Louisa Newlin taught high school English for more than 40 years. She wrote "Nice Guys Finish Dead: Teaching Henry IV, Part I in High School" for the Shakespeare Set Free series. She leads workshops on sonnets for teachers.
Gigi Bradford, former director of the NEA Literature Program and Folger Poetry Series, currently teaches the Folger's "Shakspeare's Sisters" seminar.
The shared sonnet in 1.5.104-18 in Romeo and Juliet (New Folger edition)
What's On for Today and Why
Romeo and Juliet contains three sonnets: the Prologue, the shared sonnet at the ball scene in 1.5, and one at the start of Act 2. The first and third of these are essentially narratives. The second, which is shared by Romeo and Juliet, is interesting to look at in light of Petrarchan conventions and rejects them to create a young woman who refuses a silent, passive role on a pedestal.
This lesson will take 1 forty-five minute class period.
What You Need
Ideally, the lines indicated above, typed and double spaced, without notes, to hand out as “scripts” free of the distraction of notes. Or, you can work directly from the text in whatever copy of Romeo and Juliet you are using.
Optional: Hats for Romeo, Juliet, Nurse.
Romeo and Juliet sonnet
What To Do
1. Pass out the text of 1.5.104-18 from Romeo and Juliet. Divide the students into two groups: “Romeo” and “Juliet.” Assign the Nurse’s lines to one person.
2. Read the 18 lines chorally. “Nurse” reads line 19. Ask students to circle unfamiliar words (“Palmer” is key.)
3. Ask students if they recognize the form used. What’s unusual about it? Note that in lines 15-18, Romeo and Juliet appear to be starting a second sonnet, perhaps even a sonnet sequence, but are interrupted by the Nurse.
4. Discuss the meanings of any words that students have circled.
5. Read the lines again, chorally.
6. Ask students to describe the ways in which this passage is “Petrarchan.” (Religious imagery, love at first sight, the lady approached as holy, the lover begging her favor, a threat of despair, and elaborate metaphors, among others.)
7. Assign two “actors” to be Romeo and Juliet, ideally volunteers, who will act out the lines silently as the rest of the class reads them. (Note: the kiss always elicits the most giggling. Tell the two actors it is fine to just fake it. There will still be giggling.)
8. Ask the rest of the class to act as directors and suggest ways Romeo and Juliet might move or gesture at key points. There will be a lot of stopping and starting. Encourage the class to look at the actors, not the script.
9. Have the choral readers, the Nurse, and the silent actors go through the passage one more time, employing the directions given to them by the rest of the class.
10. After Romeo and Juliet return to their seats, ask students what they noticed about Juliet’s behavior. In what way is it “anti-Petrarchan”? Students will have probably picked up that Juliet is neither passive nor inaccessible but rather a bold and witty heroine.
11. Discuss: Is there evidence of the sharp Shakespearean wit found in Sonnet 130 and/or Sonnet 138 and in Juliet’s language?
12. Have students respond to the following question in their journals: Has Juliet suddenly, to your knowledge, become a more significant rebel than she was before she met Romeo?
How Did It Go?
Did students see that Juliet participates actively in the sonnet, rather than remaining silently on a pedestal, like Laura?
Did they understand that, though obviously familiar with the Petrarchan language and the conventional expectations of a love-object, Juliet appears eager to enter a relationship in which she expects to be an equal, giving as much as she gets?
A natural follow-up to this lesson would be one on Sonnet 116, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/admit impediment.”
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.