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Understanding Shakespeare

Understanding Shakespeare Activity

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See more activities in: High School, Literary Analysis

Directors are constantly tweaking Shakespeare's plays in order to make them appeal to modern audiences. Though they often update the sets and the costumes, they rarely change the language, which can be a major roadblock in getting kids to understand and appreciate the Bard. Put your teenager in the director's chair by having her put a modern-day spin on Romeo and Juliet.

What You Need:

  • Copy of Romeo and Juliet (an annotated copy is ideal)
  • Copies of film versions of the play and/or movies based on it
  • Pen and paper

What You Do:

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

Romeo, Romeo, why are you Romeo?*

Deny thy father and refuse thy name

Say no to your dad and change your name

Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love

And I'll no longer be a Capulet

If not, I will change my name, as long as you say you love me.

*In Shakespeare's time, 'wherefore' literally would have meant 'why'. Most printed versions of Shakespeare come with notes that explain the outdated language. Click here for a great annotated version of the balcony scene.

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

Romeo, Romeo, why do you, of all people, have to be a Montague?

Deny thy father and refuse thy name

Blow off your dad and take a new name

Or, of thou wilt not, be but sworn my love

And I'll no longer be a Capulet.

If you don't do it, I will because I am just that crazy about you.

  1. Start by familiarizing your teen with the story. Rent one of the film versions, such as 1968's Romeo and Juliet, and a film with a plot that's adapted from it, such as West Side Story. Have her make notes of the way each movie brings (or doesn't bring) the story up to date, and the ways each film appeals to its audience. For instance, West Side Story is set in modern-day New York, and uses racial tensions between rival street gangs as the source of the “ancient grudge”.
  2. Instead of rewriting the entire play, have her begin by breaking down Juliet's balcony speech. She can start by translating it directly into modern English. For instance:
  3. Then, take the literal translation and discuss with your teen what Juliet might be saying without words. For example, Juliet isn't just asking why Romeo is a Montague – she knows he's a Montague because his parents are Montagues. She's asking why she had to fall in love with someone from the one family hers opposes.
  4. Update the literal translation by rewriting it in more slangy, casual words.
  5. There are several more famous speeches from Shakespeare that can receive your teenager's treatment – try Hamlet's solioquy (“To be or not to be...”), Henry V's address (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers...”), or Mark Antony's speech (“Friends, Romans, countrymen...”)

Fun Fact: Aside from writing the most enduring stories of the Western world, many phrases spoken in Shakespeare's plays are now common sayings in the English language. “one fell swoop”, “dead as a doornail”, and “in a pickle” are all taken directly from Shakespeare.

Jody Amable is an Assistant Editor at Education.com. She has previously worked as a camp counselor, and spent her college years hosting birthday parties for kids at the Bay Area Discovery Museum. She has a degree in Journalism from San Francisco State University and writes for local blogs, magazines and weeklies in her spare time.

Updated on Oct 11, 2013
See more activities in: High School, Literary Analysis
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