plans to escape with Maria. While searching for the man who has
supposedly killed his beloved, Tony spots Maria, alive and well, as does an enraged Chino. Just
as Tony initially fell in love with one glace, Tony perishes with a single shot. Upon discovering
Romeo’s death, Juliet ends her own by piercing her chest with her trueloves dagger.

Coincidentally, an anguished Maria remains alive, although she cries, How many can I kill,
Chino? How many bullets do you have left and still have one bullet left for me? (2.6)
The universal theme of hate and close-mindedness presents itself in unique forms in Romeo and
Juliet and West Side Story respectively. Like Romeo and Juliet, Tony and Maria are of adverse
parties, and their doomed love is forbidden. Maria, a Puerto Rican, and Tony, a
Polish-American, are youthful, fresh-faced and open-minded. They are apathetic to the societal
borders in which they are violating. Identical to Romeo and Juliet, love is their sole concern. Both
relationships in each individual time period faced severe pressure when their love crossed into a
different section of society. Shakespeares Romeo and Juliet experienced long-lasting, deadly
feuds between prominent families. Comparatively, instead of animosity between feuding families
(Montagues and Capulets), West Side Story offers prejudice between races, as illustrated
between street gangs (Jets and Sharks). The enmity between the two sects was modernized to
racism. Just as Romeo and Juliet represent Elizabethan Italian disputes, West Side Story
relevantly portrays modern civilizations unscrupulous racism. Tony represents the white indigent
immigrant culture, which is being threatened by the intrusion of new immigrant populations that are
beginning new lives in America, especially the Puerto Ricans. The adapted ending in West Side
Story involves Marias survival throughout the play, contrary to Shakespeares version in which
Juliet commits suicide upon the learning of her soul mates death. This altered ending clarifies the
social message West Side Story delivers to its audience. Perhaps Marias survival signifies a
poignant reminder of the responsibility everyone shares in the tragedy that befell her. Unlike
Romeo and Juliet, Tony and Maria were not star-crossed lovers whose destiny was determined
by fate, but rather victims of the intolerance, misunderstanding, and mistrust that seem to be
ever-present in human society (Gravely 1).
The relationships between the characters, plot sequence, and theme of hatred in West Side Story
and Romeo and Juliet intertwine resulting in two parallel yet slightly differing representations of the
most famous love story of all time. Shakespeare presents an entertaining, witty and sometimes
sexually provocative portrayal of Arthur Brookes tale. Robbins presentation of the celebrated
classic paints the awful truths of racism and irrational violence through dance, song, and music.

Romeo and Juliets blind love is the force that unites two enemies, just as the eternal human spirit
brings all people of the Earth united as one.

English Essays