Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story both have a lot in common as well as major differences that set them apart. Although West Side Story is a direct rendition of Shakespeare's original play, many of the themes and symbols are altered to fit the modern perspective. The characters have a direct correlation to each other, yet racial issues give them a new light. Many of the events also reflect each other, yet small differences give them uniqueness.
West Side Story differs from Romeo and Juliet in characterizations, plot sequences, and themes. The characterization of the protagonists and antagonists have many differences. The Montague's and Capulets are from the same society and lifestyle in the play. They don't have a reason for their long feud that's stretched back for generations.
The Sharks and Jets, however, are segregated by racial and ethnic tensions. In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet's parents are the sole obstacles blocking her from Romeo, because they want her to marry someone suitable. Yet parents are never seen in Maria's life, while, her brother and his girlfriend are the ones that act as parents. Juliet's suitor, Paris, is neutral and is on neither side of the feud. Maria's suitor, Chino, is completely on the Sharks's ide and ends up killing Tony, one of the main protagonists. As for the main characters, Maria and Tony are somewhat different from Juliet and Romeo.
Maria is more carefree and idealistic than Juliet. This is shown through her hopes of her life in America and with Tony. Juliet, on the other hand, follows the orders of her parents until Romeo comes along and shows her true love. Although Juliet seems more serious and mature at the beginning, Maria grows up during the course of the movie. Tony and Romeo are just the opposite. Tony knows whom he loves, and that's Maria, while Romeo had a very idealistic view of love in the beginning of the play, maturing as the end neared and he had to deal with Juliet's death.
Tony and Maria are also less preoccupied with the bonds of marriage and love in their society, while it's almost like a sin for Romeo and Juliet to be together before being married. This is further emphasized by the fact that religion plays a substantially lesser role in West Side Story than it does in Romeo and Juliet. The plot sequences are also different in West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet. Prince Esc alius is completely neutral about the Capulet and Montague brawls as well as all public disputes. He is the voice of reason in their turmoil, and serves as the peacemaker. Lieutenant Shrank, although he tries to stop the brawl, is more biased towards the Jets.
His prejudice almost permits the brawl to go on, and the Jets certainly take the hint. Romeo and Juliet marry each other secretly, and that in itself binds them together. It was because that Juliet couldn't marry Paris for fear of bigamy that she had to go to Friar Lawrence for help. This ultimately led to both protagonists' death.
Tony and Maria never marry, though they do consider it. Their deaths were simply because of a misunderstanding, and much more obscure. As for the misunderstanding in Romeo and Juliet, Romeo does not receive the expected message at all from Friar Lawrence. Instead, he receives a false message from one of his own people. Tony, however, receives a false message from the opposite side. Another major difference is the fact that Romeo kills Juliet's suitor at the end while Maria's suitor kills Tony.
And most importantly, Maria does not commit suicide, while Juliet does. Instead, Maria confronts the Jets and Sharks on their role in the death of their loved ones throughout the movie. Maria is the voice of conscience at the end of West Side Story like Paris is at the end of Romeo and Juliet. In this sense, Maria is more grown up than Juliet. She understands that her death wouldn't help to resolve the feud, and lives on as a symbol of peace. Juliet's death symbolizes the completion of an idealistic and tragic love that touches both families so that they too, establish peace.
The variations in the plot line are the results of distinctions in the themes of West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet. Finally, the themes vary in both works as well. Romeo and Juliet is set in Renaissance Italy in the city of Verona. West Side Story, however, is set in Bronx, New York City in the 50's. These settings affect the plot line and the theme of marriage.
Because of their social boundaries, Tony and Maria had the remotest chances of marrying each other because of ethnic strives, while Romeo and Juliet did get married, but had to keep it a secret for the fear of their families. New York City also fosters the theme of racial segregation and tension between the two gangs. Verona's gangs consist more of youthful adolescents wrapped up in the previous generation's feuds. The theme of star-crossed lovers is expressed in Romeo and Juliet but not in West Side Story. Juliet and Romeo's destinies seemed to be controlled by fate while Maria and Tony's destinies were controlled by intolerance and misunderstanding. The theme of hatred is expressed when Ty balt provoked Mercurio and Romeo.
This sort of hatred developed from family feuds. Yet hatred is expressed throughout West Side Story on a number of occasions from beginning to end, and this hatred was derived from ethnic and racial feuds. The relationships between the characters, the plot sequence, and the themes in West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet connect to result in two parallel yet slightly different representations of the most famous love story of all time. Both underline the power of love and its ultimate ability to unite enemies in spite of their differences.
Shakespeare's timeless classic will forever live in modern society as well as classic literature.