Some scholars have suggested that the scene in which Juliet is discovered by the Nurse and is presumed dead (Romeo and Juliet, 4.5), is at least in part, a parody. In this lesson, students entertain this idea and explore how the scene might work if presented as parody. Students compare and contrast the language and tone in the scene with Shakespeare's parody of Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night's Dream (Act 5, Scene 1). Students will consider how the interpretive choices made by directors and actors create the meaning of the text.
Length of Lesson
Three forty-five minute class periods
Text of Act 4 Scene 5, Romeo and Juliet
Text of Act 5 Scene 1, A Midsummer Night's Dream
Note: Have students take the vocabulary home to study the night before you introduce this lesson. Students need to be familiar with the definitions. Before beginning the lesson, review the words and their meanings. Ask students for examples to describe the words.
Vocabulary: Examining Tone in Parody and Tragedy
Comic relief: a humorous or farcical interlude in a serious literary work or drama, especially a tragedy, intended to relieve the dramatic tension or heighten the emotional impact by means of contrast
Diction: choice and use of words in speech or writing
Dramatic irony: the dramatic effect achieved by leading an audience to understand an incongruity between a situation and the accompanying speeches, while the characters in the play remain unaware of the incongruity
Parody: a literary or artistic work that imitates the characteristic style of an author or a work for comic effect or ridicule
Begin by giving students a copy of lines 168–174 from Act 1 Scene 1 of A Midsummer Night's Dream and lines 49–54 from Act 4 Scene 5 of Romeo and Juliet. Ask students to read over the lines silently and then together note what the passages have in common. Ask them how they think the lines should be read? Are they comic or tragic in tone? Have students volunteer to give readings of the lines in two different ways: as if they are dramatic text and as if they are comic text. Lead the students in a brief discussion regarding how the language and tone create meaning. (To further support the idea that the tone of the text can be changed by the actor, you might show the students the Pyramus and Thisbe scene from the Kevin Kline version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, paying particular attention to the way the actor playing Thisbe changes the tone of the entire sequence with great effect during his death scene.)
Explain to the students that the Pyramus and Thisbe scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream is a parody of Romeo and Juliet, and that the scene from Romeo and Juliet is regarded by some to be a parody of Jasper Heywood's translations of Roman tragedies. The Catholic Encyclopedia website provides information on Jasper and his brother John and the work that they did involving these translations. Why would Shakespeare put a parody near the end of this tragedy? The students may speculate on a variety of possible reasons for the parody, the most logical consideration being Shakespeare's masterful use of dramatic irony in the scene, that the audience knows that Juliet is not really dead. Another suggestion might be that it may provide some comic relief. One might argue that Shakespeare could afford a bit of parody at the expense of the parents and the nurse, who were not terribly sympathetic in their treatment of Juliet in the previous scene.
How then are we to play this scene? What are we to make of the characters and their expressions of grief, which so closely match the diction we find in the parody in A Midsummer Night's Dream? Would a sudden lapse into parody change the tone of the production? (You might note that the most recent commercial films of Romeo and Juliet essentially cut this scene from the film, and ask students to speculate on the reasoning behind their choice.)
Read the scene aloud with the students addressing any questions the students might have about vocabulary and the basic content of the scene. As you read the scene through ask students to consider some issues of staging and characterization such as: What is the frame of mind of the character when he or she first enters the room? When does the character realize/discover that Juliet is "dead" and how does the character react? In cases where characters repeat words, how might the actor give variety to the speech? Can the actor capitalize on the repetition of vowel and consonant sounds in various passages to further characterization? To create tone? For example consider what the cumulative effect might be of repetition of the long o sound in "O woe" repeated by the Nurse. To what extent do characters interact with each other? React to each other? For example, do Lord and Lady Capulet console each other? Do they console Paris? Do they interact with the body of Juliet? Decide who, if anyone, the characters are directing their lines to each time they speak. For example, what is the effect if the Nurse directs her lines of woe to Lady Capulet, Lord Capulet, and the body of Juliet? Or if she directs them upward to the sky? Or straight forward to the audience?
Special attention must be given to Friar Lawrence because he, like the audience, knows that Juliet is not really dead. He is actually "acting" when he enters the room, pretending to be looking for the bride. Does the audience ever see what he is really thinking as he watches the scene unfold? How does dramatic irony color the Friar's words in lines 65 through 83?
Read and discuss the scene with the intention of opening up to the students the wide variety of possibilities of how this scene might be staged. Then assign the students to groups of five or six to prepare the scene for presentation to the class. Distribute the Student Scene Preparation and Observation Form worksheet available at ArtsEdge (http://artsedge.kennedy-center.org/content/3737/3737_randj_sceneprep.pdf).
Remind the students that they are to address the notion that this scene may indeed be a parody, and that you want them to explore the tone of the scene. Students should be encouraged to give full expression to the enormous emotions suggested by the words and to find a variety of ways to express the repeated words and exclamations. Tell students to explore working with exaggerated or overblown emotions while trying at the same time to keep those huge emotions believable. Have the students present the scenes one right after another, avoiding full discussion until all the scenes are presented. Each scene will have nuanced differences in interpretation, and that is what you will want the students to focus on in their comments, the differences in interpretation. Ultimately you want to lead the students into discussing the importance of this scene in the play. What does it add? Is it essential to the play? Is it a parody? What does it tell us about the characters that we might not know otherwise?
Using the Assessment Rubric, available at ArtsEdge (http://artsedge.kennedy-center.org/content/3737/3737_randj_rubric.pdf), evaluate students on the following criteria:
• Can the student justify his interpretive choices by textual reference?
• Did the student allow diction (word choice) to inform characterization?
• Did the student create a cohesive interpretation of scene with his/her peers?
• Does the student demonstrate an awareness of multiple possibilities for the
interpretation of the same text?
• Was the student fully engaged in the presentation?
• Was the student fully engaged in the preparation of presentation?
• Was the student fully engaged in discussions comparing and contrasting scenes?
Students may turn to the final scene of the play to consider how the tone and diction is different from Act 4 Scene 5. You may also show students how various film makers have chosen to handle Act 5 Scene 4. The Franco Zeffirelli 1968 film version of Romeo and Juliet omits the scene but does manage to present Friar Lawrence in a way that may provide some insight to the students regarding his position in the scene. The 1996 Baz Luhrmann version with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes omits the scene altogether.
Shakespeare, W. Holland, Peter, ed. A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Oxford Shakespeare, Oxford University Press, 1994.
Shakespeare, W., Gibbons, Brian, ed. Romeo and Juliet, The Arden Shakespeare,
New York: Methuen, 1980.
Catholic Encyclopedia http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07319a.htm
Jim Carpenter, Ph.D.
La Plata High School, Charles County Public Schools La Plata, Maryland (retired)