Romeo and Juliet: Fighting gang culture

Sweet sorrow: Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet tells the story of two warring families who finally put aside their differences. Must it always take a tragedy to end such bitter feuds?

‘From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.’

What makes William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet ‘the greatest love story of all time’? Many believe it is not the romance between its two heroes, but the tragedy of their deaths. Juliet describes Romeo as ‘my only love sprung from my only hate’. The feud between the Montague and Capulet families is what makes a good love story great.

But Romeo and Juliet’s power also comes from the resolution between these two families. A ‘glooming peace’ descends in the final scene, as the two agree to set their differences aside. Despite the tragedy caused by hate, love has the final say.

In modern versions of the play, directors sometimes feel a new or contemporary setting is needed to bring alive the two families’ hostility and violence. In Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic adaptation, as in the musical West Side Story, gang warfare is the perfect retelling of rivalry among Medieval nobility.

When the most infamous street gang of Los Angeles was formed amid the racial tensions of the late 1960s, it was intended as a way of protecting the African-American community from police harassment. But the Crips soon fell into violence and drug crimes. In the 1970s, a bitter rivalry began with a new gang known as the Bloods. Each spread throughout the US, and the Crips are now estimated to have around 30,000 members. The rivalry was responsible for large numbers of murders over the next decades, and often inspired the gangsta rap which emerged in the 1980s.

But in Baltimore this year, the rivalry was finally put to an end. Gang members announced that they had united for a ‘common good’ during the riots which gripped the city after the death of Freddie Gray. They promised to try to protect and rebuild the community, and urged justice in the face of police brutality.

‘Love’s heavy burden’

Romeo and Juliet shows the senseless horror which can be caused by irrational, violent feuds. But some argue that Baltimore’s truce between its two infamous gangs is proof that power for change exists. Decades of violence have been put aside for a cause the members believe in. Like Juliet’s love sprung from her hate, sometimes good can also come from tragedy.

But others point out that we should not rely on extreme events to end these kinds of feuds. After all, the gang rivalries have already caused plenty of tragedies themselves. In Compton, a truce has been reached by diplomacy instead. The city’s mayor Aja Brown began reaching out to Crips and Bloods leaders in 2014, and helped them agree to keep the peace through weekly meetings. ‘Seeing people decide to choose love instead of hate is phenomenal,’ she said.

You Decide

  1. Is Romeo and Juliet ‘the greatest love story of all time’?
  2. How should the US tackle its remaining gang problems?

Activities

  1. Choose your own modern setting for Romeo and Juliet, and rewrite one of the key scenes.
  2. Plan an essay on the role of ‘passion’ in Romeo and Juliet.

Some People Say...

“Violent delights have violent ends.”

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

What do you think?

Q & A

Did Shakespeare invent the story of Romeo and Juliet?
No — in fact, most of his plays are based on existing histories and tales of the time. Coming up with an ‘original’ story did not carry the same importance that it has now. But what made Shakespeare’s versions special is the incredible use of language, which is rich with double meanings, metaphors and captivating imagery, and whose spell has endured for 500 years so far.
Is this the end of the gang wars in the US?
Sadly it’s not so simple — there are still many ‘sets’ of the Bloods and Crips in other cities. Then of course, there are other gangs who are not part of either group. However, although violent crime has risen this summer in US cities, overall the numbers have significantly dropped since the 1990s.

Word Watch

Medieval
The ‘original’ Romeo and Juliet are usually placed in Verona in 1303. However, it is uncertain how far the ‘true story’ mirrors the events of the play, which was adapted from stories and poems by various sixteenth-century writers.
Rivalry
The Bloods originally emerged to protect themselves against the Crips. Each gang is made up of many smaller sets, but they identify themselves with hand signs and coloured items of clothing: blue for Crips, red for Bloods.
Gangsta rap
The genre made it into the mainstream in the late 1980s. The genre was often condemned for promoting violence, but the artists defended their work as simply representing their experiences.
Freddie Gray
Arrested by Baltimore police on 12 April, Freddie Gray died a few days later from injuries to his spine sustained in police custody. The incident sparked a series of protests and riots across the city. Six officers are being investigated.
Compton
A southern city in the Los Angeles county of California, and home to some of the earliest Bloods and Crips sets. It once had one of the highest murder rates in the US.

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