For many students, Romeo and Juliet is the first experience they have with Shakespeare. And it’s a huge leap for them from what they’ve read in school before. The language is difficult, the cultural context is foreign, and the material looks indecipherable.
However, as a teacher, there are steps you can take before reading Romeo and Juliet that will help them get through the play a little easier. When I teach the play, here are a few things I do.
A few weeks before
There’s no reason you can’t start prepping students for Shakespeare’s language ahead of time. I like to use the first five or ten minutes of each class a few weeks before we start reading to do bell ringers that build awareness of a few things that they’ll find with Shakespeare’s language: contractions, inverted words, allusions, iambic pentameter, and the other things they’ll encounter from day one. That way they’ll be more familiar with the language way before we start the play.
Right before you read
You’ll want to go over Shakespeare’s life and times, of course. Perhaps you also want to do a quick study of the time period in which Shakespeare wrote. I like to have my students do a mini-research project on the Elizabethan Era in which they answer the following question: How was life harder during the time of Shakespeare. I assign them different topics: food and cooking, marriage, medicine, sanitation, and have them present in small groups to each other. Here’s a link to the instructions I use for this assignment.
Go over just the basics
Before you begin reading, don’t overwhelm the students with everything about the play. Here are the basics that they need to know before they start reading Act One:
-The Capulets and Montagues are fighting. No one knows why, but this has gone on for a while. Romeo is a Montague, Juliet is a Capulet (Juliet and Capulet rhyme – that’s how I keep them straight.)
-At the beginning when Romeo is upset about a girl who doesn’t love him, he’s actually talking about Rosaline, not Juliet. My students get confused about this.
I like to give them a brief character list that doesn’t give too much away. Here’s the one I use.
You might want to give them a brief outline of what happens in each act – but not too much to give away everything! You still want them to read the play!
When you start the play
I never start with the prologue. Sometimes I skip it completely (you don’t have to read the whole thing.) And we never read the fight that begins Act One. Act One begins with a bunch of puns and difficult language, which immediately tells the students “There’s no way I’m going to get this.”
So instead I show them the opening fight scene in the Zefferelli movie (which I think is now only available to rent on Amazon Prime) and we talk about what they noticed. They get a good introduction to Benvolio, Tybalt and the two families, and much of the dialogue is cut out. And I ALWAYS turn on the subtitles any time we watch the play so they can see the language twice.
I want to put in a quick plug here for the Globe Theatre production of Romeo and Juliet. I have started showing this instead of the Zefferelli film. For one thing, it’s a filmed production of the play, so students can see what it would look like in a performance. Also, the entire play is performed. Most importantly, the cast is multicultural. It’s a bit pricey, but worth every penny. Check it out here, if for no other reason than you can use parts of it to show students what the play would look like to Shakespeare’s audience.
Occasionally, I start with the balcony scene before I begin reading the play. Read this blog post to see how I do it.
As You Read
You’ll definitely want to keep things fun and entertaining! Shakespeare is perfect for that. And I have the perfect way to achieve this with my Romeo and Juliet Comics and Activities. You’ll get a comic summary of each act that will help students interact with the play. There are even Easter eggs in each comic of images and metaphors from the play, like “a snowy dove trooping with crows.” In addition, there are warm up activities you can use before or after each act that get students diving into the language in creative ways. Click here to check out Romeo and Juliet Comics and Activities.
Or you can get it bundled with some other great Shakespeare resources in the Romeo and Juliet Bundle. You’ll get the comic set as well as a comic biography of Shakespeare, comic lessons on Sonnet 18 and iambic pentameter, and a set of bell ringers you can use to get students familiar with the language as I mentioned above.
I know you’re the kind of teacher that makes their classroom a fun, engaging learning environment. I have a series of lessons done as comics that address various ELA topics like grammar, poetry, editing, and Shakespeare, all of which will make your students glad they came to class that day. All the fun is there for you, and your kids will love studying any of these topics because they’ll get a new comic every day! Please check out my resources and let the learning begin!