Romeo and Juliet – Working with Difficult Language

I’m teaching Romeo and Juliet for the first time in eight years and it’s been a lot of fun to get back into the text with freshmen. One of the great benefits of teaching is getting to know a text really well, and I know Romeo and Juliet well enough that I don’t have to read it again.

When last I taught it I felt like there was an inexhaustible supply of things you could do with it. At the same time, I’m a better teacher than I was the last time and I have a better sense of what to do with the difficult language.

Here’s a good example. Here’s Lady Capulet explaining to Juliet that Paris will be at the Capulet ball and suggesting that she might fall in love with him:

What say you? Can you love the gentleman?
This night you shall behold him at our feast.
Read o’er the volume of young Paris’ face,
And find delight writ there with beauty’s pen.
Examine every married lineament
And see how one another lends content,
And what obscured in this fair volume lies
Find written in the margent of his eyes.
This precious book of love, this unbound lover,
To beautify him only lacks a cover.
The fish lives in the sea, and ’tis much pride
For fair without the fair within to hide.
That book in many’s eyes doth share the glory
That in gold clasps locks in the golden story.
So shall you share all that he doth possess
By having him, making yourself no less.
I had the students do something simple: go through the text and mark any word that has to do with books. They did really well with this, although most of them missed “clasps” (apparently, they didn’t have those journals as a kid that came with a small key). I’m not exactly sure, but I believe at the time the Bible was locked so that only certain people had access to it, and that’s where most of Shakespeare’s audience would have been familiar with the reference.
This is also a good opportunity to point out how the No Fear translation shortchanges Shakespeare’s language. Check it out. The extended metaphor is gone:
What do you say? Can you love this gentleman? Tonight you’ll see him at our feast. Study Paris’s face and find pleasure in his beauty. Examine every line of his features and see how they work together to make him handsome. If you are confused, just look into his eyes. This man is single, and he lacks only a bride to make him perfect and complete. As is right, fish live in the sea, and it’s wrong for a beauty like you to hide from a handsome man like him. Many people think he’s handsome, and whoever becomes his bride will be just as admired. You would share all that he possesses, and by having him, you would lose nothing.
Here’s another one I chose. This is when Romeo and Juliet first meet:
ROMEO,editorial emendationtaking Juliet’s handeditorial emendation 
If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do.
They pray: grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take.
editorial emendationHe kisses her.editorial emendation
Thus from my lips, by thine, my sin is purged.
Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
Sin from my lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.
One thing I never noticed until this year was that the first fourteen lines are a sonnet. Since sonnets were traditionally used to express feelings of love in poetry, this is a perfect example of form following function. It might be fun to ask students what media are used to express sentiments of love today. A pop song, maybe? I hope not Twitter!
Anyway, tomorrow I plan to have students find all the words that have to do with religion. (I’m sure most of them will miss “pilgrim” because of the demographics in my class.) We’ll then talk about why this extended metaphor works by thinking about how someone might say “I worship you” to someone they love. I think it’s also important to acknowledge that the church would have been one of the few common sources that Shakespeare could use that everyone would be familiar with.

Click below for a free intro to Shakespeare comic with activities.


The author of this article is David Rickert, who leads parallel lives as a cartoonist and teacher. When not creating comics out of thin air, David teaches high school English Language Arts in Columbus, Ohio. His witty and engaging cartoons turn abstract and complicated concepts into concrete and concise images to embed content into our long term memories. Let’s face it: he makes boring topics entertaining. Check out his Grammar Comics and more resources to bring life to your ELA instruction at his store.

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