Romeo & Juliet: Contexts KS4/5

Add to My Resources Remove from My Resources

In these lessons, students will be introduced to the world that Shakespeare lived and wrote in. This will help them to build an informed overview of the social and historical contexts important to the dramatic world. Tasks include: comparing Shakespeare's play with sources such as Brooke and Painter; analysing interpretations of the play in modern culture; and a discussion about the history of female characters on stage.

In order to benefit fully from these lesson plans, we recommend you use them in the following order:

If you would like to teach the play in greater detail, use these advanced KS4/5 Lesson Plans. If students are new to the play, we suggest you start with the introductory KS3 Lesson Plans

These lesson plans are available in the Downloads section at the bottom of this page. To download resources, you must be logged in. Sign up for free to access this and other exclusive featuresActivities mentioned in these resources are available in a separate downloadable 'Student Booklet', also at the bottom of this page. The 'Teachers' Guide' download explains how best to use Teach Shakespeare and also contains a bibliography and appendices referencing the resources used throughout.

Key Questions for Students:

Can I compare Shakespeare’s play with his source texts and identify and analyse key similarities and differences?

Can I speculate about Shakespeare’s reasons for making the changes he did and explain my ideas clearly?

Key words: adapt, compare, contrast, context, sixteenth century, sources, translation


Prologue: Opening Discussion

Students should list in pairs any films, TV shows or plays they can think of that retell a story from another part of the world, perhaps in another language. They should divide up their list into two groups: ones where the setting has been changed, and ones where the setting has remained the same to be faithful to the original.


Enter the Players: Group Tasks

1) Compare and contrast

In groups, students could read prepared extracts from the Brooke and Painter versions of the story. These are available in the Student Booklet. Can students pick out any striking similarities and differences when comparing these texts with what they know about Shakespeare’s version?

2) The origins of the story

The earliest versions of this story are in Italian. Students should read the information in the Student Booklet about these versions from Dante onwards, and answer the questions about them.


3) Shaping the source material

What can students conclude about how Shakespeare has interpreted and made use of his source texts? What changes has he made and why?


Exeunt: Closing Questions for Students

How did Shakespeare adapt his source material and why?


Suggested plenary activity…

What particular challenges do sixteenth century texts present to their readers, and how did students tackle them? Ask students to compile a list of their best pieces of advice to fellow students on reading and comprehending sixteenth century verse and prose.


Asides: Further Resources


  • If you have an Italian speaker in your class, you could listen to an early version of the story in Italian.


  • While Shakespeare preserves Romeo as an Italian-sounding name, Iulietta or Giulietta becomes Juliet in Shakespeare’s play. Students could speculate about the reasons for this.


Epilogue: Teacher’s Note

Students could produce a short piece of comparative and analytical writing to be assessed for reading and writing.

Key Questions for Students:

Can I analyse the ending of the play and consider the effects of this ending on the audience?

Can I find out more about how Romeo and Juliet has been received and how it has captured the imaginations of other writers?

Key words: context, convention, ending, farce, melodrama, nineteenth century, novel, taste, tragicomedy


Prologue: Opening Discussion

You could show students this brief quotation from David Bevington:

“A tragicomic version, in which the young lovers did not die after all, became popular as a substitute for Shakespeare’s tragedy. Even in a tragic unfolding of the story, the ending was revamped for melodramatic effect: Romeo stayed alive long enough after having drunk poison to be able to share with Juliet the agony and the ecstasy of their last moments on earth.”

Ask students what they think about how Romeo and Juliet ends, and the idea of making alterations to the ending of works of literature. Would Romeo and Juliet be better or worse if it ended happily with the lovers surviving their ordeal? How else could the ending of the play be changed and what would the effects of this be?


Enter the Players: Group Tasks

1) Garrick’s version

The actor David Garrick made several changes to Shakespeare’s text in the middle of the eighteenth century, and this version became very popular with audiences for many decades. What can students find out about the changes he made and why they think he made them? This could lead into a discussion about taste, morals, etc.


2) Women on stage

In Shakespeare’s time, both male and female roles were played by men and boys, but it eventually became more acceptable for women to appear on stage. In the nineteenth century, the part of Juliet was seen as a key role for any actress to play. Eliza O’Neill, Fanny Kemble and Ellen Terry all won praise for their performances as Juliet. There are also records from this period of several women playing Romeo on stage, including the American Charlotte Cushman who played Romeo to great acclaim in London and New York. Ask students to find out more about the history of women as professional actors. Students could watch extracts from the movie Shakespeare in Love starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes, in which a young aristocratic woman disguises herself as a man to play Romeo.


