By Alison Powell
With the access to world class resources that the internet allows us, learning about Shakespeare, and in particular Romeo and Juliet, should be straightforward. We can bring our students images from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s rehearsals, watch videos of the play in performance, listen to podcasts from The University of Oxford. The problem for teachers today is less a case of finding good material, as it is narrowing it down.
In the name of reducing overwhelm, here are five top tips that go back to basics:
1) Learn the prologue off by heart – The process of memorising the play’s opening sonnet invites students to engage with both the language and the plot. Encourage students to use gestures and movement as mnemonics and run a competition with prizes for the most accurate and dramatic performances. The experience of memorising can lead to interesting discussions about metre and rhyme, which students are likely to have noticed (and in some cases, actively used) in the process. You could open this up by offering further examples of Shakespeare’s sonnets – e.g. sonnets 18, 116 and 130 – and inviting students to identify conventions of the sonnet form.
2) Name the acts – Getting the events of the play in order is easier once students have hooks to attach the story to. When you finish reading each act, ask students to come up with suitable titles that summarise the events or mood. For example, Act 1 might be Lost Love, Act 2 could be Falling for You and so on.
3) Theme tunes – Students choose (drawing on their own knowledge of popular or classical music) appropriate theme tunes for each of the characters. They should explain why they have chosen that particular piece of music and justify their choices with evidence from the play.
4) Motif trackers – Pick out key motifs from the play – e.g. dream, death, poison – and challenge students to find as many examples of each as they can, collecting quotations and noting the Acts and Scenes where each motif occurs. If you use an online edition of the text, students can use the ‘find’ (ctrl+f) function to do this – although there is certainly value in skimming through a print version. Invite students to find creative ways to present this information – e.g. making a graph or creating a string of flags – to show the patterns of each motif.
5) Embodied learning – To really understand the stagecraft of this (and any) play, students need to experience it as such. A trip to a theatre production of Romeo and Juliet will be worth every moment of filling in risk assessment forms. Alternatively, use a range of video extracts to inspire classroom performances of key scenes. If students are particularly reluctant to perform, set them the task of making short films using puppets, Lego, teddy bears, or anything else they can find to represent the characters.
Alison Powell is a writer and education consultant with many years of secondary classroom experience. She specialises in Shakespeare, poetry and active approaches to learning.