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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One of the major advantages of studying the classics is the potential they offer for extending students' learning far beyond the original work. Here are some literary extensions that can be used before, during, or after reading Romeo and Juliet.

(1) Become a Shakespearean critic.~ Read one of the "Commentaries" at the end of the Signet Classic. Discuss it with a small group of students. Pick a topic discussed in the commentary of interest to the group. Go to the library to see what other views you can find on the same topic. Write a group paper exploring the differences in the critics' views.

(2) Compare Romeo and Juliet to West Side Story.* What differences do you see in character, plot, and theme? Why do these differences exist?

(3) Search for feuds in other literary works.#~ What are the effects of the feuds? Discuss with the class and develop an annotated bibliography.

(4) Examine Romeo and Juliet for literary or mythological allusions.~ Go to the library and see what you can find out about one or more of these allusions. Present the results of your study to the class.

(5) Do some research on Shakespeare: the man and the playwright.* Present your findings to the class.

(6) Do some research on Elizabethan theater.* Present your findings to the class.

(7) See if you can locate Arthur Brooke's The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet. Compare it to Shakespeare's play.~ What changes did Shakespeare make? Why?

(8) Read another Shakespearean comedy or tragedy.~ How does it differ from Romeo and Juliet? Which is more typical of the classical elements of comedy or tragedy? (#1, p. 6).

(9) Watch another Shakespearean play on film or video tape.* Compare it to Romeo and Juliet in terms of: elements of comedy and tragedy~, use of language*, development of plot*, characterization*, theme*.

(10) Do some research on one of the modern themes of the play*: suicide, teenage sexuality, or parent/child relationships. How have attitudes changed since Shakespeare's time? Write about your findings and discuss with the class.

(11) Do some research on one of the literary themes of the play#~: family hostility and its effect on the innocent, the use of deception and its consequences, or the effects of faulty decision making. See if you can locate a modern example of this literary theme. Write about your findings and discuss with the class.

(12) Do some research on a theme of classical tragedy~: the role of fate and fortune, the inevitable nature of tragedy, or the isolation of the tragic hero. Find an example of the exploration of this theme in a modern short story, novel, or play. Compare in writing the modern author's treatment of the theme to Shakespeare's treatment. Share your essay with the class.

(13) Search your literature anthology for works that explore similar themes.* Develop a bibliography for each theme. Select one theme and read one or more works related to that theme. Discuss with the class.

A Note About Avoiding Censorship

It is often assumed by English teachers that "classics," particularly Shakespeare, are immune to censorship. However, glancing through any list of frequently censored books proves that assumption false; Romeo and Juliet frequently appears on those lists.

Why is this play, regarded by the entire world as one of the great works of literature, frequently the target of censors? There are many answers. The timeliness of the themes of the play and the age of the characters make it a frequent target. The "sex scenes" between the young lovers are often attacked as inappropriate for teenage readers. Finally, most often targeted by the censors' arrows are the bawdy language and double-entendres, particularly in the first half of the play. We can argue that students rarely recognize these unless they are pointed, that the themes are important to consider if today's young people are to avoid the fate of the "star-crossed lovers," that teenagers are exposed to far more lurid sex scenes on television, and that the play is one of the greatest works of literature and therefore should be read in the English classroom.

All of these are excessent arguments; however, after the issue of the "inappropriateness" of the play has been raised by censors these arguments sound shrill and defensive. The best way to deal with censorship is to avoid it. How can it be avoided:

(1) Develop a department or school selection policy in which you clearly indicate criteria for selecting literature to be read, as well as a procedure for dealing with complaints should they occur.

(2) Once the policy has been established, involve as many people in the selection process as possible. Include teachers, administrators, students and parents on your selection committee.

(3) Write a brief rationale for using the play in the classroom. Emphasize the literary, historical and social importance of the play. Include comments by literary critics and educators. File this rationale with your department chairperson and/or school administrator.

(4) Several weeks prior to requiring the students to read the play, send home a brief description to parents. Be sure to include parts of your rationale the fact that some of the language in the play might be offensive to some people. Invite parents to borrow a classroom copy of the play and read it prior to giving their children permission to read it. Be sure to indicate alternative selections for students who are not permitted to read the play (some other Shakespearean plays might be appropriate or other books on similar themes).

(5) A week prior to reading the play in class send home permission slips for the parents to complete. Phrase the slips in such a way that signing and returning them indicates that permission has not been granted. Ask parents to suggest a preferred book or play of equal literary value.

(6) Be sure to make adequate provisions, avoiding stigmatization, for students who are not permitted to read the play. This may mean having to work individually with one student, grouping the class to allow for the reading of two or more works, and/or placing the student(s) in another class during the reading of the play.

Should a censorship issue arise in spite of your precautions, be sure to do the following:

(1) Follow all school/department policies.

(2) Suggest an option for the child or children involved. Try not to be defensive or angry; keep reminding yourself that every parent has the right to object to what his/her child is reading.

(3) Ask the individual(s) objecting to the work to complete a "Citizen's Request For Reconsideration of a Work" (available from the National Council of Teachers of English). On this form the individual states his/her objection and suggests a work of equal value that is not objectionable.

(4) Report the complaint to your department chairperson and/or school administrator. Confirm your next steps with him/her. The next steps should be clear in your school/department policy.

(5) Other than allowing the student or students involved to read another book, do not do anything until the "Citizen's Request Form" is returned. In most cases the forms are not returned.

(6) If the form is returned, and the censor demands that the book be removed from the classroom, do not proceed alone. If you have followed the recommendations for avoiding censorship, you will have a large support group, and once the censor is made aware of how the work was selected and who was involved in the selection process, usually the issue is dropped.

(7) If the issues is pursued, you and your school should continue to follow the policy, seeking professional help, usually through professional organizations. The final section of the bibliography includes specific references to help in avoiding censorship.

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