My personal experience in teaching Romeo and Juliet - Jack Pillemer

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Here I will describe how I taught Romeo and Juliet to two Hebrew speaking 5point Grade XI and two 5point Grade XII classes at Boyar High School, Jerusalem in November and December 2000. My experience may be useful for you.

Jack Pillemer.


Until this year, I had been teaching Arthur Miller's All My Sons as my choice of drama. I decided that I desperately needed a change and a challenge and opted for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet instead. Why? I'm not sure. After all, why trouble a Hebrew-speaking pupil with Shakespeare's antiquated vocabulary and grammatical forms? Why deal with concepts so far removed from our times? Surely my pupils' time could be better spent on something more current- more obviously useful. Despite not having very convincing answers to my own questions but knowing that I would exploit the play to teach reading, writing, literary analysis, poetry, film criticism etc., and realizing that a thematic unit could be interwoven into the teaching of the play, I decided to go ahead.

I had never studied the play and I'm no Shakespeare expert so I had to prepare myself well in advance. I got hold of two versions of the text, both with glossaries and started reading. My aim was to understand the text as fully as possible so that I would feel confident and to decide which parts of the drama to deal with in class. This took me a long time (but I enjoyed every minute of it!).

Stage 1 - Teach two Shakespearean Sonnets: XVIII and CXXX.

My aim here was to introduce the Shakespearean "sounds" - hath/ doth/ wanderth/ thee/ thine/ thou/ didst/ etc. and to introduce the literary terms: sonnet, couplet, rhyme, Petrarchan love, metaphor and simile etc. I did not teach meter. Pupils tended to enjoy Sonnet XVIII as they discovered that with help they were able to decipher something which at first seemed impossible to them. This fact - that to enjoy Shakespeare they would have to work a little harder - was important for me to establish before starting Romeo and Juliet. As for the second sonnet, they found it very amusing. One pupil piped up in disbelief," You mean Shakespeare wrote that! I thought it was one of those Internet parodies."

Stage 2 - Have a dramatic beginning

My aim here was to bring drama into the class and teach ten key sentences from the play. This was also a lesson to introduce the plot. This lesson is not my own. I adopted it from a book called Teaching Shakespeare by Rex Gibson [Cambridge University press 1998] pages 95-99) and only adapted it slightly This is how it works: I hand out the ten key sentences and explain the first sentence. I get people in class to say it dramatically. we then move onto the second. I allow a few people to "do" (say/act) each sentence in turn so that the class becomes completely familiar with the vocabulary and the pronunciation. Then onto the next one and so on and get the least inhibited pupils to have a wonderful time interpreting these short texts. It is a lot of fun. Take it slowly. It takes about 70 minutes. When this is done, assign the sentences to different pupils. Tell the story of the play and click your fingers when you want each of the sentences to punctuate your narrative. Teaching Shakespeare by Rex Gibson [Cambridge University press 1998] pages 95-99 has the narrative written out for you and all you have to do is read it. By the end of 90 minutes you have introduced a lot of Shakespearean language, got pupils to be familiar with ten key sentences, taught the plot and had a good time. From this point on I used 4 and sometimes 5 of the 5 lessons per week on Romeo and Juliet.

From this point on, I used 4 and sometimes 5 of the 5 lessons per week on Romeo and Juliet. I put all other work aside and dedicated my time and the time of the class to the play.

Stage 3 - Teach the Prologue

My aim here was to show how Shakespeare introduces his own play, discuss the idea of an ancient grudge/feud and how it manifests itself in a society (even today). I used the Prologue to introduce the theme of fate/ destiny which is central in the play and also to review the sonnet form which we learned previously.


Stage 4 - Read the text of the Capult Dance scene from the moment Romeo sees Juliet for the first time

till they both realize that their love is ill-fated because each belongs to the house of a "loathed enemy". I have divided the text into 4 sections, each to be dealt with separately and each containing accompanying activities.

