Romeo and Juliet

by William Shakespeare

Page 1 of 5

INTRODUCTION

William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is an excellent introduction to Shakespearean drama; teenagers can relate to its plot, characters, and themes. The play's action is easily understood, the character's motives are clear, and many of the themes are as current today as they were in Shakespeare's time. Therefore, it can be read on a variety of levels, allowing all students to enjoy it.

Less able readers can experience the swashbuckling action and investigate the themes of parent-child conflict, sexuality, friendship, and suicide. Because of the play's accessibility to teenagers, able readers can view the play from a more literary perspective, examining the themes of hostility ad its effect on the innocent, the use of deception and its consequences, and the effects of faulty decision making. They can study how the characters function within the drama and how Shakespeare uses language to develop plot, characters, and themes. The most able students can develop skills involved in literary criticism by delving into the play's comic and tragic elements and its classically tragic themes: the role of fate and fortune, the inevitable nature of tragedy, and the isolation of the tragic hero.

This teacher's guide will be divided into several parts: (1) a brief literary overview, including a synopsis and commentary on the play; (2) suggestions for teaching the play, including activities, discussion questions, and essay topics to be used before, during, and after reading of the play; (3) ideas to extend the students' learning beyond the play, including ways to address its themes, ideas for teaching literary analysis, techniques for using the play as a bridge to other works, and ways to use the play as part of an interdisciplinary study; (4) suggestions for avoiding censorship; and (5) bibliographies, including additional pedagogical sources, other works of literature addressing similar themes, and interdisciplinary sources. Throughout this study guide attention will be given to the ability level of the students, and specific activities, discussion questions, and topics will be labeled as to difficulty.

*Appropriate for all students.
+Most appropriate for nonacademic students.
#Most appropriate for above average students.
~Most appropriate for academic students.

OVERVIEW

Synopsis

The play takes place in Verona, Italy, in the late 15th century.

At the opening of the play, Romeo, son of the House of Montague, believes he is desperately in love with Rosaline, a young beauty who spurns his attentions. To rid him of his infatuation, his friend Benvolio suggests he turn to other women (I,i.). Romeo learns through an announcement carried by an illiterate servant of the House of Capulet, a family engaged in a feud with the Montagues, that a ball will be given that night by the Capulets at which Rosaline will be a guest (I, ii.). Romeo, hoping to see her, and Benvolio, hoping Romeo will find another, decide to attend the ball even though they haven't been invited. At the ball, Romeo, who wears a mask, sees and falls deeply in love with Juliet, who he later discovers is the daughter of the Capulets. Tybalt, Juliet's hot-tempered cousin, recognizes Romeo, but is deterred from doing any harm by the elder Capulet, who will not have his party ruined by a fight. Nevertheless, Tybalt bides his time and vows revenge (I,v.).

Later that night, while Juliet's parents are arranging her marriage to the aristocratic Count Paris, a love-struck Romeo steals into the Capulet's garden hoping to glimpse Juliet. He overhears Juliet's secret declaration of love for him and makes himself known to her. They exchange pledges of love and determine to marry secretly the next day (II,ii.). With the help of Friar Laurence, a holy man who hopes to heal the breach between the Capulets and Montagues, and Juliet's vulgar but well-meaning nurse, who wants nothing more than to see Juliet married, the two are wedded in the Friar's cell, unknown to the parents of either house (II,iii.).

Soon after his marriage, Romeo discovers his friends Benvolio and Mercutio in a fight with Tybalt, who has been looking for Romeo to call him to account for his intrusion on the Capulet bell. Because he has married Juliet and looks upon Tybalt as a relative, Romeo resists his advances. Mercutio, angered by Tybalt's insults and attacks on Romeo, draws his sword. In an attempt to prevent the fight Romeo holds Mercutio back as Tybalt draws his sword and slays Mercutio. Romeo has no choice but to avenge the death of his friend. They fight, and Tybalt is slain (III,i.). Romeo flees to Friar Laurence's cell. Romeo's fate is sealed when the Prince of Verona banishes him from the city for his deed. The despairing Romeo spends his first and final night with Juliet before he flees to Mantua at dawn. Not knowing that Juliet grieves for Romeo and assuming her tears are for her slain cousin Tybalt, the elder Capulet prepares for Juliet to marry the "Country Paris" later that same week (III,v.). Juliet pleads with her parents to postpone the wedding, and, when they refuse, seeks the Friar's advice. He tells her to agree to the marriage, but to take a sleeping potion made from herbs he has gathered. The potion will mimic the appearance of death and she can be brought to the Capulet burial vault, while the Friar has Romeo brought back from Mantua (V,i.).

She takes the potion and is found, apparently dead, the morning of her planned wedding. She is "buried" in the same tomb as Tybalt (IV,iii.-IV,v.). Fate and accident prevent Friar Laurence's letter form reaching Romeo who hears of Juliet's death from his servant. Romeo decides to kill himself and seeks poison from an apothecary (V,i.). He slips back into Verona, finds Paris mourning Juliet at the tomb, kills him, enters the tomb, and finding the "dead" Juliet, takes the poison (V,iii.). The Friar arrives just as Juliet awakens, but he is unable to persuade her to leave Romeo. And, after the Friar leaves, Juliet takes her own life with Romeo's dagger (V,iii.). The Capulets and the elder Montague, whose wife has died that night of a broken heart over Romeo's banishment, arrive at the tomb to discover the entire younger generation dead. They agree to end their feud (V,iii.).

Commentary

The play initially appears to be a typical Elizabethan comedy. The characters, though noble, are not of historical importance as in tragedies of the day. The early acts are filled with plays on words, the bawdy talk of Juliet's nurse, the revelry of a ball, "mooning" lovers, unlikely love scenes, and, in spite of the feud, a general air of humor and happiness. And, like in all Elizabethan comedy, there is the feeling that all is a game that will be won by the most clever player. We see the contrived strategies of Benvolio and Romeo as they mask themselves to attend the ball. We are privy to the countermove of Mercutio, who appears to be a major player in the game, as he talks Romeo out of love. Things happen quickly and good fortune seems to smile on Romeo as he not only finds the lady Juliet at her window, but hears her declaration of love for him.

But, Shakespeare begins to plant the seeds of tragedy. Romeo fears his dreams and speaks of a sense of foreboding,

...my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night's revels and expire the term
Of a despised life, closed in my breast,
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
(I,iv,106-111)

We meet the fiery-empered Tybalt who clearly states his intent to seek revenge against Romeo. And, the deception begins. Romeo and Juliet are secretly married by the good Friar whose perception is faulty when he imagines that the marriage will end the feud.

At the beginning of Act III the comedy turns to tragedy. Even the weather has become hot and "the mad blood stirring" (III,i,4). First, Mercutio is slain by Tybalt, and, then Tybalt by Romeo. Ironically, Mercutio, who seemed to be a pivotal player in the comedy, becomes not only the first to die, but his death makes all those that follow inevitable. "Inevitability" is the force which governs the world of tragedy. From the time of Mercutio's death the characters seem to have no control over the events as they speed by. A sense of doom is dominant; events occur before they can be stopped; perceptions are marred; errors in judgment are rampant; everyone is inflexible; everything is absolute, inevitable. The stage has been set for the tragedy.



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