A Crazy Lesson about Romeo and Juliet

Back in my college days as an English major, I had a professor who assigned the best midterm essay ever: Is Romeo and Juliet a tragedy caused by fate, or was it caused by the flawed choices of one or more of the characters? Substantiate your position citing specific examples from the text.

I loved this question because there was no right or wrong answer; it was simply about proving my opinion. Honestly, I don’t even remember which argument I chose, but the question has stayed with me ever since. In fact, I used it myself when I taught Romeo and Juliet to high school freshmen back in the 1990’s. Let me take you back in time…

Due to budget crunches, we only had a classroom set of the text in which the play was contained. The required course was also taught in a lockstep way with other teachers covering the same material. I ran into a snag one Friday when my class finished reading the play a full day ahead of schedule. The handouts for the next assignment wouldn’t arrive until Monday, so I had a 90-minute period to kill. My mind went back to that awesome question, and I thought, “Let’s put Romeo on trial–posthumously, of course–for causing the death of Juliet et al.”

On the fly, I proposed to my class that we create a courtroom, and I assigned a prosecutor and a defender (my two sharpest students) who would be responsible for proving Romeo guilty or shifting the blame to someone else or circumstance in his defense. I let one kid be the judge and another the bailiff. I assigned various students to play all the parts of the characters with the charge that they answer any questions presented to them as would their character (bonus points if they could fake the Shakespearean lingo). It was kind of a crazy, hap-hazard idea, but the kids inhaled the assignment. I gave them 45 minutes to start their prep, and they got to work scouring the play for details that would condemn or acquit Romeo or insights about each primary character and who witnessed what.

And then we started the trial. My chosen attorneys were just as dramatic and detailed as any daytime courtroom drama show, and the class members had a fantastic time both participating and watching the others in their roles. Come the end of class, however, we had only gotten through the prosecutor’s side of the story. Naturally, they asked if we’d be continuing the trial on Monday.

I hesitated. We had other coursework to do. I needed to keep pace with the other teachers. It was one thing to be ahead, but falling behind was bad.

And then my students–a majority of them, mind you–begged me to let them finish the trial. These were freshmen. Teenagers longing for the opportunity to take home a Shakespearean play and pore over its contents in order to bring this project to fruition with accuracy and insight. They wanted to do extra, in-depth literary analysis for homework.

Who does that?

And how on earth could I possibly refuse them?

I told them we’d do it, but the coursework scheduled for Monday’s class would have to be homework for them that night, so we wouldn’t fall behind. The class unanimously agreed. It was perhaps my happiest, proudest moment teaching ever. Monday was a smashing success, and we all came away with great memories and an increased appreciation for the complexity of Shakespeare’s classic drama.

My colleagues were not happy, but that’s another story.

Let’s take this question to you. What do you think? Who is to blame for all the deaths in the original Romeo and Juliet? Was it all just a case of star-crossed lovers destined to fail? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Coming in May!

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