GCSE Secondary English

Three things I’ve learnt from teaching Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet is probably the best known of Shakespeare’s tragedies. The play has universal themes with an enduring appeal: community conflict, generational conflict, the blurred lines between love and hate… Little wonder that students find studying Romeo and Juliet a relatable and rewarding experience.

During my decade or so of teaching the text, I feel like I’ve greatly refined my understanding of it. Here are three things I’ve learnt from teaching Romeo and Juliet:    

  • Some quotations are more versatile than others

Certain quotations are applicable to questions about most themes and characters. I find these indispensable:

  • A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life’ (prologue). This opening “spoiler” creates dramatic irony and foreshadows all references to death and thwarted love that follow.
  • My only love sprung from my only hate!’(I.v). The juxtaposition of love and hate and the unexpected but inescapable sense of fate are both encapsulated as Juliet realises she has fallen for a forbidden lover.
  • These violent delights have violent ends.’ (II.vi). He may be a bumbling planner but Friar’s Lawrence’s (ignored) advice that the pair should act cautiously and love moderately is a defining moment in the play.
  • Then I defy you, stars!’ (V.i). Romeo’s rejection of the higher power that has decided his fate links back to the prologue and acts as further evidence of his impetuous nature.
  • See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate/That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love’ (V.iii). When Prince Escalus admonishes the heads of the warring houses, we come full circle, with the older generation blamed for the tragic events.
  • Certain scenes are more important than they first appear

We’ve all glossed over some sections: Potpan and friends, Act 2’s prologue, Peter and the musicians at the end of Act 4. Yet some seemingly insignificant scenes are worth deeper scrutiny. Take Act 5 Scene 2 for example. Friar John hasn’t been able to get the letter through to Romeo, due to a suspected plague outbreak. On the surface, we have a brief, functional plotting scene. But in light of Mercutio’s dying words ‘A plague a both your houses’, this scene takes on structural significance. To the audience, Mercutio’s curse has proved to be an act of supernatural influence. The letter not getting through leads directly to the suffering of both houses, through Romeo and Juliet’s deaths.   

  • Shakespeare’s most misunderstood words are often simple ones  

Students often struggle with Shakespeare’s archaic language and complex figurative language. But words that appear familiar and straightforward can also cause problems. A really helpful guide to Shakespeare’s words is David & Ben Crystal’s Shakespeare Dictionary. Accessible and comprehensive, it gives us a greater awareness of what Shakespeare really meant. Examples of commonly misunderstood words from well-known quotations include:

  • ‘Mistress minion you’ (III.v) – Capulet’s insult to Juliet seems to imply she’s an unimportant servant, particularly when students think of the mischievous but servile yellow creatures from the film Despicable Me. But it’s far worse than that. The term suggests that she’s sleazy and sexually available.
  • ‘Well, you have made a simple choice – you know not/how to choose a man.’ (II.v) – The Nurse’s gentle teasing of Juliet, joking that Romeo is an unsuitable match for her, makes little sense if students take ‘simple’ to mean ‘not difficult’. In this context, however, it means ‘foolish’, which makes much more sense.
  • ‘Throw your mistemper’d weapons to the ground’ (I.i) – Prince Escalus’ command seems to personify the weapons, making them appear bad tempered. This oddly places blame for the violence on the swords themselves. Yet the real meaning of ‘mistemper’d’ is ‘made with evil intent’ (steel is heated, or ‘tempered’, as part of the process of creation), which correctly recognises that the human creators, and wielders, of the weapons are at fault.

Giving these three points consideration might help you towards a subtle shift in your approach to teaching the whole text, and might help you tackle some of your students’ stubborn misconceptions.

By Mark Roberts

Mark Roberts is currently working on the introduction to the Collins Classroom Classic edition of Romeo and Juliet.

He is Assistant Principal and teaches English at a 11-18 comprehensive in Devon. As well as writing for TES magazine on educational issues, he also contributes to emagazine, the magazine for A level English students. Mark is the author of the introduction to the Collins Classroom Classic edition of Frankenstein, and co-author of Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools, published by Routledge.  

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