Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story

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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...
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