Jeremy Ehrlich, Folger Shakespeare Library.
Romeo and Juliet 5.3.91-175; A Midsummer Night's Dream 5.1.287-364.
What's On for Today and Why
Shakespeare tells the same story in the deaths of Romeo and Juliet and Pyramus and Thisbe, only one story is tragic and the other comic. This lesson asks students to investigate Shakespeare's use of the different elements of poetry to understand how the same story can create two such different effects on an audience.
This lesson will take one to two class periods.
What You Need
Folger Editions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo and Juliet
Available in Folger print edition and Folger Digital Texts
Attached handout: the death speeches of Romeo, Pyramus, Juliet and Thisbe.
Very Tragical Mirth
What To Do
1. Distribute the attached handout, the death scenes of Romeo, Pyramus, Juliet and Thisbe. Distribute parts and have students read the speeches out loud. Explain the context of the excerpts if students are not familiar with the entire plays.
2. Explain to students that they are going to examine the way Shakespeare uses the four basic elements of poetry -- imagery, diction, meter, and sound -- to create such different effects in two recitings of the same story.
3. Divide students into small groups. Ask half of the students to look at Juliet's death and half at Thisbe's. For this first exercise they will be focusing on imagery. Ask them to examine the imagery Shakespeare creates around the two different deaths and then recreate that image in another format: a silent tableaux, a drawing, or some other silent recreation. Discuss the ways the same image can look quite different.
4. To discuss diction, switch the groups so half look at Romeo's death and half at Pyramus's. Have the students act out the word "die" as used in the different death scenes. Discuss the ways the same word choice can be used to such different effect.
5. To examine Shakespeare's use of meter, ask students to scan the final, dying lines of each of the death scenes and determine how the meter is different in the comic and tragic scenes. Discuss the ways the different rhythms contribute to the different effect of the death scenes.
6. Have students note the consonance of s sounds in Romeo and Juliet 5.3.113-115 and the alliteration of k sounds in A Midsummer Night's Dream 5.1.300-302. You might want to have one student read the lines while the others make the appropriate "s" or "k" sound when they hear it in the speech. Discus the ways in which a similar technique again creates such a different effect.
7. Now that students have examined the speeches closely, have them act out all four speeches again, using their new knowledge. Are they able to make more sense of Shakespeare's tools? Is the effect different?
How Did It Go?
Were students able to identify the different effects of the elements of poetry on the speeches? Did they gain an appreciation for Shakespeare's craft? Were they able to perform the speeches in a more nuanced way after the exercise?
If you used this lesson, we would like to hear how it went and about any adaptations you made to suit the needs of YOUR students.