West Side Story is an American musical written by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins. It is said to be a rendition of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet have a number of similarities and differences in many ways. The play, Romeo and Juliet, is set in Verona in about 1594. In contrast, West Side Story takes place in New York City in 1957. Most of the characters in West Side Story can be seen as a modernized version of many characters in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Tony can be seen as Romeo, Maria as Juliet, The Jets as Montagues, The Sharks as Capulets, Anita as the Nurse, Riff as Mercutio, Bernardo as Tybalt, Doc as both Friar Laurence and Balthasar, Chino as Paris, The Police as Prince, Anybodys and Baby John as Benvolio. Many scenes in West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet have very close parallels connection. The confrontation between the gangs at the beginning of West Side Story can be seen as a parallel to the 3rd civil brawl scene in Romeo and Juliet, dance at the gym as party at the Capulet house, fire escape scene as balcony scene, mock wedding at the bridal shop as wedding at Friar Laurence’s cell, rumble underneath the bridge as duels between Mercutio, Tybalt and Romeo, and Anita’s mock rape scene as nurse abandons Juliet by urging her to marry Paris. In addition to the similar connection between the characters and the scene, the theme of male dominate patriarchal society appears to be one of the major theme throughout both plays.
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Romeo and Juliet has been criticized by many critics as having strong gender roles. According to an article written by Professor Jeanne Gerlach, Professor Rudolph Almasy, and Professor Rebecca Daniel, the men are expected to carry themselves with honor and pride. Anything the man or the head of the family wanted would be put into motion as soon as he finished saying the words. In contrast, a woman’s typical role and characteristic of that time period was weak, subservient, always holding her words when it came to decision making, and be obedience to the husband and father.
At the beginning of Romeo and Juliet when one of the Capulet’s servants, Sampson said, “And therefore women, being the weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall; therefore I will push Montague’s men from the wall, and thrust his maids to the wall.”(I, 1, 15) These words from Sampson is further reinforcing a typical stereotypical Renaissance thinking which suggests that women are weaker in physically, emotionally, intellectually and morally in nature and they exist for male sexual gratification only. Similar, such thinking on woman can also be found at a parallel scene in West Side Story during the confrontation between the Jets and Sharks at the beginning. After the character, Anybody, express her interest in joining the gang and that she could fight as good and strong as the men does to Riff, one of the Jets wannabes start making fun of her sexually or mocks her undesirability then Riff sends her away by telling her to beat it. Such action done by the Jets also further reinforcing the stereotypical thinking and inequality between the man and the woman.
Another example of how Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story further reinforcing genders roles within the male dominate society can be seen in the rumble between the Sharks and the Jets underneath the bridge scene. After the Rumble, Anybodys treat to act as Tonyâ€Ÿs unofficial protector. Even though she was not physically present during the rumble between the Sharks and the Jets, she seems to be lurking in and out from shadow and only appear as the most useful person or tool when the man, Tony in the scene, in urgent need of her to help rescue him from the police after all the other Jets fled the scene without him. In fact, she refuses to leave without him by repeatedly shouting “Come on, Tony!” until he escapes with her. Such action perform by Anybody could be seen as a reinforcement on gender roles. A woman, the wife or daughter, should remain loyal and obedience to the man, husband or father, even if everyone else are not doing the same. Such loyalty that the society is seeking the woman should have also appeared in the scene where Juliet learns the news that Romeo has killed her cousin from the nurse. “Nurse: Will you speak well of him that kill’d your cousin” Juliet: Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband? Ah, poor my lord, what tongue shall smooth thy name when I, thy three-hour wife, have mangled it?” (III, 2, 105) Juliet is showing her loyalty to her husband, Romeo, even when the nurse is blaming Romeo for Tybalt’s death.
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In conclusion, both Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story both reinforcing the idea that the woman’s typical role and characteristic of that time period was weak, subservient, always holding her words when it came to decision making, and be obedience to the husband and father. In contrast, a man’s typical roles and characteristic should be masculine and powerful and expected to carry themselves with honor and pride. In Romeo and Julie, Mercutio and Tybalt’s death were a result of a man defending the man’s pride and honor. The death of Bernardo in West Side Story was also a result of the men defending the men’s honor and pride. We can see these values that the society put on us being employed in both Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story.
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