Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

TBT: Great Teaching Idea for Romeo and Juliet

We revisit Julia Perlowski’s active lesson surrounding Romeo and Juliet‘s Prologue from 2014.


By Julia Perlowski 

William Fox presents Theda Bara in William Shakespeare’s masterpiece Romeo and Juliet, 1916. Folger Shakespeare Library.
William Fox presents Theda Bara in William Shakespeare’s masterpiece Romeo and Juliet, 1916. Folger Shakespeare Library.

If the use of Shakespeare’s early modern English is under attack in some “regular” and “honors” English classrooms, just think about what the reaction might be to the use of such rigorous text in an Intensive Reading class!

At Pompano Beach High School, I am not only the ONLY drama teacher, I am also the ONLY reading teacher. I teach all levels of reading from grades 9-12. While I am producing Romeo and Juliet in the auditorium during fourth period with my drama students, I am reading the same texts way out in portable 3 during first and second periods with my striving readers.

I believe that a text does not have to be changed among students of a variety of abilities… just the TASKS! One may “perform” Shakespeare by acting it out or by engaging in ANY activity that requires one to read closely and critically to execute the task. With struggling readers, there is great power in reading and re-reading and re-reading, for that is how even the best of readers grasps meaning, nuances, and depth.

Here is the “performance” task around the R&J Prologue for my Intensive Reading Class:

Hand out the PROLOGUE on a single sheet of paper in big font (about 16). You can find an online version on Folger Digital Texts. Fit this on one page! Big font makes the text look easier somehow. Also number the lines for easy reference. Isolating this text is what we reading teachers mean by CHUNKING… reducing large, complex texts into manageable bites.

Divide the room into the Capulets and the Montagues.   Have these groups read the Prologue in unison by alternating the lines between them.  You can repeat the reading by switching the lines over. I like to have my kids read THREE times with the following tasks:

  1. First reading: Just read the stuff. Don’t worry about meaning. Try those words out!
  2. Second reading: Does anything stick out for anyone?
  3. Third reading: What more about the story? How do you know?

Get students into pairs and have them, with their partners, circle all the concepts of two that are inherent in the Prologue. Push your students through this exercise four times, each time challenging your readers to consider ever more sophisticated concepts of two by considering words in context, pronouns and structure. (Scroll down to see the marked-up Prologue.)

Here is what is what happens with my ninth graders as well as with my third-grade ESOL students in Lawrence, MA (when I am called to teach there):

First reading: “Ok! We’re done!”

During the first mining of the prologue for concepts of two, students quickly scan the text, smugly picking out the most obvious. Students think this task is easy and is supposed to last all of three minutes.

Second reading: “Oh, yeeeeeaaaah!”

During the second reading (and sometimes the first), students begin to consider words that imply two, especially for the purposes of this play. Notice the selection of words such as foes, overthrows and children’s. While at this stage there are added a few more discoveries…we’re not NEARLY done! This is when I tell them that there are probably 30 or more concepts of two enshrined in the Prologue.

Third reading: What’s parsed is pronoun

Once in a while, you will have a student question the concept of two inherent in a pronoun. This is where it gets interesting! Students more often than not wind up circling EVERY pronoun once they fixate on this. The best teaching moments are the discussions around “we” in line 2 and “our” in lines 12 and 14. Here the concept of the narrator personality emerges as well as the presence of the actors and the ensuing play.

Fourth reading: “Nooooo, waaaaay!”

I love this level! The kids get wide-eyed. One student argues that “alike” should be included because you have to compare two things in order to conclude that they are alike. Another student quickly catches on and says that if something is broken…you will have two things! This argument goes a long way for “mend.” When you mend something, you are bringing TWO things together. More sophisticated discussion involves noticing that “civil” is said twice as well as “shall.”

Two households, both alike in dignity,                                   1

(In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),                               2

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,                           3

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.                       4

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes                            5

A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;                            6

Whose misadventured piteous overthrows                             7

Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.                    8

The fearful passage of their death-marked love,                    9

And the continuance of their parents’ rage,                            10

Which, but their children’s end, naught could remove,        11

Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;                                12

The which, if you with patient ears attend,                              13

What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.               14


Julia Perlowski is a Theatre, Reading, and English instructor at Pompano Beach High School in Florida.