In my last post about teaching Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, I mentioned a writing assignment I like for my students to do: an analysis of Juliet’s relationship with her nurse. In my first post in this series, I discussed an activity in which students compare and contrast two filmed versions of the Balcony Scene (Act II, Scene 2). Until I taught today, I didn’t know I was going to write about today’s lesson, as I didn’t consider it to be particularly noteworthy, but a student’s comment at the end of class changed my mind.
When we begin Act III of Romeo and Juliet (really any Shakespearean tragedy — or at least all the ones I can think of right off the top of my head), I tell students that this is the act in which “all hell breaks loose.” I know I have more license to say things like that than some teachers, but students usually appreciate the humor. Sure enough, in the first scene, Tybalt and Mercutio are both slain. We actually read this scene on Friday. One of the students asked a question about Mercutio’s death. I can’t remember exactly how the question was phrased, but it had something to do with why Tybalt did it, especially since Mercutio was related to Prince Escalus. Didn’t he worry about being executed? I thought it was a very good question, and I mentioned that though Shakespeare’s stage directions leave this scene open to interpretation, both movie versions I had seen approached the scene in a similar way: Mercutio’s death was an accident. In Franco Zeffirelli’s version, Tybalt and Mercutio are clearly not seriously trying to hurt each other. At one point, they even exchange an exasperated look as Romeo continues to try to part them. Michael York’s face displays shock when he pulls his sword away and sees blood. In Baz Luhrmann’s film, Tybalt is defending himself from an aggressive Mercutio, but John Leguizamo, too, looks somewhat surprised (or at least dazed) after he stabs Mercutio with a large piece of glass. I told students that it is possible to get around the “wasn’t Tybalt thinking” problem by directing the scene so that it is clearly an accident, but the truth is, one could also argue that Tybalt is hot-headed by nature and didn’t think about the consequences or who Mercutio’s connections were. The beauty is that either interpretation makes perfect sense. It all boils down to how much of a jerk the director wants Tybalt to be.
We learn that Romeo is exiled at the end of Scene 1. When Scene 2 opens, Juliet has not yet heard the news of Tybalt’s death or Romeo’s banishment. We stopped and talked about how the nurse confuses Juliet; she isn’t clear about who died or what happened at first, and Juliet mistakenly thinks Romeo is dead. One of the students asked why the nurse wasn’t more clear. I said she was very upset and wasn’t thinking straight, but it also makes for some great dramatic tension, as we (the audience) already know what happened. Juliet recites a fantastic list of paradoxes/oxymorons:
O serpent heart hid with a flowering face!
Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?
Beautiful tyrant! Fiend angelical!
Dove-feathered raven, wolvish-ravening lamb!
Despisèd substance of divinest show,
Just opposite to what thou justly seem’st.
A damnèd saint, an honorable villain!
O nature, what hadst thou to do in hell
When thou didst bower the spirit of a fiend
In moral paradise of such sweet flesh?
Was ever book containing such vile matter
So fairly bound? Oh, that deceit should dwell
In such a gorgeous palace!
When I teach Romeo and Juliet, I ask students to look for examples of foreshadowing, oxymorons and paradoxes, puns, allusions, metaphors, and personification, but when we run into any of those literary devices in use, I always stop, and ask students “What is that?” They’re especially good at picking out foreshadowing.
In Scene 3, Romeo learns about the Prince’s judgment. Friar Laurence tries to convince Romeo that it isn’t so bad — it’s possible that with time, a solution can be found, and Romeo and Juliet can be reunited. I mentioned that I thought Romeo was being whiny, which gave the students an opportunity to tell me I was too harsh.
In the next scene, Juliet’s father decides to marry her off to Paris. When we read the earlier scene in which Capulet declared, “Woo her gentle Paris, get her heart / My will to her consent is but a part,” we stopped and talked about it, and I told students to remember he said that. Sure enough, one of the students said, “I thought he said she was too young earlier.” I said, “He did, didn’t he? And he also said she had a say in the matter.” I pointed out that Capulet is sure that Juliet will be happy about the news; it never occurs to him that she will not want to marry Paris.
Capulet has a great scene in which he explodes at Juliet’s seeming ungratefulness. Both of Juliet’s parents say some fairly awful things in their anger, and Juliet turns to the nurse for advice. The nurse tells her that it would be smart to marry Paris. Romeo can’t very well come to Verona to challenge the marriage, and after all, Paris is wealthy nobility. Juliet determines never to confide in the nurse again. This decision is critical. I asked students to think about what this means for our young lovers. One student mentioned she could still talk to Friar Laurence. I said, yes, she could, and she is just about to — she told the nurse she was going to confession.
One of the things I sometimes do when I’m talking during discussion is draw a student in, even if he or she isn’t really participating at the moment. An example might be, “I think Romeo’s being a real whiner here, right Bob?” or “I don’t know about you, but I’m scared for Juliet. Aren’t you scared Sally?” I don’t know why, but the students think it’s funny. It’s not the same as that teacher tactic of calling out when someone is not paying attention. It’s kind of a playful way of paying attention to a student.
At the end of class today, I summed up Act III: “So was I right? All hell broke loose! Mercutio and Tybalt are dead. Romeo has to leave town. Juliet has to get married, but she’s already married.”
The room was nearly empty. Just two students were still packing up their notebooks and backpacks. One of them smiled down at his desk and said, “Ms. Huff, you’re crazy cool.” I said, “You are too.” And he said, “Thanks.” I didn’t really realize I was doing much here — just reading and discussing together. But then again, no one ever accused me of being “crazy cool” after assigning a compare/contrast essay about the Balcony Scene.