Teaching Romeo and Juliet: Part Two

Stanhope: Juliet and her NurseJuliet and her nurse have a very interesting relationship. Students may not be familiar with the concept of the wetnurse, so when I teach Romeo and Juliet, I explain that the nurse was hired by the Capulet family to nurse Juliet, a common practice among wealthy families for centuries. I also explain that the nurse had a child about Juliet’s age who died: “[W]ell, Susan is with God; / She was too good for me” (Act I, Scene 3). Shakespeare doesn’t explain why the nurse is still employed by the family some ten or eleven years after Juliet has been weaned, but I tell students that her role has expanded into a kind of governess. Capulet mentions other children born to the Capulets who have died: “The earth hath swallow’d all my hopes but she” (Act I, Scene 2). It does not make sense that the nurse stayed on to take care of these children; she would probably no longer be able to nurse (unless, that is, she had more children herself; she mentions in Act I, Scene 3 that her husband is now dead). Therefore, the most logical explanation is that she became a part of the extended family and stayed on to be Juliet’s governess.

Act II, Scene 5 provides us with the most insight into the nurse’s relationship with Juliet. The Folger Shakespeare Library has an awesome lesson plan submitted by Sarah Squier of Montpelier High School in Montpelier, Vermont. I alter her plan a bit in order to fit with my own ideas. First of all, download the handout associated with Squier’s lesson plan. You can decide how you want the students to answer the questions in Part A: 1) as homework, 2) with a partner (I suggest Clock Buddies), or 3) as a class. I’ve done it all three ways, and I have no personal preference. It just depends on the mix of students. It is critical that students formulate a thesis and find textual evidence to support it. At this point, Squier suggests that students draft an essay regarding their position; however, I don’t ask students to draft at this point. Instead, I show students two versions of Act II, Scene 5 (Zeffirelli and Luhrmann), and ask them to take notes on anything they notice about the way Juliet and the nurse relate to each other. I have to admit that I prefer Luhrmann’s version in this scene — Juliet and the nurse have a much warmer relationship.

What I have students do next is outline a five-paragraph essay:

  1. Introduction, including thesis about Juliet’s relationship with the nurse
  2. Textual evidence that demonstrates student’s belief about the relationship
  3. Analysis of Zeffirelli’s version
  4. Analysis of Luhrmann’s version
  5. Conclusion, including which version more closely resembles student’s own thesis about the relationship

I love this assignment because it gives students the opportunity to critically analyze the text and also to think critically about the performance of actors rather than passively viewing.

[tags]Romeo and Juliet, Juliet, Nurse, video, Shakespeare, writing assignment, essay[/tags]

13 thoughts on “Teaching Romeo and Juliet: Part Two”

  1. Thanks for the ideas! I like Shakespeare but I'm a little intimidated by teaching it, especially with my kids and their short attention span, among other issues.

  2. You're welcome, Nani. I noticed you were teaching R&J recently. I have to say Shakespeare is my favorite author to teach because there are so many resources available and the kids are so receptive to him.

  3. Dana: You have some wonderful ideas. I have your posts bookmarked. I, too, love teaching Shakespeare. This year I teach 10th graders and we typically read Midsummer (R&J in 9th). There is just such rich opportunity in Shakespeare's words and ideas. Thanks again, and I enjoy reading your feeds as they come into my bloglines everyday.

  4. Thanks, Bing! I will be posting some more. I love teaching MSND to 10th graders. I have done that as well. I actually have a great story about teaching that play that I will share some time.

  5. I have been exploring ways to use film in my classroom in authentic and educational ways. Thanks for this idea! I'm going to modify it for my class and try it on Monday.

    I LOVE the Folger Shakespeare site.

  6. Thanks again for this lesson. I decided to reflect on this and other relationships even though we finished the play. I used your basic plan and was excited by the conversations that arose. We discussed Juliet and the Nurse's relationship before and after the Nurse's "betrayal". Then we viewed both films. I added the scene where the Nurse tells Juliet to go with Paris. We enjoyed commenting on the different takes the movies had and the similarities they shared. I'm excited to use this again.

  7. Taking a critical look at Juliet and her wetnurse's relationship is a novel idea. I will be evaluated tomorrow (formally) by my principal and was just looking for some spice for introducing this particular reading selection. Just curious, how long does it take you to finish reading all five acts of Romeo and Juliet? I teach 9th grade English in Pine Bluff, AR.

  8. Patricia, I take it pretty slow, and our school schedule is strange. Theoretically, you can do it in two weeks, but it always takes me at least a month. Sometimes more.

  9. Patricia – I found so much value in exploring this relationship with my students, I'm glad you found this too. As far as how long I take to read R&J…I take about a month as well. I believe in exploring it in depth and will sacrifice the teaching of another novel or play in order to explore this one more deeply.

  10. Just for you information, it would have been possible that the wet nurse still nursed any later children. It is possible for many women who have nursed to regain their milk supply or even retain it. I know this is not the case in this situation, but many women who have nursed several children retain their milk supply for years and years to come.

  11. That could be possible. We do know from the play that Juliet had siblings, but that they all died. Capulet said "The earth hath swallowed all my hopes but she." Several times mention is made of the fact that Juliet is their only child.

    However, the Nurse herself tells us that Juliet has been weaned for some 10 or 11 years at the time of the play. When was Juliet's last sibling (who obviously died in infancy) born? No evidence in the play is provided.

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