Teaching Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet

I taught freshman English for five years, during which time I taught Romeo & Juliet to more than two thousand students. Because it is the simplest and least complicated Shakespeare play, it is often the first one to which students are exposed.

Here are the complications with teaching Romeo & Juliet:

1. Kids don’t get it. You might understand every word that floweth from Shakespeare’s pen, but most of your students will be in the dark. It usually takes one or two plays before high schoolers get used to the dialect used during Shakespeare’s time, and before they begin to understand how to decipher long metaphors.

2. It’s a love story. Most high schoolers have yet to experience love, and can’t hope to grasp the strong emotions portrayed in Romeo & Juliet. Their frames of reference include getting asked to the high school dance and witnessing the love – or lack thereof – shared between their parents. That said, you will meet some resistance from students who don’t understand what the story means.

3. There are conflicting interpretations. If your students have ever before studied Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, they will most likely have been taught something different from what you will teach. There are hundreds of different Romeo & Juliet interpretations, from the inherent metaphors to how the play is written.

4. There was a movie. Anytime there is a movie made from a literary classic, students have trouble differentiating between the two. I read Romeo & Juliet long before Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio graced the big screen, so I didn’t have this problem, but don’t be surprised when you encounter questions and comments dealing with the Hollywood production.

With those complications waiting before you, there are bound to be difficulties when you teach Romeo & Juliet. I have found, however, that there are ways to conquer these complications, and to make learning Shakespeare an exciting and fun event for high school students.

1. Presenting Shakespeare

Rather than reading the play right away, I do what I call an ‘Introductory Unit.’ Ninth graders have probably never read a word of Shakespeare, and their knowledge of Shakespearean plays is probably limited to the aforementioned motion picture. Therefore, it is your job as a teacher to ease them into the concept of Shakespeare, and to make Romeo & Juliet as painless as possible.

I usually start by teaching my students a little bit of history about Shakespeare. There is no reason to give them an entire biographical sketch, but touch on the major points and give them a list of his plays.

Next, we read sonnets. This accomplishes two things: 1) It introduces my students to the language of Shakespeare, and 2) It becomes something of a warm-up exercise.

2. Classroom Reading

I hate to say this, and perhaps I am way off base, but it has been my experience that students cannot be trusted to read Shakespeare on their own. If you assign the reading as homework, they will come to class unprepared, and any attempt at actually teaching Shakespeare will be completely out the window.

To avoid this problem, you can do one of two things. You can either read Romeo & Juliet aloud to your class, or you can let volunteers read it for you.

In my class, the Romeo & Juliet unit becomes a series of mini-plays in which characters are chosen and the entire class becomes involved. After each passage, we stop to talk about what has just been said and to discuss possible foreshadowing. I read the narration and scene directions, but I never read the part of a character.

Not only does this make Romeo & Juliet an interactive lesson, but it also will inspire the theatrically inclined students to want to read, and it will help students afraid of public speaking to overcome stage fright.

3. Vocabulary

Students hate vocabulary. They hate vocab quizzes, vocab tests and vocab studying. For that reason, I use Romeo & Juliet to inspire my students to learn new words. We take the most foreign words, look them up together, and discuss their meanings. Then I have my students write stories using each of these words. This way, they don’t have to take boring vocab tests, but I can still rest assured that they have learned the vocabulary.

4. The Test

As a teacher, you know that tests are inevitable. If I had it my way, tests would not be included in school because I know plenty of intelligent, hard working students who simply test poorly. But regardless of your personally feelings, tests are a reality, and Romeo & Juliet tests are difficult to construct.

I don’t recommend using prepared tests for your own classroom because they often touch on points that you might not have covered in class. I take the information that we discuss in the classroom and form it into the test, rather than the other way around.

Here are the most important points of Romeo & Juliet:

a. Foreshadowing – How Shakespeare uses people and objects to suggest what will happen at the end of Romeo & Juliet
b. Family – The division family creates and the strength of love that defies familial obligations
c. Symbolism – The balcony scene is full of symbolism, as is the first scene between Juliet and the apothecary.
d. Characters – Shakespeare is second only to Charles Dickens in characterization. Teach and test on how Shakespeare defines his characters in Romeo & Juliet – both good and evil.
e. Comic Relief – Shakespeare uses several characters to create humor in his play. Romeo & Juliet both have comic lines, as do Tibalt, Friar Laurence and the Nurse.

For fun, you might also have your students compare courtship rituals between Shakespeare’s time and the present, or compare and contrast the movie with the literary play.

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