Essay, Research Paper: Romeo And Juliet With West Side Story

Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet

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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 time. 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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