Bio: Jacob Combs is a senior from Los Angeles, CA concentrating in Literatures and Cultures in English. At Brown, he has also studied music and theater, worked in the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life, and been a Meiklejohn Peer Advisor.
I originally thought that the focus of my thesis would be on adaptation and the way that women are presented both in Shakespeare’s plays and adaptations of his works. I was interested in adaptations specifically because of the way that they are able to reference material that an audience already knows (for example, an iconic story like Romeo and Juliet) and use that material to address the issues of a specific historical moment. I chose to look at Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story because they are both adaptations of earlier source material, and also because they are iconic works in American popular culture.
My focus quickly changed, however, to looking at Juliet and Maria specifically and examining their experience as adolescents. Both women are presented within the feud of the society they live in: for Juliet, this is the “ancient grudge” between Capulets and Montagues, while for Maria it is the gang warfare between the Jets and the Sharks. These societal structures provide both women with pre-conceived scripts of how they are supposed to behave, scripts that are specifically designed by these societies’ power holders to keep young men and women within their specific clan (by prohibiting them from interacting with the other).
These scripts, however, go completely against the fundamental experience of being an adolescent. Adolescence is a time of experimentation, of creating oneself as an individual and, perhaps most importantly, of sexual awakening. Adolescents move away from being defined as children in relation to their respective familial lineages and instead move towards other lineages by picking and pursuing romantic partners.
In the end, because Romeo and Juliet is a play written in the 16th century, its conclusion both criticizes and upholds the values of a society dominated by its elderly patriarchs. Romeo and Juliet die because they have broken the laws of the feud. West Side Story, however, presents a very different point about the power of adolescents. At the end of the musical, Maria chooses to live, and is presented as the most powerful individual in the entire society. West Side Story shows that rather than being neither children nor adults, adolescents are rather children and adults: they can be childish and make mistakes, but they can also demonstrate incredible maturity.