The aim of the first section is to deal with the subject of "love at first sight" from a personal point of view and then creatively. Hopefully, Romeo's description of how he is struck by Juliet's beauty enables the pupils to appreciate Shakespeare's craft. The accompanying activity, where pupils have to use certain sentences as models to create their own descriptions was very successful. You can view some of the students' work here. This section is important in introducing the motif of light and dark, which appears throughout the play.

The aim of the second section is to help the pupils understand the character of Tybalt and Capulet and the idea of a feud. Once the pupils understand the text well, I ask them to rewrite it in Hebrew, using the lowest street language/slang that they could think of. (You may wish to limit their freedom here or be prepared for obscenity ;-)) They had to relate to every sentence in the dialogue between Tybalt and Capulet. This was a highly successful activity. Pupils enjoyed the freedom to be crude and yet were reading the text word for word asking me questions regarding nuances of meaning they would normally have merely ignored. They presented their dialogues to the class willingly. This exercise does not appear on the Word or HTML page so you should add it.

The aim of the third section is to deal with "pick up" lines. What do you say when you are attracted to someone and you want to make contact? Pupils have their own ideas. We then examined the way Romeo does it, pupils enjoy discovering that the religious imagery hides a much more basic sexual meaning.

The aim of the fourth section is to reinforce the theme of the fate and to prepare the pupils for the next scene, the balcony scene.

Stage 5 - Show two movie versions of Romeo and Juliet up till the end of the Dance scene. I used Franco Zefirelli's 1969-version and Baz Lurhmanns 1995 version. The movies must have Hebrew subtitles.

The aim is to bring the play to life, reinforce the parts studied in class, compare and contrast the interpretation of two different directors and provide variation. This can be done in one double period (90 minutes) and leave a short time at the end for discussion.

Stage 6 - Present the Balcony Scene.

The aim of this scene is to help pupils understand Shakespeare's literary craft: metaphors, similes, personification, antithesis, oxymoron, alliteration, listing, puns etc. I taught the "literary craft" in the form of a frontal lecture and provided the pupils with the notes so they could listen attentively. This took one full lesson (45 min).I then drew on the board most of the images or ideas that appear in the scene (an upward pointing arrow, sun, moon, stars, glove, rose, sea shore, angel, clouds, bird etc.) and I asked them to find common elements(up/down, light/dark, land/sky). This took 15 minutes. I then read the full text (6 pages!) with the help of a pupil who is a good reader and enjoyed Shakespeare immediately. (30 minutes) The British Council library has a version of Romeo and Juliet on cassette. I would use this next time rather than read it myself. After the reading, pupils have to identify the techniques used by Shakespeare and choose three sections that they like. This took 45 minutes. For homework they had to explain what the sections mean in English or Hebrew and be prepared to read the sections out loud in class. To my surprise, this worked well. The following lesson, they read their choices and explained them and in this way we covered almost tscene in quitea lot of detail.

Stage 7- Show the two movie versions of Romeo and Juliet from the end of the Dance scene till the end of the Balcony scene.

The aim is to bring the play to life, reinforce the parts studied in class, compare and contrast the interpretation of two different directors, provide variation. This can be done in one double period (90 minutes) and leave about 20 minutes at the end for discussion. Ask students whether the Juliet in each has the same personality. Which do they prefer and why? Which seems closer to the original text? Ask them what parts of the text the two directors cut? Why was the choice made in each case? How do the two Hebrew translations differ? Camera angles can be pointed out. How does each director deal with light and dark? How did Baz Luhrmann use costume to enhance the images in the text?

Stage 8 - Read the text leading up to the death of Mercutio, the death of Tybalt and the Princes speech when is informed of the deaths.

The aim here is to provide short pieces of text to help the pupils understand the plot. In one class I had pupils learn vocabulary related to sword fighting (lunge, jab, stab, swing, block, draw etc) and then had the movements demonstrated with fencing swords. The idea was then to stage Mercutio's death scene. It was an enjoyable lesson but I'm not sure how much was learnt. The main exercise here focuses on the Prince's speech. Pupils create the glossary for the text and the skills needed and developed through this exercise are the skills needed in solving cloze passages. The second activity deals with the whole play up till this point and allows for teaching of newspaper genre, writing and generally free creative work.

