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Contrast Of Romeo And Juliet An West

Contrast Of Romeo And Juliet An West Side Story Essay, Research Paper

Contrast of Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story

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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. Shakespeare?s 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.” Shakespeare?s

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

Brooke?s original Italian setting. In 1949, choreographer Jerome Robbins decided to retell

Brooke and Shakespeare?s 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 Shakespeare?s 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 Shakespeare?s Romeo and

Juliet are reflective of their respective time periods and the original story. Maria and Juliet

represent a slightly practical counterpart to both Tony?s and Romeo?s idealistic nature. Maria?s

brother Bernardo and Juliet?s 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 Juliet?s 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 there?s 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 Juliet?s 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, Capulet?s

cohorts harass Montague?s. “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 audience?s attention to the dramatic lovers by giving them unique and eminent

qualities. At the Capulet ball in Shakespeare?s 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 Juliet?s 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 Bernstein?s? s melody, “Tonight”:

Tonight, tonight,

The world is full of light,

With suns and moons all over the place.

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 you?ve got it

wrong/ Are you chicken? / You won?t 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 valour?s steel” (3.1.109-111). Despite Romeo and Tony?s courageous efforts, Mercutio

assaults Tybalt, which culminates with Riff?s 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 beloved?s 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 truelove?s 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. Shakespeare?s 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 civilization?s 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 Maria?s survival throughout the play, contrary to Shakespeare?s version in which

Juliet commits suicide upon the learning of her soul mate?s death. This altered ending clarifies the

social message West Side Story delivers to its audience. Perhaps Maria?s 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 Brooke?s tale. Robbins? presentation of the celebrated

classic paints the awful truths of racism and irrational violence through dance, song, and music.

Romeo and Juliet?s blind love is the force that unites two enemies, just as the eternal human spirit

brings all people of the Earth united as one.


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