As entertaining and lasting as William Shakespeare’s iconic Romeo and Juliet is, the adaptations that the original has inspired contain a more potent representation of modern issues, as is to be expected considering the near four-century-long gap that separates their respective creations. This is especially true in the 1961 adaptation of the play, West Side Story, which was directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. Whereas the feud in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is simply representational of long-lasting ideologies of hatred and a power struggle shared between families, West Side Story is representational of minorities and their struggle to rise and ultimately belong in America upon immigrating.
The two families of Romeo and Juliet’s struggle for power over one another represents little more than meets the eye. Though the deaths of their own loved ones serves up a tragic lesson, the hatred that the two feel for each other is rooted in family history and is absent of racial tension or much social commentary. We see the ideologies that work to forbid the young couple’s love appear early in the play, just after the two share their first kiss in Act 1 Scene 5.
Romeo looks to Juliet’s nurse to find out who the girl is that he has just fallen for:
ROMEO. What is her mother?
NURSE. Marry, bachelor,
Her mother is the lady of the house,
And a good lady, and a wise and virtuous…
ROMEO. Is she a Capulet?
O dear account! My life is my foe’s debt. (1.5.124-132).
This little information has incredibly large meaning and consequence for Romeo, and he realizes that he must engage in a struggle against the duelling ideologies of the two families. Simply the word “Capulet” tells him that the love is forbidden, no matter how natural or mutual the feeling may be. Though, this power struggle seems to be as much against fate as it is against anything else. While this idea is romantic in its essence, it does not offer much critique of the real world in which the audience can learn from. Scholars have gone so far as to say that the feud is underdeveloped and somewhat of a weak point of the play. In his article “The Two Angry Families of Verona,” J. M. Nosworthy points out that the feud, which provides the power struggle in the piece, fails to heighten the stakes to its full potential. “Romeo and Juliet are opposed by two main forces – the feud and Fate,” Nosworthy writes, “…the feud is left undeveloped and Shakespeare, too, fails to make it a vital and effective element in the plot” (225). Here, he points out that fate has as much to do with this struggle as the feud, rather than something with allegorical meaning like what we experience in West Side Story.
Where Romeo and Juliet uses family tension to create the struggle for power, the adaptation uses socio-economic status and racial tension. Norsworthy continues his take on the plot element, saying that “A series of minor skirmishes, some of which are frankly comic in treatment, is not at all the same sort of thing as, let us say, the social conflict in what is, nevertheless, the ordered state of Rome in Coriolanus” (225). The writer here makes it clear that they find the source of the power struggle in Shakespeare’s play disappointing, and works to make us aware that if some further social tension were infused then perhaps the stakes could be raised, and we’d find Romeo and Juliet even more enticing than is the case. Though it can be argued that the feud would be improved through this, it is difficult to agree with Norsworthy’s account of the two families’ violence against one another as something silly or playful in nature. Take Act 3 Scene 1, when blood is shed on both sides of the fight, and we see what consequences are coming to the characters’ futures. Upon Romeo killing Tybalt in a duel, Benvolio lays out the scenario for him:
BENVOLIO. Romeo, away, begone!
The citizens are up, and Tybalt slain.
Stand not amazed. The Prince will doom thee death
if thou art taken. Hence, be gone, away. (3.1.138-141).
These duels result in the real deaths of painfully young men in the play, and here Benvolio lets Romeo know that he too will soon be dead if he is caught with blood on his hands. Ultimately, it becomes clear that the feud in Romeo and Juliet has serious consequences, but also has room for improvement. And for that we turn to the 1961 film adaptation, West Side Story, for relief.
The power struggle in West Side Story is representational of immigrant minorities in America, specifically Puerto Ricans, and their fight to have equal rights and opportunities in the areas in which they live. In Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, this struggle is carried out between two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, in the West Side of New York City, USA. The two gangs’ respective demographics make the film’s social commentary quite obvious, as the Jets are strictly populated with the local American white teenagers, and the Sharks are composed of the children of Puerto Rican immigrants. The adaptation, then, hands itself the important responsibility of giving the audience proper views of both sides of the battle. This is often carried out through song in the musical, which confronts these racial and social tensions head on. America, a song sung primarily by The Shark Girls, gives us a look into the overarching power struggle of the film, presented by the rival gangs. Some lyrics to the song’s verses read: “Industry boom in America / Twelve in a room in America…Life is all right in America / If you’re a white in America…Free to be anything you choose / Free to wait tables and shine shoes”. In the form of an exciting and upbeat song performed by the Puerto Ricans of the story, we are provided with a poignant and truthful take on what life is like for these immigrants who are trying to fit into American society and make names for themselves.
Unlike the original Romeo and Juliet, in which the feuding groups share very similar day-to-day lifestyles, the Jets have an obvious upper hand over the Sharks in terms of the opportunities that are presented to them. This, of course, speaks toward mid-20th century American society and how accepting it was of those who were different, and remains relevant in its critique all the way up to the present day. This social commentary provides the original plot structure of Romeo and Juliet with an entirely new meaning. The filmmakers have taken it and used it to say and show something of modern importance. Scholar Brian Eugenio Herrera looks at what the adaptation is portraying and speaking of in his article, “Compiling ‘West Side Story’s’ Parahistories, 1949-2009”. He gives us a helpful account of what was going on in 1950s America in the streets and with the gang-like groups such as those we see in the film. Herrera writes:
Within emerging contemporary understandings of youth criminality in the mid-1950s, ‘juvenile delinquents’ were increasingly understood to be individual, usually white kids gone astray, while ‘gangs’ were ethnically or racially identified groups of kids defending and violating ethno-racial boundaries. (235)
This perfectly portrays the injustice and double standards of the time period in New York City where the adaptation takes place. The Jets are delinquents – just some rambunctious kids who need to attend class more often, whereas the Sharks are seen as no-good law-breaking foreigners whose gang is raising hell in the streets. West Side Story is successful in using its plot’s power struggle to comment on social tensions and issues of the relevant time period. It does Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet proud, while crafting an inventive and important story of its own.
The original Romeo and Juliet is a timeless work, and the fact that it can be adapted in so many different forms and with so many different meanings, as shown by West Side Story, is proof of its endearing quality and of William Shakespeare’s mastery. Though they differ in their commentary on ideologies, both works tell important stories of the unnecessary power struggles shared between two groups who are doing more harm to themselves than good. In praising the adaptation, may we never forget to respect the source.
Herrera, Brian Eugenio. “Compiling ‘West Side Story’s’ Parahistories, 1949-2009.” Theatre Journal, vol. 64, no. 2, 2012, pp. 231-247. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41679580. Accessed 15 Feb. 2018.
Nosworthy, J. M. “The Two Angry Families of Verona.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 3, 1952, pp. 219-226. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org.proxy1.lib.uwo.ca/stable/2866300. Accessed 18 Feb. 2018.
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. Edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Folger Shakespeare Library, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1992.
West Side Story. Directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, performances by Natalie Wood, George Chakiris, Rita Moreno, and Richard Beymer, United Artists, 1961.