You are most likely familiar with the story of Romeo and Juliet—two teenaged, star-crossed lovers. However, how will you ever muddle through Shakespeare’s strange language and identify with this play? Following these 8 simple steps will help you see that the characters and themes of Romeo and Juliet are still alive and well today.
1) Read a modern translation along with the original. Most teachers will be happy for you to also use a modern translation because they know it can be tough to read and understand Romeo and Juliet at first. For an excellent side-by-side translation, see the eNotes version here. One word of caution, however—be sure to still read the original words. Once you get the hang of it (and we promise that you will), Shakespearean language brings the play’s time period, characters, and humor alive. You won’t want to miss out!
2) Understand the term “star-crossed lovers.” Fate will never allow Romeo and Juliet to live happily ever after. The minute Romeo and Juliet meet each other, their relationship is doomed to end tragically.
3) Romeo and Juliet are teenagers. Personal response is definitely in order when reading this play. The star-crossed lovers are of contemporary high school age: Juliet is nearly 14, and Romeo is a bit older, probably around 15 or 16. Although these characters were created hundreds of years ago, the agony of having a true love sabotaged by parental disapproval is still very real. What would modern-day teenagers do in this situation? Is it possible they might sneak off to see each other? Would resentment ensue between child and parent?
4) Do background research into the time period. You will understand Shakespeare and his works so much better if you take the time to research some of the history and culture of the Elizabethan era. What was it like to be a member of a wealthy family? What were the expectations for courting and marriage? Why would misunderstandings occur between prominent, well-respected families? What role did a nurse have in a prominent household? The answers to those questions will help you relate to the characters and themes of Romeo and Juliet.
5) Act out a variety of scenes. Volunteer to be a character, and you’ll find yourself really understanding the ins and outs of what makes that character tick. Be Romeo or Juliet during the balcony scene. Become the Nurse as Juliet begs you to deliver her heartfelt message to Romeo. After all, plays are meant to be performed and are written with this end in mind.
6) Annotate and react. Use whatever strategies for annotation and active reading your teacher has taught you in the past while you read Romeo and Juliet. Make note of quotes or moments that confuse or intrigue you as well. When you read a difficult work, this step is crucial! Some themes to keep in mind as you read are disobedience and stubbornness, the need for forgiveness, and the role of destiny and fate.
7) Watch West Side Story. Two gangs from opposite sides of town hate each other, yet a teenage boy and girl from each gang fall in love—much to the chagrin and opposition of all. Sound familiar? West Side Story is just one of the many modern plays and stories modeled after the plot and themes of Romeo and Juliet. See how many other movies, short stories, plays, and novels you can find.
8) Memorize and apply key lines. “Oh, Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” Many lines from Romeo and Juliet have been quoted so extensively that they are practically common knowledge. Find some lines in the play that speak to you, and incorporate them into your creative writing endeavors. Perhaps they could be a springboard for a poem or an original narrative that tells a scene from Lady Capulet’s point of view.