Romeo and Juliet

Use a teaching guide that includes a synopsis and commentary of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, teaching activities, discussion questions, and essay topics. The famous tragedy of star-crossed lovers will fascinate your students; it is a good choice as an introduction to Shakespeare's plays.
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Shakespeare's plays were written to be performed and enjoyed by his audience, in fact most were not published until seven years after his death. When Romeo and Juliet first appeared on the stage in approximately 1594, most of the audience was familiar with the story. It was a popular tale in Elizabethan times; many versions were available, the most widely known was Arthur Brooke's long narrative poem The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet. So, in spite of the fact that Shakespeare's play might appear to the uninitiated to be a comedy, especially when Sampson and Gregory open the first act with their swash-buckling, most of his audience knew, without even hearing the prologue, that the lovers were "star-crossed" and that in "two hours' tragic of our stage" they would "take their life" and "bury their parents' strife" (Prologue, 6-12). It's only fair that we give our students the same advantage.

There are numerous ways to acquaint students with the play:

(1) Tell the story to the class. If you are a good storyteller you can use your technique to bring Romeo and Juliet to life. If storytelling is not your forte, you can relate the plot by recounting parts and asking questions that involve the students in the process. For example: "Have you ever met a boy or girl who you thought was really neat, who you admired from afar, but when you tried to speak to him or her you were ignored? That's how our play begins, with Romeo rebuffed by Rosaline with whom he thinks he's in love. Now, suppose you knew that this boy or girl you liked was going to be at a party that you were not invited to, and a friend suggested you crash it. Would you? Well, our hero Romeo does." You can continue relating each act in this manner prior to reading it.*

(2) Several movie versions of the play are available, the most popular and most accessible is Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968), now available on video tape. Since Zeffirelli changed much of the script when he wrote the screenplay, the changes can make for interesting discussion when the play is read.*

(3) Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare's most performed play. You may be able to take your students to see it prior to reading it in class.*

(4) Many modern versions of the Romeo and Juliet tale have been written and produced. The best known 20th century adaptation is West Side Story (Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim). This musical adaptation is set in New York City in the 1950's. The feud is not between two families, but between ethnic gangs. Students can be introduced to this through film, reading the script, and listening to the soundtrack. Again, the differences between West Side Story and Shakespeare's play can lead to interesting discussion.+#

(5) Students are frequently intrigued by the idea of a feud lasting several generations. In some parts of the country students may be able to discuss family feuds that are still a part of their lives. Since the introduction you have given to the play makes the feud between the Montagues and Capulets evident, an investigation of other famous feuds is likely to spark student interest in the play. You might begin by telling them about feuds with which you are familiar: the Shepherdson-Grangerford feud in Twain's Huck Finn, the historic feud between the Scottish clans of Campbell and MacDonald, or the Appalachian feud of the Hatfields and McCoys. Once you have discussed one or more feuds with the students, send them to the library to investigate others and report their findings to the class.*

(6) After students have been introduced to the story of Romeo and Juliet some of the these can be discussed. First, examine themes that relate directly to their lives: suicide, sexuality, child/parent relationships and friendship.* Next, discuss literary themes: hostility and its effect on the innocent, the use of deception and its consequences, and the effects of faulty decision making.#~ Finally, examine the themes of classical tragedy: the role of fate and fortune, the inevitable nature of tragedy, and the isolation of the tragic hero.~

Since Romeo and Juliet is frequently the student's first introduction to Shakespeare, it is especially important that students be taught how to read and enjoy his plays.

(1) As discussed in the commentary, Romeo and Juliet combines techniques of Elizabethan tragedy and comedy. Assign students to one of two groups to investigate these techniques. The results of their investigation can be placed on chart paper and discussed.#~

(2) Most students are unaware of the organization and dramatic techniques of Shakespearean drama. Discuss with the students: five acts divided into scenes, rising action, climax at beginning of third act, falling action, chorus,prologue, soliloquy, asides, blank verse...*

(3) Understanding the characters and their relationships is frequently a stumbling block for first time readers of Shakespeare. Introduce the characters to the students.*

House of Capulet

Juliet: daughter to Capulet, takes the lead in the romance, lyrical use of language, has premonitions but does not act on them, isolated, only one in the play to guess the outcome

Tybalt: Juliet's cousin, foil to Romeo, passionate, prideful, easily provoked, high-spirited, hot-blooded, fiery nature, inflexible, single set of absolutes

Nurse: Juliet's nurse, stereotypical, arrogant, garrulous, ignorant, bawdy, uncultivated, old and infirm, fickle, wants the "best for Juliet" (translated: wants Juliet married to anyone), looks at love as "animal lust", comic

Capulet: Juliet's father, impatient, loves Juliet but is misguided in his love, querulous, inflexible, old, looks at love as a good match

House of Montague

Romeo: son of Montague, isolated, passionate, idealistic, naive, has premonitions but does not act on them, helpless

Mercutio: kinsman to Prince and friend of Romeo, witty, honorable, intelligent, loves word play, amiable, could be voice of reason but underestimates Romeo's passion, foil to Romeo, his death makes the tragedy inevitable

Benvolio: Montague nephew, friend of Romeo, peacemaker

Other important characters

Paris: a count, betrothed to Juliet, foil to Romeo

Friar Laurence: Romeo's counselor, loved and respected, attempts to do what is "right", marred reasoning, misplaced virtue

Divide a sheet of chart paper in half lengthwise, place the House of Capulet on one side, the House of Montague on the other. You can use this later to chart the relationship of the characters.*

(4) Shakespeare used language to tell his story and to develop his characters. After the students are familiar with the story, show them places where Shakespeare uses.*


Mercutio. Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance.