Stage 9. Show the two movie versions of Romeo and Juliet focusing on the lead up to Mercutio's death, Tybalts death and the Prince's speech.

The aim is to bring the play to life, reinforce the parts studied in class, compare and contrast the interpretation of two different directors, provide variation. I showed the Zefirelli first. I really like this scene. I ask pupils to decide what the mood of the scene is, how tension is created, whether the Tybalt and Mercutio in this scene are the same as in the Baz Luhrmann movie and whether they consider this to be a good scene. I then show the Baz Luhrmann version. I ask them to notice when exactly we are made aware of the changes in weather (the storm) and why they think the director chose to do this. In my view, this seems to happen when the forces of destiny are felt and actions are irreversible.

Stage 10 Read short texts from the death of Tybalt till the end of the play Oh happy dagger... there rust and let me die.

The aim is to bring the play to an end while giving a taste of the text but not going into too much detail. Each selection has some activity to work around.

Act three Scene 2, Juliet discovers Romeo killed Tybalt and expresses her sense of confusion that Romeo is a "Damned saint, an honourable villain". Here the emphasis of the exercise is on antithesis, oxymoron and metaphor. This is also a place where one could deal with the concept of round and flat characters. Juliet is made more complex by this scene.


The next scene dealt with is the "lark and the nightingale scene". It is important to go over the text here so the pupils can enjoy the Zefirelli scene when they view it.

Then I dealt with a short text from when Capulet verbally abuses Juliet when she refuses to marry Paris. The discussion with the pupils, thereafter, is on verbal violence and the role of parents in dictating the future of their children. I included a writing activity here as well - describing the scene from the perspective of the nurse.

Finally I dealt with the two suicides plus the final speech by the Prince. The Princes final speech is an epilogue which links back to the prologue and rounds up the themes of the play. I use this speech as springboard for discussion on the themes of the play and the relevance to our society today.

Stage 11. Show the two movie versions of Romeo and Juliet focusing on the lead up to Mercutio's death, Tybalts death and the Prince's speech.

The aim is to bring the play to life, reinforce the parts studied in class, compare and contrast the interpretation of two different directors, provide variation. I showed the Zefirelli first. I started with the "lark and the nightingale" scene and then went onto the end of Juliet's "funeral" till the end of the play ( approx. 40 min.) We take a short brake and view the Luhrmann movie from after Tybalt's death till the end of the movie. Time remains to clarify unclear points, point out differences in the two versions and focus on the way the last scene is portrayed.

Stage 12 Hand out assignment page and explain - The Romeo and Juliet Portfolio. Allow pupils to have 2-3 weeks to complete their portfolio. This assignment gives the pupil a choice of 16 or more assignments each with a value from 10points - 50 points. The pupil must choose as many assignments as he/she needs to reach 100 points. I've accepted requests to do 90 points and 110 points as well and in the end I'll reduce the grade to a percentage. The assignments vary in style from academic to artistic, from structured to open. I hope I have provided scope for pupils to find meaning from the play in as wide a spectrum of activities as possible. They have choice but each assignment has a set of assessment criteria, which accompanies it. These criteria are there to help the pupils know what I expect and also to help be as consistent as I can when marking. At the time of writing this, I have not yet received their portfolios. I intend to provide links to pupils' work from the site.

It is important to spend an entire lesson (45 minutes) going over the various assignments and the assessment criteria. I would hand out the assignments and explain them early on so pupils see where they are heading and can be conscious of what they should watch out for as they work through the text. I would suggest that the assessment portfolio page should be handed out between Stage 3 and Stage 4.

Stage 13 Have grand display of as much of the work done by the pupils as possible. Create a way for pupils to view other pupils' projects. You could create a set of tasks which pupils have to fulfill. The tasks would be viewing and commenting on 4-6 assignments done by others. An evening viewing of the film Shakespeare in Love might be appropriate here. 

The Bard

That's it!


Let me know how you deal with the play and I will happily link it to this site.