3) Nicholas Nickleby

Students should read the extract from Chapter 25 of Charles Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. In small groups, students should clarify words they’re unsure about and answer the questions that follow the text in the Student Booklet.


Exeunt: Closing Questions for Students

How has having a greater knowledge and understanding about context enhanced my understanding of the play Romeo and Juliet?

In what other areas and aspects of the play has knowledge of context enhanced my understanding?


Suggested plenary activity…

Students could each select one short quotation from the play where their knowledge of historical and social context has supported them in their quest for meaning, and share examples with one another.


Asides: Further Resources

  • Jane Austen refers to Romeo and Juliet in Sense and Sensibility, as Queen Mab is the name of a horse Willoughby wishes to give to Marianne Dashwood. In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the eponymous hero falls in love with Sybil Vane, a young actress playing the part of Juliet. In Terence Rattigan’s twentieth century farce Harlequinade, a touring company of actors are preparing to perform Romeo and Juliet in the town of Brackley.


  • Journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s one-woman play Nowhere to Belong: Tales of an Extravagant Stranger is about her experience of playing Juliet as a teenager in 1960s Uganda.


  • Students could listen to a medley of popular songs that refer to Romeo and Juliet such as Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’, Taylor Swift’s ‘Love Story’ and Dire Straits’ ‘Romeo and Juliet’. You could also play music from the Prokofiev ballet as students are entering the classroom.


Epilogue: Teacher’s Note

These materials build on the Key Stage 3 materials under Historical and Social Context.

Key Questions for Students:

Can I comment on a range of interpretations of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet?

Can I analyse some of the factors that influence how literary works are interpreted in different contexts?

Key words: cinematography, contemporary, context, culture, interpretation, intertextuality, musical score, parallel, relevant, topical, visual arts


Prologue: Opening Discussion

Introduce today’s lesson by sampling one or more versions of Romeo and Juliet that put a very modern twist on the play, e.g. graphic novels; Romeo and Juliet told in Lego; a Manga or Bollywood style Romeo and Juliet. Ask students to comment and give their feedback on:

  • how faithful it seems to be to the original play
  • who this might appeal to
  • their own verdict on this particular retelling

Remind students that Shakespeare’s version of Romeo and Juliet was in itself a retelling of an older story, and that Shakespeare made changes of his own to the story.


Enter the Players: Group Tasks

1) Paintings

Turn the classroom into a Romeo and Juliet gallery. Use paintings such as those by Fuseli, Ford Madox Brown, Klimt, etc. First, students could tour the pictures and make notes on their initial impressions of each image:

  • the part of the play it depicts
  • any ideas about artist/date
  • their opinion of the image

Then students should work in small groups and become experts specialising in one picture. They are going to be preparing tour guide notes on cue cards; one member of their group should then use these when giving a brief talk about their picture for the forthcoming exhibition. Give students a fixed amount of time to research their image, prepare their cue cards and rehearse the talk. Then open the 'exhibition' and hear from each group in turn, as the class move from picture to picture.


2) A recent interpretation

Watch or find out more about a popular version of Romeo + Juliet, e.g. the 1996 film starring Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio. Discuss what makes this version of interest to modern audiences, e.g.

  • has the setting been updated?
  • are particular themes emphasised or parallels drawn with current issues?
  • what about the look and feel of this version in terms of cinematography, the musical score, special effects, etc.


3) Quiz: What’s the connection?

Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays and has entered our language and culture in all sorts of ways. Ask students if they can spot the connection between Romeo and Juliet and the following:

  • Gnomeo and Juliet (animated movie)
  • Lovestruck (perfume advert)
  • Kenneth Branagh’s revival of Harlequinade by Terence Rattigan (play)
  • Romuauld et Juliette (French movie)
  • West Side Story (musical)
  • A Rose by Any Name (gardening book)
  • Starcrossed (TV show)
  • A Plague on Both Your Houses (novel)

What do students notice about the aspects of Romeo and Juliet that are particularly well-known and iconic?


Exeunt: Closing Questions for Students

What kind of impact has Romeo and Juliet had on our culture and language today?

How have directors, actors, etc. sought to make Romeo and Juliet relevant and contemporary?

What is it about Romeo and Juliet that resonates with audiences today?


Suggested plenary activity…

Introduce the homework task (described below), and give students some thinking time to scribble down their initial ideas.


