Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1133
Love as Theme: Highlight the sonnet that opens the play and reveals ending before the play begins. This suggests that the theme of love in the play involves its doomed. In other words, the play suggests that the purest form of love is one that is fleeting, ephemeral, or short lived because it is doomed to end tragically.
- For discussion: Regarding the sonnet at the beginning, why does Shakespeare reveal the whole story before the play begins? How might this influence the audience’s relationship with the story?
Loyalty as Theme: Highlight the similarities between loyalty and revenge. Point out that the loyalty each character feels to their respective families and the members of that family perpetuates the blood feud. This can be seen in act 3, scene 1 when Mercutio fights Tybalt over loyalty to Romeo and Romeo slays Tybalt over loyalty to Mercutio. This is also apparent in the Nurse and Friar’s loyalty to Romeo and Juliet. They both keep their promises out of loyalty even though this secrecy leads to the couple’s death. The play suggests that revenge and loyalty are similar and that loyalty can be just as dangerous.
- For discussion: What is the relationship between Romeo and Mercutio? Why does Romeo react the way he does to Mercutio’s death? What does this tell us about loyalty?
Juliet as a Rational Lover: Highlight Juliet’s speech and what this tells the audience about how she loves. This is especially apparent in act 2, scene 2 and Juliet’s interactions with the Nurse. Students will often find that Juliet is a more rational lover than Romeo and a clever woman.
- For discussion: Juliet’s dialogue in the balcony scene can be seen as her attempt to teach Romeo how to love. Discuss with your students whether act 2, scene 2 is a turning point for Romeo’s character and his approach to love.
Romeo as a Petrarchan Lover: Highlight the comedy in Romeo’s melodramatic lovesickness for both Rosalind and Juliet. This is apparent in Romeo’s speech in act 2, scene 2, the Friar’s reaction to his love for Juliet in act 2, scene 3, and Mercutio and Benvolio’s discussion of Romeo in act 2, scenes 1 and 4.
- For discussion: Romeo is head-over-heels in love with Rosalind, and he abandons this love in order to pursue Juliet. What does this say about Romeo as a character and the trope of the romantic hero? Do you think Romeo changes?
Mercutio as the Tragic Clown: Highlight the importance of Mercutio as both a comedic character and a loveable character. His death in act 3 brings about the turning point of the play and unmistakably transforms it into a tragedy.
- For discussion: How does Mercutio’s character and his relationship with the Montagues relate to the theme of love in this play?
Additional Discussion Questions:
- Discuss whether the parents have changed by the end of the play. Did the deaths of their children end their feud?
- Do you think Romeo and Juliet’s romance is helped or hurt by external forces? Why?
- How do the specific allusions to Greek and Roman mythology foreshadow the outcome? Do these allusions change the audience’s perception of the main characters?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
It’s a Love Story That Ends in Suicide: While Romeo and Juliet is heralded as “the greatest love story ever told,” readers and audiences cannot ignore the fact that the play ends in a double suicide. This is a point that you should directly address in your class so that students do not walk away with the wrong message.
- What to do: Focus on why it happened, why from a dramatic/theatrical standpoint it needed to happen. Then focus on how it could have been prevented if the events of the story had taken place in real life.
Shakespeare’s Language Is Unapproachable for Students: Shakespeare’s language can be really difficult for students to understand. However, it is not written in “old English” or even “middle English”; it is written in modern English and therefore comprehensible with some practice.
- What to do: Outline the whole plot of the story before beginning the play so that it is easier to follow. You might even hang a timeline on the board or ask students to recap the plot at the beginning of each class.
- What to do: Start with a short passage and ask students to translate Shakespeare’s archaic language into plain English so that they can become familiar with the style.
The Cultural References Are Archaic: Shakespeare makes allusions to Greek and Roman mythology and religious stories that students might not be familiar with because they are not part of our culture.
- What to do: Do a short unit introducing students to Greek and Roman mythology before you start teaching Shakespeare. Explain that humanists, like Shakespeare, use a lot of allusions to ancient literature to get their message across. Consider bringing in a hip-hop, pop, or rock song with allusions to modern culture to illustrate your point. (Parody singers are especially useful for this activity.)
- What to do: Have students underline the names of people and places in the first act or scene who they do not know. Use minimal research projects to ask students to look up these allusions.
It’s Written in Iambic Pentameter and Verse: Shakespeare manipulates syntax and word choice to fit his meter and flow. This can make it hard to comprehend the lines at first glance.
- What to do: Rent an unabridged, taped performance of the play. Play the tape and read along as a class. Pause the tape at key moments to discuss language, plot, characters, and foreshadowing.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching Romeo and Juliet
While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving these texts, the following suggestions are alternative readings of the text that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the play.
Focus on how the nurse and friar cause the tragedy of the play to unfold by vicariously living through their young charges.
Focus on how Romeo embodies an over-romanticized vision of the world and Juliet embodies a more rational approach to love. Specifically, Romeo is a parody of the speaker in a sonnet and Juliet embodies his subject speaking back to him.
Focus on how the story embodies the sonnet form. By the time this play was written, the sonnet was an overused, popular poetic form. The play begins with a sonnet, and the first spoken interaction between the lovers forms a complete sonnet. The play can be read as commentary about the consequences of fulfilling unrequited love.
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