I love teaching Romeo and Juliet. I have taught this play for seven of the ten years I have been teaching, and the only reason I didn’t do it for those three is that I was teaching pre-K and middle school, and it wasn’t part of either curriculum. Romeo and Juliet might be my favorite piece of literature to teach for two reasons: 1) It has massive appeal for students and makes a great introduction to Shakespeare for 9th graders; 2) I love the language — I have huge chunks of it memorized — and teaching this play affords me the opportunity to teach an author I am enthusiastic about to students who are enthusiastic, too.
Great ideas for teaching this play are not exactly in short supply. I used to swear by Shakespeare Set Free, although in the last few years I have found myself being more selective about which activities that I use from that book. I do, for instance, enjoy having students look at different characters’ thoughts on love and Shakespeare’s “language tricks,” but I do not have them create masks and learn how to do the Pilgrims and Saints dance. I have actually found much more challenging activities at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s website.
The play begins as two servants of the Capulet household, Sampson and Gregory, encounter Abraham (Abra or Abram) in the street. The punny banter between Sampson and Gregory is very much period humor, and I have to say it isn’t the most inviting way to begin (though who am I to question the Bard?). Many staged versions (including the two popular movie versions) cut this scene down significantly. The important part is the fight. I do explain the puns through some notes students take down. Also, and I think this is important, I make sure my kids understand what they’re reading. Yes, even the bawdy parts.
I challenge students to memorize Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech for extra credit. We break the speech down and try to figure out what sort of person Mercutio is. One note about Mercutio: students have trouble with the fact that he is friends with Romeo and still invited to the Capulets’ feast. I explain to them that he is not a Montague — he is kin to the Prince and to Count Paris, and therefore, most likely an important person. Of course Capulet would invite him to the feast.
The first significant writing assignment I do is a compare/contrast essay (can be a full essay or a one-paragraph essay). We read the famous Balcony Scene (Act II, Scene 2) together. Then students make a compare/contrast graphic organizer. In order to do this activity, you must have two versions of Romeo and Juliet on DVD or VHS. Personally, I think it is great to show the BBC’s version starring Patrick Ryecart and Rebecca Saire (1978). Frankly, the Balcony Scene in this version is passionless and boring. It makes for a great contrast against Franco Zeffirelli’s excellent version starring Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting (1968). The BBC version is not as widely available, however, as Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version starring Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio. A comparison between Zeffirelli and Luhrmann’s versions works very well; Zeffirelli’s is true to the spirit of the play’s setting, while Luhrmann’s is actually more faithful to the text. Some students notice this, but most will need your guidance to pick up on that. I need to take a moment to say I absolutely detest the fact that Luhrmann’s Balcony Scene takes place mostly in a swimming pool.
Using their graphic organizer, students list everything they notice while watching Zeffirelli’s film — set, costumes, lines spoken, actor’s choices (emphasis, blocking, etc.) — in the first column. In the second, they do the same for the Luhrmann film. The lower half of the graphic organizer is for noting similarities and differences between the two. Students then have a good plan for creating a compare/contrast essay. The organizer helps them focus, I think.
This idea was adapted from Shakespeare Set Free: Teaching A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth.