Romeo And Juliet - Comparisson to West Side Story

The play West Side Story, by Arthur Laurents, is based upon the play Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare. Despite a few differences, both works, in essence, have the same plot. The source of violence in Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story is the ever-present hatred between families and between gangs, although, because of the "star-cross?d lovers" motif in Romeo and Juliet, the hatred plays a larger role in producing the ending of West Side Story than it does the ending of Romeo and Juliet.

The tension and hatred between gangs in West Side Story has a drastic affect on Maria and Tony?s relationship as well as on the outcome of the play. Because of the hatred between their respective gangs, Tony and Maria are not able to meet or even talk in public - they must do it secretly. Also, Bernardo and Riff are strong focuses of hate. They cannot see past their blind hatred for each other. Because of this, both of them, as well as Tony, are killed in the "rumble." Anita?s hatred for the Jets is fueled by their treatment of her at Doc?s candy store. This influences her to tell them that Maria is dead, thus affecting the ending of the play. Chino is another source of hatred. When Tony kills Bernardo, Chino is driven by the need for revenge and he kills Tony.

In order to fully understand the plot of West Side Story, one must have an understanding of the nature of gangs in the 1950?s and know the reasons for their actions. Between 1941 and 1956, more than 500,000 Puerto Ricans moved to major cities in the U.S. such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Cleveland. The majority of them lived in poor areas of their city. Puerto Rican gangs formed so that they could protect themselves from prejudiced Americans. Many people took advantage of the immigrants? poor social status. For example, Bernardo says, "And Chino makes half what the Polack makes - the Polack is American!" (Laurents 165) Youth agencies and youth boards concluded that most gangs formed because of the poverty, disease, and racism present in the ghetto. Gangs, which were usually made up of teenagers, fought over girls, territory (otherwise known as "turf"), and racial matters. Italian, Jewish, and Irish gangs were worried that the Puerto Ricans were taking over their "turf". "Turf" could range anywhere from one block to many blocks. It was guarded so strongly that one gang member entering another gang?s territory could cause a full scale fight .

It was loyalty to each other, duty, and a sense of belonging that gave gang members a feeling of pride, almost as though they "were somebody." Gangsters were often emotionally separated from their families. Because of this, many youths needed to feel love, which they recieved from their fellow gang members. As Riff says,

When you?re a Jet,
You?re a Jet all the way
From your first cigarette
To your last dyin? day.
When you?re a Jet,
If the spit hits the fan,
You?ve got brothers around,
You?re a family man!
You?re never alone,
You?re never disconnected! (Sondheim 143)

This illustrates his devotion to his gang and the gang members? devotion to each other. They continually supported each other during fights (also known as "rumbles"). "Rumbles" could start over as an improper glance from a member of a rival gang. Gang members were often seriously injured or killed during their "rumbles". If a member of one gang killed a member of a rival gang, a member of the rival gang would avenge his friend?s death by killing the member of the first gang. Revenge was necessary because of the inflexible code of loyalty to one?s gang.

Although there is hatred present in West Side Story, there is also much hatred in Romeo and Juliet. Some people would argue that it is the hatred between families, not fate, that causes Juliet and Romeo to take their own lives. For example, the duels between Tybalt and Mercutio, and then Tybalt and Romeo start because of the family feud. The result of the duels is Romeo?s banishment, which in turn results in both of the lovers? deaths. Also, Friar Laurence goes against his morals to help Romeo and Juliet. He does this because he wants to resolve the hatred between families. He says,