Lesson Plans for Teaching Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

How to teach Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

Most teachers are aware that Romeo and Juliet opens with a sonnet in which Shakespeare summarizes the plot of the entire play. But did you know that Shakespeare has hidden a second sonnet within the dialogue of the play?  

In the first encounter between Romeo and Juliet, the two protagonists engage in a dialogue where their lines add up to a sonnet! Their first exchange consists of 14 lines which have a rhyme scheme of ABAB and conclude with a rhyming couplet.

Moreover, in the sonnet which they compose together, Romeo and Juliet develop an extended metaphor about a religious pilgrim (Romeo) who worships at the shrine of a revered saint (Juliet). Romeo expresses concern that his unholy hand may taint the “holy shrine” that is Juliet; but she responds that even “saints have hands,” and that saints’ hands are often touched by “pilgrims’ hands” (1.5.108-110).

At this point, Romeo asks Juliet whether they can make “lips do what hands do” (1.5.114). He frames the joining of their hands and lips as a kind of “prayer.” And when Juliet gives her consent for this joining, Romeo seals the sonnet by giving Juliet a kiss.

These two strangers’ ability to jointly compose a sonnet, and their ability to finish one another’s rhymes, reflects the extent to which their personalities are already in sync. It speaks to the harmony and compatibility of their personalities, and suggests that these two star-crossed lovers were destined to be together.

Now, as every English teacher knows, a Shakespearean sonnet ends with a concluding couplet. In this particular sonnet, the concluding couplet not only brings two rhyming lines together — but it also but brings the protagonists’ lips together — serving to unite them as a couple.

While love-at-first-sight is a common phenomenon in Shakespeare’s plays, the romantic heroes of this play are so well-matched that their spontaneous dialogue takes the form of a poem. Could anything be more romantic?

Earlier in the play, when he was in love with Rosaline, Romeo had used a series of metaphors which framed romantic love as a kind of military conquest. For example, Romeo had said the following about Rosaline: "She will not stay the siege of loving terms, / Nor bid th' encounter of assailing eyes" (1.1.220-221). Romeo's use of militaristic words like “siege” and “assail” reveals that he had perceived romantic courtship as a form of military conquest — as if a male suitor’s objective were to conquer and subjugate the female beloved.

So it is remarkable that Romeo changes his metaphors when he meets Juliet. Far from using metaphors related to military conquest, Romeo begins to use metaphors related to spiritual reverence. This is the first sign that his meeting with Juliet transforms Romeo's character for the better!

But, of course, the connection between Romeo and Juliet is not just spiritual. In the first 12 lines of the sonnet, love is constructed as a spiritual phenomenon analogous to a pilgrim’s religious reverence for a saint. But in the concluding couplet, this definition of love as spiritual connection gets synthesized with a definition of love as physical intimacy. For their spiritual connection gets consummated with a kiss.  

In a play that deals with the tension between opposites — love and hate, medicine and poison, life and death — it may be significant that this sonnet transcends the conventional opposition between the spiritual and the physical. By the end of the sonnet, love is defined as both spiritual and physical, ethereal and material, sacred and corporeal.


Teach It Today!

If you're a teacher who'd like to explore this topic with your students, remember check out this Complete Teaching Unit on Romeo and Juliet. The unit is loaded with worksheets, discussion questions, and writing prompts which focus on how the formal aspects of Shakespeare's play — from the sonnets to his complex use of metaphors, oxymorons, and more — deepen the meaning of Romeo and Juliet! Best of all, the unit comes with a teacher's answer key for every single page!

Save yourself dozens of hours of prep time while motivating your students to be deeply engaged. Check out this amazing Complete Teaching Unit on Romeo and Juliet. You'll use it for years to come!

Romeo and Juliet Complete Teaching Unit by Rigorous Resources

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