Romeo and Juliet in the balcony scene.
Credit: Sir Frank Dicksee, 1884. Public domain
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet presents "star-cross'd" lovers whose plight has become the subject of many of today's novels, plays, films, and television dramas. Explore with your students the techniques that Shakespeare uses to capture the magic of the couple's first meeting and to make that meeting so memorable. This lesson plan complements the study of plot and characterization in Romeo and Juliet in its focus on lyrical form and convention that heighten the impact of the action on the stage. Students look first at the sonnet in which Romeo and Juliet meet, analyzing the imagery to gain insight into the way Shakespeare's use of love sonnet conventions characterizes the moment and the relationship between the lovers. Then students act the passage to notice Shakespeare's stage managing of this moment and to consider what perspective his making the lovers almost literally "kiss by the book" lends to our perception of their characters. Finally, students enact the scene in which this moment occurs in order to notice how Shakespeare's juxtaposition of poetic forms, ranging from the almost-prose of Capulet and the Nurse to the melodramatic style of Tybalt, further highlights the sonnet of the lovers. To conclude, students work in groups to find and examine similar moments in the play (e.g., the balcony scene or the tomb scene) where Shakespeare spotlights the action through lyric form and at the same time invites us to explore and question the idealization of lyric conventions by having the characters act out these conceits on stage.
The EDSITEment-reviewed Teaching Shakespeare website, published by the Folger Shakespeare Library, offers the following textual history of Romeo and Juliet, situating its writing, performance, and publication in the last years of the 16th-century:
Scholars generally date the writing of Romeo and Juliet to 1595-96, near in time to the composition of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Shakespeare based the plot on several sources, including Arthur Brooke's Tragicall Hystory of Romeus and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet was published as a quarto in 1597. A fuller text of the play, which has served as the basis of all subsequent editions, appeared in quarto in 1599.
This page also provides a brief introduction to Romeo and Juliet, and contains links to information about Shakespeare and the world around him (for a broad overview, begin at "Discover Shakespeare" and examine links in the left sidebar).
Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died in 1616. Though he was born and died in the town Stratford-upon-Avon, much of his life was spent in London where he staged his plays. For biographical information, see Teaching Shakespeare's Biography, which begins with a brief overview and offers more detail through links in the sidebar. Additionally, for a timeline of Shakespeare's life and works in context, see "A Shakespeare Timeline Summary Chart" available via the EDSITEment-reviewed Shakespeare and the Internet.
For information about the play, its history, its staging, Shakespeare, and more lesson plans, explore the EDSITEment-reviewed Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet's Shakespeare in Education website and the Royal Shakespeare Company's educational website for Romeo and Juliet, available via the EDSITEment-reviewed British Academy Portal.
The sonnet form, explored in the lesson activities below, was popularized by the 14th-century Italian poet Petrarch, who established the custom of presenting a problem, situation, or incident in the octave, followed by a resolution in the sestet. In Petrarch's work, these were usually problems, situations, and incidents arising from his love for the unattainable Laura. When English poets began imitating Petrarch's sonnets in the early 16th century, they continued this thematic focus on the pleasures and frustrations of love. But English poets eventually developed a more flexible sonnet form which could be divided into octave and sestet, in the manner of Petrarch, or into three quatrain-length variations on a theme followed by an epigrammatic couplet. More information about the Petrarchan and English sonnet forms is provided in "Poetic Form: Sonnet" via the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets.
Begin this lesson by having students turn to the first meeting between Romeo and Juliet at the Capulet ball, in Act I, Scene 5 (lines 95-112 in the Signet edition). An online full e-text of Romeo and Juliet is available through the EDSITEment-reviewed Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet.
Have students count the lines and examine the rhyme scheme; ask them if it looks familiar. Point out to students that these lines make up a sonnet, followed by a sonnet quatrain. Review briefly the distinction between a Shakespearean or English sonnet, which divides its 14 lines into three quatrains and a couplet, with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg; and a Petrarchan sonnet, which divides its 14 lines into an eight line octave and a six line sestet, with the rhyme scheme abbaabba cdecde. Discuss briefly with students the history of the sonnet form (detailed in Background, above) or have them research the form at the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets.
For practice understanding the sonnet form, teachers can assign either (or both) of the following activities:
When students are finished with any of the above activities, ask them:
Provide students with a sample of Elizabethan sonnet writing to help them recognize the significance of Shakespeare's use of this poetic form—for example, "Sonnet I" in Samuel Daniel's sonnet sequence, Delia, which was published in 1592 and is available through the EDSITEment-reviewed Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet website. The worksheet Reading Delia—Sonnet 1 (PDF) contains questions to guide student reading. Have students examine "Sonnet 1" for conceits and other descriptive language. Remind students that a conceit is an extended metaphoric comparison that establishes parallels between two seemingly dissimilar things or situations. Petrarch established the practice of including conceits in sonnets by using elaborate comparisons to praise his lady's beauty and portray his own suffering. Students might note, for example, that Daniel continues this tradition by describing himself first as a river drawn to the ocean of his lady's beauty and later as a business ledger in which his lady may see how much emotion he has invested in her. Finally, ask students to consider the name Daniel has chosen for his lady. "Delia" is an anagram of "Ideal." Like most ladies in Elizabethan love sonnets, she is indeed a distant ideal, more inspirational than attainable, ennobling his verse with her virtue and beauty.
