One of Shakespeare’s best known tragedies, even to those who have never read his works, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet continues to ignite the imagination and the heart in its exploration of the passionate nexus of love and death and the ironies of fate. Of all the Bard’s plays, none has proved to be so accessible and inspiring to so many different audiences. One famous contemporary adaptation of Romeo and Juliet is West Side Story, both a Broadway hit and a popular film; in this modern version of Shakespeare’s story, the Montagues and the Capulets of Verona are represented by the Jets and the Sharks, rival gangs pitted against each other in New York City. Also, music stars, such as Taylor Swift, have alluded to the play in song. In our vernacular, to be a “Romeo” is to be both a true romantic and a passionate lover. The definition reflects Shakespeare’s very clear message in the drama: Romantic love and passion are essentially intertwined.
Although Romeo and Juliet has become synonymous with tragic romance and “star-crossed” lovers, the play is, in fact, very bawdy; clever and risqué double entendres appear throughout. While modern readers may fix on the chaste “balcony scene” in which the lovers adore each other from a distance, it is to this same window that a rope ladder is affixed, so that Romeo can reach Juliet’s bed chamber and consummate their marriage. Characters such as the nurse and Mercutio, especially the latter, serve to gently lampoon the Petrarchan model of courtly love that held up a saintly and untouchable lady as the idealized object of pure devotion. For Romeo and Juliet, love is not metaphorical; it is spiritual and carnal, passionate and all-consuming.
Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, which is based on an Italian novella, around 1593, following a hiatus when the London theaters were closed because of plague. During the time he was not writing for the stage, Shakespeare explored the subject of erotic desire through his poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, each based on work by the Roman poet, Ovid. Shortly after the theaters reopened, he wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream and then Romeo and Juliet. Some scholars feel these two plays—a comedy darkened by serious themes and a tragedy marked by flashes of deliberate comic relief—portray two sides of the same coin: the complexities and sometimes disastrous consequences of falling in love.
Set in Verona, Italy, Romeo and Juliet opens with an argument between the servants of two prominent and long-feuding families, the Montagues and the Capulets. Romeo, a Montague, and two friends decide to attend a ball hosted by Lord Capulet. Wearing masks to disguise themselves, Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio attend the ball, where Romeo meets the beautiful Juliet and falls instantly in love. Later that night Romeo goes to Juliet’s window, and they exchange vows of devotion. Romeo enlists the help of Friar Laurence, who agrees to marry the young lovers in hopes of ending the long-standing feud between their two families. Passion abounds in Verona, however, fueling the impetuous desires of the young lovers and spilling blood in the streets; a series of fated events results, culminating in Romeo’s and Juliet’s suicides. As love dies, so too does hatred; the warring families promise to end their hostilities, which have cost them their only children.
As in other Shakespearean plays, the language and the cultural conventions in Romeo and Juliet may seem foreign or dated, but the themes remain as true and as relevant to modern readers as they were to Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audiences. While modern teens might question the hastily arranged wedding between Juliet and Paris, they find believable the pure and passionate love-at first-sight experienced by Juliet and Romeo. Rebellious teens seeking advice and assistance from adults other than their parents, just as Romeo and Juliet turn to Friar Laurence and the nurse, are found in everyday life as frequently as in literature. The teens in this tragedy are not singled out as the only characters making bad decisions; in fact, Romeo and Juliet might be excused from their impulsive actions, considering the overarching power assigned to destiny in the play. When their ill-fated romance ends in the tomb, Romeo and Juliet leave their parents, as well as the prince who dismissed the tragedy inherent in their rancor, to come to terms with the duality found in human existence: light and darkness, violence and desire, and love and death.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Identify the primary themes in Romeo and Juliet.
2. Explain the common roots of love and hate and of sex and violence, and discuss how these are developed thematically in the play.
3. Determine and define those elements that make Romeo and Juliet one of the most classic love stories of all time.
4. Explain examples of fate and destiny in the play.
5. Identify examples of the motifs of light and darkness, and discuss their significance.
6. Explain through which characters and in what way comic relief is employed in the tragedy.
7. Discuss the literary devices and language techniques employed by Shakespeare.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Study Guide
- The Study Guide is organized for an act-by-act study of the play. Study Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
- Study Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in each act and to acquaint them generally with its content.
- Before Study Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.
- Study Guide vocabulary lists include...
(The entire section is 966 words.)
