How to Teach Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: Act II

March 03, 2017

Whether you are a teacher tackling William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet for the first time or you are a veteran looking to change how you’ve taught it in the past, it is always helpful to find out how another teacher plans it all out. Read on to find out what scenes I focus on in Act II and why, how my students read and act out those scenes, and what activities I use to extend learning and make connections.
After reading Act I, students understand the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets and also have a grasp of the characters. Act I, Scene V and Act II, Scene II are all about love, which is why I pair the two scenes together. Here's my approach to teaching them.

Planning Out The Reading
I don't want to kill the play, so in each act, I generally choose to read the scene with the events most important to developing the plot. Act I, Scene V and Act II, Scene II are equally important and so strongly connected, so we read them both.

I provide short summaries for any scenes we skip to fill students in on the less important events. I like to spend about a week on each act of the play, so the days we don't spend reading are spent on after reading activities, writing, and a short assessment.

Before jumping into this week's reading, we'll spend a few minutes reviewing the scenes from last week. I'll also introduce or review important terms. Act I, Scene V and Act II, Scene II are full of figurative language so I'll review simile, metaphor, and personification. It is also important for students to understand two drama terms: aside and soliloquy, so that they understand who characters are speaking to in these scenes (other characters versus the audience).

Act I, Scene V
I have students read this scene independently, since we later watch two different film versions of the scene for comparison. The focus is on Act I, Scene V, so I provide summaries of the start of the scene; Act II, Chorus; and Act II, Scene I. The text of Act I, Scene V has the original text with the modern translations side by side. Like the previously read scenes, I also edit it down (cut out lines). After reading, students translate words from the original to modern text, and vice versa. They also answer short written response questions to demonstrate comprehension. We review this together at the end of class.

I like to show a scene or two at the beginning of reading the play to help students visualize the setting and characters. It can also help with student buy-in. Watching two or more versions of the same scene allows students to compare and contrast the decisions made by directors. With Romeo and Juliet, I like to show Act I, Scene V because so many of the characters are present and it includes two major plot developments (Romeo and Juliet meet, and Tybalt vows revenge for Romeo's trespasses).
I find the Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann film versions are the most accessible. In Zeffirelli’s interpretation, show Clip 1, Scenes 5–6 (0:22:49–0:38:47). Begin as guests are being welcomed to the party and end after Juliet realizes who Romeo is. In Luhrmann’s interpretation, show Clip 2, Scenes 8–12 (0:25:30–0: 33:12). Begin after Romeo submerges his face in the water and end after the Nurse tells Juliet who Romeo is.

As the students watch, have them focus on the effect of the costumes, music, lyrics, lighting, etc. on this first meeting of Romeo and Juliet. Students can record their thoughts in a graphic organizer and then write an opinion response on which film version is more effective.

Act II, Scene II
I present this scene to students entirely in Shakespeare’s language, but an edited down version. The scene ends up about one page front and back, creating a script that can easily be acted out by students. 

Before assigning parts and having my students act, as a class we do one or two read throughs. In the first read through, we number the lines of the scene up to the number of students in the class and then repeat until each line of the scene is numbered. Then students count off and read “their” lines regardless of the character speaking. If I feel like a second read through is necessary, we number the parts rather than individual lines. Each time a different character speaks, so does a new student.

Once students are comfortable with the language, I ask them to play the part of the director and insert stage directions. Where do characters enter and exit? When does Romeo reveal himself to Juliet?

Finally, I have students get up and act out the scene. I usually let students choose their parts, but if necessary I will assign them. Some students don't mind reading, but don't want to get up out of their seats, so I will sometimes have someone assigned as the reader for a part and someone else as the silent actor or actress for the part. I can get twice the number of students involved that way and draw on students’ strengths. Students who are uncomfortable getting up in front of the class can still participate and students who enjoy acting won't be hindered by having to hold a script.

After Reading Activities
After students read Act I, Scene V, but before they compare film versions, I have them create masks for the masquerade. Templates for masks can be found online such as these. I ask students to create Romeo & Juliet themed masks or to create a mask that represents one of the characters as a way to practice use of symbolism. Before hanging the masks up, I lay them out with numbers so that students can vote on the best masks. Students then enjoy seeing how characters are dressed, especially in the Baz Luhrmann version, and comparing the director's choices to their own.

To reinforce figurative language, I pull lines from both Act II, Scene V and Act II, Scene II for students to analyze. I have students identify the types of figurative language used and explain their meaning. If students struggle, having them look back at who said the line to whom and in what context often helps.

Then students write a love notes using expressions from Shakespeare’s time, many of which incorporate figurative language. I give students the option of writing from Rosaline's perspective, telling Romeo that she no longer wants to live a life of chastity and asking him to take her back, or from Count Paris's perspective, describing to Juliet how wonderful it was to meet her at the party and how excited he is to get married to her.

Once students have warmed up their romantic writing skills, we revisit the balcony scene. I provide students with the original text and a modern version, and students must translate the scene into a teen's conversation via text. Depending on the group of students, this activity could be done with cell phones, but I have also done it with small white boards and I acted as a runner for the messages.

Be sure to assign roles for either option. There should be a texter (sending messages) and a recorder (recording both out going and incoming messages) in each group. If you choose to use cell phones, designate one cell phone per group to be used, make sure the students have each other’s numbers, and do a test text. Smaller groups work better (three to four students) and you can separate boys and girls or have mixed groups (sometimes the boys can be a bit shy with this activity).

Writing & Assessment
At the end of the week, I will give students a choice of two constructed response prompts, one connected to each of the scenes on which we focused. This is a chance for them to independently express their understanding of what we read, practice citing text evidence, and continue to build on their writing skills in general. 

I also assign a text based assessment, which covers Act I, Scene V through Act II, Scene II. The assessment includes a section of Act I, Scene V and a section of Act II, Scene II, ten multiple-choice questions, and two choices for a written response. Questions ask students to analyze characters words and actions, analyze figurative language, and apply drama terminology.

You can find all of my resources for teaching Romeo and Juliet, including the materials described above that I use to teach Act II, here.

Read on for my approach to teaching Act III of Romeo and Juliet.

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