For most students “Romeo and Juliet” is their first exposure to Shakespeare’s language. And if you don’t set them up properly, Shakespeare can seem too difficult and before you’ve gone too far, you’ve lost them. So what’s the best place to begin?
It isn’t with Act One.
Act One begins with a bunch of jokes and puns that the students won’t understand. There’s a fight, but there’s not enough stage directions to truly understand what’s going on. The main action and dialogue is done through people that for the most part won’t appear in the play again. I usually show the Zefferelli version of the play to introduce the conflict, but we don’t read it. I don’t even start with the prologue.
I have found that the best place to start with Romeo and Juliet is the most important and famous part: the balcony scene.
You have arguably the most famous line in the play (“Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”) and an opportunity to talk about how words in Shakespeare’s time may not mean what you think they mean (“Wherefore” means “why.”) You have another famous line (“A rose any other name would smell as sweet”) that introduces the central conflict of the play. You’ve also got a terrific line for introducing the concept of iambic pentameter (“But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?”) that is also a good example of how Shakespeare inverts word order to preserve the rhythm of the line. There are a couple of easy to understand metaphors (Juliet is a bright angel, her eyes are stars, and a bunch of others). All of this will get kids on the right foot with the text.
Most of my students know the basic premise of the play, so all I need to do is prep them for this scene by telling them that Romeo and Juliet met at a party for the first time and fell in love. Romeo followed her back to her house, Juliet is on the balcony and Romeo is hidden below wondering if he should show himself. I don’t read the entire Act at this point – only up to line 61 or so (“Neither, fair maid …”)
The balcony scene is the perfect entry into Shakespeare’s language. Once you’ve done this, you can go back to the beginning of the play with students that are prepared for the complexities of the world’s greatest love story.
If you’re looking for other fun ways to get students involved with Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet, check out my “Romeo and Juliet: Comic Summaries and Activities.” I have created cartoon summaries of each act to help kids understand the play: there are even “Easter eggs” hidden in them of some of the metaphors and images in the play. There are also warm up activities included for each act.
No matter which play you’re doing, you’ll want to introduce students to the world of Shakespeare. My “Shakespeare Activities Bundle” collects some comics and activities on Shakespeare’s life and times, iambic pentameter, and Sonnet 18.
Or, if you’d like both, you can get them both in this bundle for a discounted price.