1. Romeo and Juliet’s rash decisions and tragic actions are placed in contrast to the decisions of the adults in the play, most of whom are guided by reason, logic, and social conventions. Which adult characters prove to be exceptions? Who among the adults is hypocritical, and in what way?
2. As he dies, Mercutio repeats three times a variation of “a plague o’both your houses.” In what ways are both families to blame for his death? How are Romeo and Tybalt specifically responsible?
3. Friar Laurence generally provides the voice of reason in the drama. In what circumstances and to whom does he give good advice? In what circumstances does he err?...
(The entire section is 451 words.)
ancient: archaic long-standing
dignity: archaic social status
mutiny: archaic conflict
star-crossed: cursed by fate
1. What form does the Prologue take, and who is the speaker?
It takes the form of a Shakespearian sonnet, spoken by the Chorus.
2. How does the Prologue introduce the play?
We learn that two important families of Verona erupt again in discord stemming from a long-standing grudge between them. Then the deaths of a pair of lovers, children born of each family, end the feud for good,...
(The entire section is 169 words.)
assailing: assaulting, arresting
augmenting: adding to
cankered: archaic rusted
chaste: pure, non-sexual
choler: archaic anger, ire
colliers: archaic coal peddlers
covert: a hideaway
coz: a cousin
foe: an enemy
forfeit: a loss
forsworn: archaic renounced, repudiated
gall: archaic poison
lascivious: sexual, lewd
moved: archaic angry
profaners: those who defame or defile
propagate: to spread
(The entire section is 749 words.)
crush a cup: to drink a glass (of wine)
e’en: archaic evening
fennel: an edible plant with herbaceous seeds and feathery fronds
heretics: people with unorthodox beliefs
holp: archaic helped
languish: to pine, to suffer
plantain: a low-growing green plant used medicinally
reckoning: archaic reputation
sirrah: archaic sir, used to address a social inferior
suit: archaic a request
thither: archaic there
well-appareled: well-dressed, well-appointed
whither: archaic where...
(The entire section is 437 words.)
bade: archaic told, ordered
dug: archaic breast
fortnight: archaic two weeks’ time
lineament: a facial feature
margent: archaic a margin
quoth: archaic said
stint: archaic to stop
stone: slang testicle
trudge: to march, to plod
wit: understanding, intelligence
1. Describe the portrayal of the nurse. What role does she play in the scene with Juliet and her mother? Give some examples of the nurse’s behavior.
Compared with the proper and...
(The entire section is 389 words.)
antic: archaic grotesque
boist’rous: (boisterous) noisily turbulent
constable: a peace officer
fleer: archaic to mock
hither: archaic here
lath: (lathe) a thin strip of wood
marchpane: (marzipan) almond paste
masquers: archaic masked performers
move: to entreat
prick: archaic to wound, to penetrate
prodigious: abnormal; extraordinary
(The entire section is 1316 words.)
bescreened: archaic concealed
conjure: to summon, to invoke
demesnes: estates, possession of land
descry: archaic to discern
entreat: to implore
fain: archaic willingly
gapes: archaic eagerly awaits
gyves: archaic manacles
impute: to assign, to attribute
medlar: a small, apple-shaped fruit
nyas: (eyas) a young hawk
orb: a sphere
prorogued: archaic postponed
truckle-bed: (trundle bed) a hideaway bed that...
(The entire section is 857 words.)
aught: archaic anything
baleful: malignant, deadly
chid’st: (chides) admonishes
couch: archaic to lay
intercession: an entreaty in favor of another
mickle: archaic great
physic: archaic medicine
predominant: chief, major
rancour: ire, hatred
Titan: a reference to Helios, second-generation Titan and Roman god of the sun
vile: evil, morally despicable
1. Discuss the soliloquy given by Friar Laurence as the scene opens. What does he say, and how does it...
(The entire section is 430 words.)
bandy: to toss back and forth
bauble: archaic a staff with ball tip carried by a fool
blazon: to proclaim
cheverel: a soft, elastic leather made of kidskin
cleft: struck in two
clout: a sail
coil: archaic a fuss
conceit: an idea, an understanding
the counterfeit: archaic the slip
countervail: to counterbalance
exposition: a clarification
feign: to pretend
hay: a penetrating thrust in fencing
louring: archaic darkening
passado: a foreword thrust in fencing
(The entire section is 565 words.)
