Juliet vs Laura: Analyzing Sonnet Structure in Romeo and Juliet

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Nicole Lowrance (Juliet) and Graham Hamilton (Romeo) in Folger Theatre's 2005 Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Nicole Lowrance (Juliet) and Graham Hamilton (Romeo) in Folger Theatre's 2005 Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Photo Credit: 
Carol Rosegg

Authors: Louisa Newlin taught high school English for more than 40 years. She wrote "Nice Guys Finish Dead: Teaching Henry IV, Part I in High School" for the Shakespeare Set Free series. She leads workshops on sonnets for teachers. Gigi Bradford, former director of the NEA Literature Program and Folger Poetry Series, taught the Folger's "Shakespeare’s Sisters" seminar.

Editor: Greta Brasgalla, Folger National Teacher Corps and Curriculum Specialist at El Dorado High School, El Paso, TX

Common Core Anchor Standards: R.1, R.3, R.5, W.1, W.9, SL1, L.5

Text: Romeo and Juliet 1.5.104-18 


Lesson Overview

Students will analyze Petrarchan conventions within the three sonnets in Romeo and Juliet. Students will evaluate whether Juliet adheres to or rejects these conventions.

Time: Two 45-minute class periods


What To Do

Day One

  1. Activate prior knowledge through a review structure and Petrarchan conventions.
  2. Pass out the text of 1.5.104-23 from Romeo and Juliet. Divide the students into two groups: “Romeo” and “Juliet.” Assign the Nurse’s line to one person.
  3. Read the passage chorally. “Nurse” reads line 123. Ask students to circle unfamiliar words.
  4. Ask students if they recognize the form used. What’s unusual about it? Note that in lines 115-23, Romeo and Juliet appear to be starting a second sonnet, perhaps even a sonnet sequence, but are interrupted by the Nurse. How is this symbolic?
  5. Discuss the meanings of any words that students have circled. You may want to have a whole class copy of annotations on chart paper or on the board.
  6. Read the lines again, chorally.
  7. Ask students to describe the ways in which this passage is “Petrarchan.” (Religious imagery, love at first sight, the lady approached as holy, the lover begging her favor, a threat of despair, and elaborate metaphors, among others.) Have students note lines that show these conventions.
  8. Assign two “actors” to be Romeo and Juliet, ideally volunteers, who will act out the lines silently as the rest of the class reads them. The kiss can be faked.
  9. Ask the rest of the class to act as directors and suggest ways Romeo and Juliet might move or gesture at key points. There will be a lot of stopping and starting. Encourage the class to look at the actors, not the script.

Day 2

  1. Have choral readers, the Nurse, and the silent actors from yesterday go through the passage one more time, employing the directions given to them by the rest of the class.
  2. After Romeo and Juliet return to their seats, ask students what they noticed about Juliet’s behavior. In what way is it “anti-Petrarchan”? Students will have probably picked up that Juliet is neither passive nor inaccessible but rather a bold and witty heroine.
  3. Students can continue with their annotations of the scene and add to the class annotation copy. They may want to complete a Venn diagram (or similar graphic organizer) to note differences.


Have students respond to the following question in their journals: Has Juliet become a more significant rebel than she was before she met Romeo? Use textual evidence to support your answer.


Compare the sonnet in Romeo and Juliet to Sonnet 116.