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Essay: How West Side Story compares to the original Romeo and Juliet text

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Shakespeare’s plays contain at minimum the base story line for hundreds of films, from original text adaptations such as William Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to animation adaptations like Disney’s Gnomeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s work is universal as it has been translated into dozens of languages, but more importantly, because it reaches every person and every culture differently. Many adaptations of Shakespeare’s works take creative liberties to modernize the story or to direct it towards a certain audience. These alterations to his works can cause many important aspects to be lost but also gives an opportunity to discuss new themes and issues relevant to that society. In this essay, I will discuss the ways in which Jerome Robbins’ musical film adaptation, West Side Story, compares to the original Romeo and Juliet text. Through comparing Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, audiences can see the importance of Shakespeare’s work as a piece of global art that can be enjoyed and culturally understood due to its universality.
The similarities between Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story’s major plot points show how obviously it was based on Romeo and Juliet. In both works we see Romeo/Tony and Juliet/Mary’s love at first sight, Tybalt/Bernardo killing Mercutio/Riff which results in his death by Romeo/Tony, and Romeo/Tony believing his true love is dead and, subsequently, wanting to die. The story lines of both Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story parallel in many scenes and have some differences, but the parallel in themes that remain the same despite being set almost 400 years apart are far more important. These corresponding themes show how Shakespeare’s stories transcend time to create understandable works throughout centuries. The main story line in both works follows the star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet/Tony and Maria and their hazardous journey to be together. The theme of love in Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story is seen at first sight between the lovers and their continuous efforts to be together after meeting. Their love, while romantic, is thoughtless and somewhat irrational as they ignore every effort from their respective families who can see it will not end well.
Another theme that continues through Romeo and Juliet to West Side Story is the importance of loyalty. Loyalty is shown in Romeo and Juliet through the two families, the Montagues and the Capulets, and in West Side Story through the rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. However strong these bonds may be, the couples choose their love over their respective families many times until Tybalt/Bernardo kills Mercutio/Riff. Romeo/Tony choose their families over their loves only this once as they take revenge and kill Tybalt/Bernardo. Still, Juliet remains loyal to Romeo as she takes comfort knowing ‘[her] husband lives, that Tybalt would have slain, And Tybalt’s dead, that would have slain my husband’. Even in the modern version, Maria forgives Tony for killing her brother as she says ‘Right or wrong, what else can I do? I love him, I’m his’. This form of loyalty could only be found in a Shakespearean tragedy as blindly trusting in someone will ultimately have horrible ramifications.
The last theme I will discuss contrastingly connects these two films through the belief in free will versus fate. In West Side Story, Tony, along with every other character, make decisions that affect one another and understand they are creating their own destiny. In contrast, whenever Romeo does something that could go wrong, he places blame on fate rather than himself; for when his ending does come, he can blame fate one last time knowing he did no wrong. There is no way to avoid the fate that awaits Romeo and Juliet as the Prologue states ‘A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,’ within the first stanza. While their ending is clearly stated, there are many choices made along the way that lead them to the decisions to kill themselves. The first act of “fate” that occurs in both works is the male protagonists feeling something will happen to them that day and that is the day they meet the loves of their lives. Romeo fears there is ‘some consequence yet hanging in the stars,’ as though he believes it will lead to something bad. Whereas, Tony takes his premonition believing that despite not knowing ‘what it is […] it is gonna be great’. As the story continues, each character makes decisions to get married or get into a fight. Yet, when the consequences come for those choices, Romeo blames fate instead of himself. Immediately after killing Tybalt, Romeo says ‘O, I am Fortune’s fool,’ as if to insinuate fate was to blame for killing Tybalt instead of himself. Taking responsibility for his actions, Tony goes to Mary after killing Bernardo and asks for forgivingness. The last time Romeo blames fate is as he is going to ‘defy [the] stars’ for killing his Juliet. As he is about to drink the poison, he ‘shake[s] the yoke of inauspicious stars’ and forgets about everything fate has done to him, as he brings his ending to himself. Juliet is as much to blame for her own ending chooses her death knowing she will be with her husband. West Side Story, however, finds a better way to place the blame for all of the deaths through Maria’s speech as she announces ‘[they] all killed [Tony] and [Bernardo] and Riff, not with bullets and guns but with hate’. This speech is pertinent to both endings as all rivals understood their hatred was a part of every decision that led to the deaths of in Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story and blaming fate was just an easy way to avoid fault.
While these similarities in themes show how Shakespeare can reach any audience, they do not show what changes when creating an adaptation. Film adaptations can be modernized without taking too much away from Shakespeare’s original themes and text as seen in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, which uses mainly the original text but creates a modern setting. However, West Side Story changes the setting, characters, and beliefs of the characters; with these changes, some themes, such as religion and mortality, become less important. Instead, by changing the perspective of the film, new themes and issues are able to be addressed that better suit the time when it was released. The most important themes that arise in the West Side Story adaptation are the issues regarding race and class. As both the Montagues and the Capulets are wealthy families, there is no need to discuss the lower classes’ problems; in West Side Story, there are battles being fought between the gangs and the class system due to their social standings. The film is set in the 1950s, when all immigrants, especially South American, in the United States were still looked down upon. West Side Story used its platform to speak out for race and class concerns. While reading or watching an adaptation, an audience will always notice what has been lost from the original; rather, the audience should see what new themes come from the changes and how they are just as, if not more, powerful than those that were lost.
Shakespeare’s works have not only survived four centuries but have inspired hundreds of works of art. His poems and plays are global as they can be reinterpreted to any culture and replicate themes through any place and time. The West Side Story adaptation of Romeo and Juliet remains true to many of the central themes Shakespeare intended but allows for a new audience to experience the story in a brand-new way.
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