Aside: Further Resource

  • In the Key Stage 3 materials, it is suggested that students could view a YouTube clip of Kate Tempest as part of a broader discussion about the relevance and value of reading and studying Shakespeare today. To continue this discussion, students could view this clip of comedian, writer and musician Tim Minchin talking about what Shakespeare means to him:


Epilogue: Teacher’s Note

As a homework task, students could be given the opportunity to think in a creative and wide-ranging way about interpreting Romeo and Juliet in the 21st century. They should create or design something inspired by the play, such as an item of clothing or jewellery, a poem or song, a comic strip, Lego scene, garden, foodstuff or advert!

Key Questions for Students:

Can I write about the context of Romeo and Juliet in a way that enhances audiences’ understanding and enjoyment of the play?

Key words: audience, background, context, cultural, historical, literary, programme, purpose, social


Prologue: Opening Discussion

Show students a range of theatre programmes for them to browse and borrow ideas from. Students should make notes on the contents of programmes. What are the essential items a programme should include? What else is sometimes included?


Enter the Players: Group Tasks

1) Theatre programmes

Having looked closely at a number of programmes, explain to students what their assessment task will be: to produce their own programme for a production of Romeo and Juliet at the Globe. Ensure that students are clear about the audience and purpose for their programme. Encourage students to think about this as broadly as possible, acknowledging that a programme has a range of purposes: to inform audiences about who is acting in the play, etc.; to explain the context and perhaps the production history of the play; to be an attractive souvenir for audiences (importance of cover, photographs, etc.).


2) Look closely at an article/essay from a Globe programme

Model a close reading of one article from a Globe programme that gives readers valuable insights into an aspect of the play’s context.


3) Writing your own programme notes

Students should now draft their own programme for a production of Romeo and Juliet at the Globe. Provide students with a list of minimum contents, but students can choose to include other elements to enhance their finished piece of writing for assessment. Alternatively, students could collaborate to produce one entire programme as small groups or as a whole class.

Contents could include:

  • a piece about the history of the Globe theatre
  • an interview with a member of the backstage team
  • a piece comparing the Italian and English source texts with Shakespeare’s play
  • a timeline of historical events from around the time the play was written
  • a collage of images and ideas (sketches, moodboards, etc.) that provide insights into the setting and artistic vision for this particular production
  • a cast list and rehearsal images
  • a piece about attitudes to love, marriage and the role of women in Elizabethan society
  • a retrospective piece about some different productions of Romeo and Juliet
  • an opinion piece by the director about why this play still resonates with audiences today


Exeunt: Closing Discussion

Why do people buy theatre programmes?

What should a theatre programme include? 


Suggested plenary activity…

Students should exchange work in progress and peer assess drafts using the success criteria.


Aside: Further Resource

  • With this and many other activities in these materials, particularly Text in Performance ones, students could also make links to their local theatres. Perhaps they could visit the theatre to find out more about: programmes and publicity, the theatre’s history and archives, front of house and box office as well as many other aspects such as the auditorium, technical features of the theatre ‘behind the scenes’, stage management, etc.


Epilogue: Teacher’s Note

Students’ programme notes for Romeo and Juliet can be assessed for reading and writing.

Key Questions for Students:

Can I make references to context in my essays that support and enhance my interpretation of the text?

Key words: context, essay, interpretation, relevant, text


Prologue: Opening Discussion

Ask students to prepare a quickfire factual quiz about the context of Romeo and Juliet, e.g. Where is the play set?


Enter the Players: Group Tasks

1) Writing about context in essays

Students should look back through their planning of the various tasks from the task banks that are featured throughout these materials. They should identify for each plan up to three pieces of contextual information that they could include in their finished essays. Each piece of contextual information should: 

  • be relevant to the point being made
  • support and enhance textual interpretation


2) Building your own interpretation informed by context

The Student Booklet contains a page of activities that will help students integrate perceptive comments about context into their written work about Romeo and Juliet.


Exeunt: Closing Discussion

Self/peer assessment task reviewing relevance or otherwise of points made in relation to context.


Aside: Further Resource

  • The extent to which placing the text in its historical and social context is expected of students will depend on the curriculum and syllabus being studied, and the weighting of assessment objectives against particular skill areas. 


Epilogue: Teacher’s Note

A full list of Romeo and Juliet tasks can also be found in the Student Booklet.


Want to download these resources and more? Log in or sign up to Teach Shakespeare.


Log in or sign up to add your own notes.