This video from Shakespeare Uncovered explores the famous balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. Students will examine the dialogue, learn what it really means, and decide which character is driving the scene — and the play — forward.
How many of the following statements about marriage in Shakespeare's time are true?
"Young women had no say over whom they married."
"Girls were married off when they were children, and it was normal for a girl to be married by age 13."
"Brides and grooms didn't meet until their wedding day."
In fact, all these statements are false! In reality, marriage practices in Elizabethan England were a lot more complex than these "marriage myths" suggest.
For instance, during the time that Romeo and Juliet was written, most women didn't marry at age 13, as Juliet does. The average age of a woman on her wedding day was 27. Later marriages were common among the working classes who needed time to amass the money needed to establish a household. Younger marriages were allowed—boys could legally marry by age 14; girls could marry at 12—but these youthful matches were not encouraged, and parental permission was required.
For people of Juliet's class—those who were richer and more powerful—it was a little different. For these families, marriage was a means to forge alliances and combine fortunes. It was also more common for a young woman to be married by her teens, sometimes to a much older man. Marriage for love wasn't unheard of; many marriages resulted from love matches. But among the elite, considerations of wealth and status were often of primary important.
Still, it was uncommon for a young man or woman to be forced to wed against their will. We see this in Romeo and Juliet when Juliet's parents ask if she could "like" Paris. She replies: "I'll look to like, if looking liking move." When Paris urges Capulet to let Juliet marry him right away, he refuses, expressing the popular opinion that young marriages can be dangerous.
Once Juliet spies Romeo at the Capulet's feast, she veers from the common practices of courtship and marriage. Typically, marriage would be preceded by courtship and betrothal, a ceremony in which the couple promises to marry in the future. The ceremony involved some customary actions, such as clasping hands, giving gifts such as rings, and kissing, often under the watchful eye of witnesses who could later attest to the bond if needed. The couples' names would be announced in church over the course of three Sundays to allow anyone who knew if the proposed marriage would be invalid (due to, say, a prior commitment) to come forward. Later, the couple would go to church where a priest would make their marriage official.
It's clear that Romeo and Juliet disregard all these traditions. They forgo their betrothal and make their own plans to wed. But it's Juliet's role that represents the most shocking overturning of convention. In inviting Romeo to join her at the church, she refuses the woman's passive role in courtship—receiving offers and signaling her willingness to be wooed—and instead becomes the active wooer, bringing about her own match.
Distribute the Balcony Scene handout. Have students act out the Balcony scene two different ways. First, with a meek and afraid Juliet and a bold Romeo, then as a proud and assertive Juliet and an unsure and submissive Romeo. Do this by putting students into groups of 3 (2 actors; 1 director) and rehearse the scene. Let ½ the groups do it with Romeo in control and the other with Juliet in control.
Then, distribute the Who's in Control? handout. Ask students to compare Juliet’s language to Romeo’s and decide who is in control of this budding relationship.
Finally, instruct students to answer the question “who do you think is in control?” by writing an argument-based essay using evidence they've gathered from the text and their performances.
Encourage a classroom discussion about the balcony itself. Ask students to think about what the balcony represents. Why isn’t Juliet just talking to Romeo from a window? How would the scene be different if she was? What does the balcony allow the characters to do? Where in the text is the balcony referenced? (Hint: it’s not!)
What is a “Petrarchan lover”?
Instruct your students to research the notion of Petrarchan love. Students may research alone or in small groups. Students should be prepared to answer the following questions:
Who was Petrarch (1304-1374)?
What is Petrarchan Love?
Do you think he influenced Shakespeare’s writing? If so, how?
Next, have your students compare the form of a Petrarchan sonnet (Octet-Sestet) to a Shakespearean sonnet (3 quatrains-one couplet).