Romeo. Not I, believe me. You have dancing shoes
With nimble soles; I have a soul of lead
So stakes me to the ground I cannot move.

Mercutio. You are a lover. Borrow Cupid's wings
And soar with them above a common bound.

Romeo. I am too sore enpierced with his shaft
To soar with his light feathers; and so bound
I cannot bound a pitch above dull woe.
Under love's heavy burden do I sink.

Mercutio. And, to sink in it, should you burden love--
Too great oppression for a tender thing.

Romeo. Is love a tender thing? It is too rough.
Too rude, too boist'rous, and it pricks like thorn.

Mercutio. If love be rough with you, be rough with love;
Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down.
An old hare hoar,
And an old hare hoar,
Is very good meat in Lent;
But a hare that is hoar
is too much for a score
When it hoars ere it be spent.
(Mercutio, II,iv,141-146)


O God, I have an ill-divining soul!
Methinks I see thee, now thou art so low,
As one dead in the bottom of a tomb.
(Juliet, III,v,54-56)

Or if you do not, make the bridal bed
In that dim monument where Tybalt lies.
(Juliet, III,v,202-203)


It is the East, and Juliet is the Sun!
* * *
Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
(Romeo, II,ii,3,15-17)
Alas, poor Romeo, he is already dead:
stabbed with a white wench's black eye; run through
the ear with a love song; the very pin of his heart
cleft with the blind bow-boy's butt-shaft...
(Mercutio, II,iv,13-15)
Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,
Towards Phoebus' lodging! Such a wagoner
As Phaeton would whip you to the west
And bring in cloudy night immediately.
(Juliet, III,ii,1-4)

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy.
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face. O, be some other name
Belonging to a man.
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.
(Juliet, II,ii,38-44)
As if that name,
Shot from the deadly level of a gun,
Did murder her; as that name's cursed hand
Murdered her kinsman. O, tell me, friar, tell me,
In what vile part of this anatomy
Doth my name lodge? Tell me, that I may sack
The hateful mansion.
(Romeo, III,iii,102-108)
It was the nightingale, and not the lark...
* * *

It was the lark, the herald of the morn;
No nightingale.
(Juliet, III,v,2; Romeo, 6-7)

Language to reveal social class and develop character:

(Nurse's peasant speech and attempt to imitate her betters)
Yes, madam. Yet I cannot choose but laugh
To think it should leave crying and say, "Ay."
And yet, I warrant, it had upon it brow
A bump as big as a young cock'rel's stone;
A perilous knock; and it cried bitterly.
"Yea," quoth my husband, "fall'st upon thy face/
Thou wilt fall backward when thou comest to age,
Wilt thou not, Jule?" It stinted and said, "Ay."
(Friar's moralization)
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied,
And vice sometime by action dignified.
(Juliet's lyrical imagery)
O, bid me leap, rather than marry Paris,
From off the battlements of any tower,
Or walk in thievish ways, or bid me lurk
Where serpents are; chain me with roaring bears,
Or hide me nightly in a charnel house,
O'ercovered quite with dead men's rattling bones,
With reeky shanks and yellow chapless skulls;
Or bid me go into a new-made grave
And hide me with a dead man in his shroud--
Things that, to hear them told, have made me tremble--
And I will do it without fear or doubt,
To live an unstained wife to my sweet love.
(Illiterate banter of servants)
Find them out whose names are written here?
It is written that the shoemaker should meddle with
his yard and tailor with his last, the fisher with
his pencil and the painter with his nets; but I am
sent to find those persons whose names are here
writ, and can never find what names the writing
person hath here writ. I must to the learned. In
good time!
(Gentrified tale of Capulet and Prince Aeschylus)
And too soon marred are those so early made.
Earth has swallowed all my hopes but she;
She is the hopeful lady of my earth.
(Capulet, I,ii,13-15)
And for that offense
Immediately we do exile him hence.
I have an interest in your hate's proceeding,
My blood for your rude brawls doth lie a-bleeding;
But I'll amerce you with so strong a fine
That you shall all repent the loss of mine.
I will be deaf to pleading and excuses;
Nor tears nor prayers shall purchase out abuses.
Therefore use none. Let Romeo hence in haste,
Else, when he is found, that hour is his last.
Bear hence this body and attend our will.
Mercy but murders, pardoning those that kill.
(Prince, III,i,188-199)
(Intellectual command of Mercutio)
Romeo! Humors! Madman! Passion! Lover!
Appear thou in the likeness of a sigh;
Speak but one rhyme, and I am satisfied!
Cry but "Ay me!" pronounce but "love" and "dove";
Speak to my gossip Venus one fair work,
One nickname for her purblind son and heir
Young Abraham Cupid, he that shot so true
When King Cophetua loved the beggar maid!
(Insolent, fiery talk of Tybalt)
What! Dares the slave
Come hither, covered with an antic face,
To fleer and scorn at our solemnity?
Now, by the stock and honor of my kin,
To strike him dead I hold it not a sin.
(Figurative language of Romeo)

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou her maid art far more fair than she.
Be not her maid, since she is envious.
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it. Cast it off.

(5) Discuss how Shakespeare's use of language reveals attributes of each character.~

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