addle: to confuse, to mix up
alla stoccado: a fencing term meaning “at the thrust”
amerce: to punish with a fine (broadly, to punish)
effeminate: a derogatory term for womanish, not manly in appearance or manner
fee-simple: absolute ownership of property in English law
forbear: to stop
minstrel: a musician
peppered: archaic done for
pilcher: a scabbard
quarrel: to argue
retorts: sharp, angry, or witty replies
spleen: ill temper
1. What is the intended effect of opening this scene with...
(The entire section is 483 words.)
aqua vitae: a strong distilled liquor
bedaubed: archaic smeared with
bier: a frame used for carrying a coffin
cockatrice: archaic basilisk, or a legendary serpent said to kill with a look or a breath
garish: overly bright, glaring
tedious: slow moving
weal: well-being; a sound, healthy, or prosperous state of being
1. To what is Juliet alluding when she says, “Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds / Toward Phoebus’ lodging”? What is the topic and content of her monologue...
(The entire section is 494 words.)
chamber: a bedroom
denote: to designate
digressing: leaving the main point of discussion
enamoured of: in love with
mangle: to destroy
mewed up: archaic confined
predicament: a perplexing, difficult situation
purgatory: a place where souls are expiated of sin before ascending to heaven
usurer: one who loans money for exorbitant interest
1. Is Romeo grateful that the prince has banished him rather than sentencing him to death?
“For exile hath more terror in his look, / Much more...
(The entire section is 489 words.)
affray: archaic to frighten
asunder: into pieces
beseech: to beg
beshrew: archaic to curse
carrion: dead and putrefying flesh
conduit: archaic a fountain
discords: displeasing or harsh sounds
dishclout: archaic a dishcloth
dram: a measure
fettle: to prepare
fickle: likely to change one’s mind
herald: an announcer or messenger
hilding: archaic an offensive term for a woman of base character
puling: whining, whimpering
runagate: archaic a fugitive...
(The entire section is 527 words.)
abate: to stem, to lessen
charnel-house: a vault where corpses are stored
chide: to reproach
inundation: a flood, an overflowing
mandrakes: plants with forked roots thought to resemble human bodies
pensive: brooding, contemplative
surcease: to desist from action
1. Whom does Juliet encounter when she seeks out the friar, and what is her reaction?
Juliet finds Paris talking to Friar Laurence. She manages to evade his questions about her...
(The entire section is 581 words.)
alack: archaic an expression used to express regret
cotquean: archaic a man who meddles in affairs of the house
deflowered: deprived of virginity
dirges: funeral hymns
dump: archaic a melody
pate: the top of the head
pestilent: virulent; annoying
quinces: pear-shaped fruits that must be cooked before being eaten
whit: an infinitely small amount
1. What is Lord Capulet doing as the scene opens?
Anxious about the wedding, Capulet is hovering over the serving staff, directing the...
(The entire section is 480 words.)
aloof: apart, at an emotional distance
apothecary: one who prepares and dispenses medicines and drugs
churl: a villain
cordial: a drink taken to strengthen the heart
discern: to distinguish
ducats: gold coins
ensign: a banner
haughty: prideful, arrogant
jointure: money contributed to a marriage by the groom’s family
liege: a lord
mattock: a pickax
maw: the mouth and throat
obsequies: archaic funeral rites
paramour: an illicit lover...
(The entire section is 987 words.)
1. Who opens the play with a summary of the events to come, told in sonnet form?
A. Prince Escalus
C. Old Montague
D. the Chorus
E. the nurse
2. Whom does Prince Escalus call “rebellious subjects, enemies to peace”?
A. the members of the feuding houses
B. Sampson and Gregory
C. Romeo and Tybalt
D. Mercutio and Tybalt
E. the friar and the nurse
3. Which of the following is true?
A. Mercutio is the only character who uses punning.
B. The nurse is...
(The entire section is 1372 words.)
1. Explain how the theme of fate is developed in Romeo and Juliet as it tells the story of “a pair of star-crossed lovers.” What events can be ascribed to fate or chance? Support your discussion with specific examples.
It is in the sixth line of Romeo and Juliet, during a sonnet spoken by the Chorus to introduce the play, that the idea of fate is introduced; Romeo and Juliet are described as “star-crossed lovers” suggesting that their lives have been determined and tragedy awaits them. Throughout the play, the stars and the heavens are used symbolically to denote fate at work in guiding the events in their lives. Beyond the control of Romeo and Juliet, they are born into families that despise each...
(The entire section is 3195 words.)