Now have students look at what Shakespeare has made of these conventions in his play. First ask students to explain Romeo's conceit of pilgrimage, and then to consider other aspects of the poem. Consider breaking students into groups to discuss the following questions:
Finally, look at the "extra" quatrain that follows Romeo and Juliet's sonnet. Ask students the following questions:
Students might suggest, for example, that Romeo is following the sonneteers' recipe for courtship too diligently, or that he is taking her words too literally. Perhaps she is suggesting that his kisses are somehow make-believe, like sonnet conceits. If so, ask students to consider how does Juliet stepping out of their conceit with this line characterize her role in their relationship? How does it look forward to her actions later in the play?
As usual, Shakespeare's poetic artistry in this passage is only half the story. To explore the drama he has built into these lines, have two student volunteers act this episode, taking direction from members of the class.
Ask students what actions fit these words. For example, what is Romeo doing as he speaks his first four lines? Perhaps more importantly, what is Juliet doing? How does Romeo catch and hold her attention? How does she react? What is the exchange of gestures in this first moment of their relationship? Have students experiment to find a way of playing Romeo's first lines that sets the stage for Juliet to enter into the conceit and extend it with her answering quatrain.
Proceed in this detailed way through the remaining fourteen lines of the scene, encouraging students to experiment with various deliveries of the lines and to draw from Shakespeare's verse the implicit stage directions for this key moment of his drama. How does he bring the relationship of the imagery and word-play of his poetry to life on the stage? Are the lovers caught up in their conceit, or do they speak with a tone of self-awareness, using the conceit as a way of signaling their intentions to one another? Focus especially on the dynamics of the two kisses in the episode, the first marked by stillness ("Then move not"), the second by impulse ("Give me my sin again"). How far has the relationship moved between these two moments? How does this "extra" kiss reflect on the elaborate build-up to the first one? How does it look forward to the impulsiveness that will lead to tragedy later in the play?
Acting this episode brings out the importance of Juliet's closing line, "You kiss by the book." In the text, this can seem a throwaway; on stage, it is clearly the clincher. Have students experiment with a variety of ways Juliet might deliver the line, in order to notice how it characterizes her relationship with and her attitude toward Romeo. (Her tone and manner might be anything from a dreamy "You really know how to kiss!" to a sarcastic "You've got a lot to learn about kissing.") Help students notice, too, that by giving her this last line, Shakespeare has effectively given her control over the episode, made her step out of their charade and comment on it. What does this suggest about her character as compared to Romeo's? What does it suggest about the tone and manner in which she should
To gauge the full dramatic effect of the sonnet Shakespeare created for the first meeting between Romeo and Juliet, it is necessary to see it in the context of the action surrounding it at the Capulet ball. Have student volunteers take the roles of Capulet, Tybalt, Romeo, Juliet, and the Nurse, and read the scene from Capulet's "Go to, go to!" through Romeo's couplet, "Is she a Capulet?/ O dear account! My life is my foe's debt" (Act I, Scene 5, lines 84-120 in the Signet edition).
Call attention to the fact that, while all these characters speak in verse, each speaks in a distinctive poetic style. Have students describe each style and explain how Shakespeare achieves it.
As your student volunteers read through the scene, ask the class to note the effect of the shifts in tone that Shakespeare has built into it.
Divide the class into study groups and have each develop a stage interpretation of this short passage in Romeo and Juliet, based on the dramatic effects Shakespeare creates through poetic style and verse form. Encourage students to imagine in detail how this stretch of action might be performed, to play out various scenarios in their discussions. When they have finished, have each group share its staging, and then debate as a class which ideas seem to capture best that first meeting of the lovers on the Elizabethan stage.
Conclude this lesson by having students work individually or in groups to find other moments in Romeo and Juliet where Shakespeare spotlights the action through poetic form and language. Students might look at the balcony scene (Act II, Scene 2), the bedroom scene (Act III, Scene 5, which is modeled on the aubade, a lyric of dawn-parting), the tomb scene (Act V, Scene 3), and so on. Have students prepare production notes for their chosen scene, explaining how they would direct the action, with special attention to how they would have their actors perform the richly poetic language Shakespeare gives them. Should the characters seem exalted by this language? Should they always seem not quite able to measure up to their high-flown words? Should they seem, like Juliet leaving Romeo at the ball, somehow independent of this poetic language, as if endowed with a life of their own?
To evaluate students' skills in sonnet analysis, give them (individually or in groups) a Shakespearean and/or a Petrarchan sonnet to analyze for its physical and meaning structures, identifying the rhyme scheme, discussing the prevailing conceit and imagery, and explaining the couplet's ending comment. For practice examining sonnet structures, ask students to play EDSITEment's Sonnet Unscrambler.
To evaluate students' understanding of the text in context, assess the thoroughness of their production notes created in their groups as they analyzed the language of their selected scenes and explained their direction of the action.
To evaluate students' skills in applying their knowledge of the text in a new context, give them (individually or in groups) a cutting they have not analyzed earlier, such as a portion of the duel scene (Act III, Scene 1, lines 35-90), explaining to them the Elizabethan uses of "thee" and "thou." Have them examine the dialogue for that usage, explaining its impact on action and characterizations in the scene.
The following EDSITEment lesson plans, both of which take sonnets as their subject matter, have activities that would prove useful in the first activity of this lesson:
2 class periods