Innovative Lessons for Romeo and Juliet: Duels, Sword Play, and Poetry
For teachers, a new school year can either mean rehashing the same old same old or looking for ways to stretch their pedagogical wings.
One area that needs regular revamping is literature. How do you bring literature to life for students who only read under duress? Romeo and Juliet is a standard high school text, and a nexus from which dozens of inventive lesson plans can be created. In my class, one of the most effective was “Flashing Swords and Poetic Words.” In that unit, students performed the famous fight scene in Romeo and Juliet with real foils — after much discussion, scaffolding, and practice.
Source of the Scene in Romeo and Juliet
Act III, Scene 1 finds Benvolio and Mercutio entering the square where Tybalt and his “homies” will shortly appear. Mercutio is itching for a fight, calling Tybalt out even when that Capulet indicates he is more interested in Romeo than Mercutio. Finally, almost in a dancing duel, the two cross swords. Romeo comes on the scene and tries to separate them. In the process, Tybalt slides the point of his blade under Romeo’s arm and pierces Mercutio’s chest. Mercutio chastises Romeo for getting in the way. “I thought all for the best,” says Romeo defending himself. Mercutio is less forgiving of his best friend, “A plague o’ both your houses,” and he dies shortly after.
Rapiers, Epees, and Foils
All of these small swords are typical of the type Romeo, Mercutio, and Tybalt might have used. Longer and more slender than the swashbuckling swords seen in pirate movies, an epee were designed for piercing rather than slicing. Proficiency with a sword was one of many measures of a man, others being courtly behavior and wit. Mercutio finds fault with Tybalt’s skill, “…a villain, that fights by the book of arithmetic!”
1. Read the scene with the students, afterward discussing issues such as “quick to anger”, “heat” as it relates to temper and the weather, “Why Tybalt won the first fight”, and “group mentality.” This can be an opportunity to relate phrases from the play to current idioms and vocabulary.
2. Watch the sword fight scene on YouTube. There are many versions. The best I’ve found are: 1) Act III, Scene 1, from Franco Zeffirelli’s movie, or 2) the 1996 remake.
3. Check out the weapons— An actual foil, rapier, or epee, available at various retailers for around $70. (Be sure the foil is fitted with a button for safety.) Masks are about the same price. If your drama department does not have these props available, plastic versions of foils can be purchased from costume shops online, or fairly realistic models can be made by rolling poster paper very tightly and fitting a hilt and handle with tape. Regardless of the type of weapon used in this unit, the safety section is still a necessity. Strangely, my students, in an urban high school, were nervous about using the foils, but the safety discussion helped them relax, as did frequent practice.
4. A diagram of the weapon — Use this to discuss the purpose, history and vocabulary associated with the fencing weapons. Dueling in the era of Romeo and Juliet depended on the art of the kill, and the weapon was designed with that purpose in mind. Other levels of discussion include:
Purpose — Fashion and Protection
History — Young men and their deadly toys.
Vocabulary — (for movement and props) hilt, blade, pommel, button, grip, guard, point, lunge, en garde, attack, parry, riposte, feint, counter-attack, thrust.
5. SAFETY — Many sites online outline safety issues clearly, and it is critical that students sign off on the safety requirements, even if the weapons they use are not “real”. My students signed a document promising to maintain safe usage of the swords throughout the practice and performance.
6. PARTS — Assign parts for the performance:
7. CHOREOGRAPHY — This is not the time to recreate the actual sword fight from the play or the movie. Instead, keep it simple, just 6 or 8 moves. It will be enough to deliver the lines spoken just before and during the fight scene that leaves Mercutio mortally wounded. The performance should start at the point when Romeo enters and sees Mercutio facing off against Tybalt.
Well, peace be with you, sir. Here comes my man.
The actual sword fight begins shortly after, when Romeo has tried to pacify Tybalt and Mercutio gets angry.
O calm, dishonorable, vile submission! [draws his sword]
Tybalt, you rat-catcher, will you walk?
Both fencers in en garde position — swords raised and crossed. Feet should be close together with one perpendicular to the other at the center. The non-sword hand should be behind the back. Fencer #1 advances — swords are crossed.
- Advancing fencer extends leg forward as in second photograph.
- Advancing fencer parries- that is, he/she moves his/her sword back and forth against the other.
- Fencer #2 backs up — swords are raised as fencers parry back and forth.
- Fencer #2 advances — swords are raised and fencers parry.
- Fencer #1 backs up — fencers continue to parry.
- Fencer #2 goes for the coup de gras by extending his/her sword arm and gently tapping the rib cage of Fencer #1.8.
ASSESSMENT — This assignment should not be graded strictly on the quality of the performance. Instead, look at issues such as effort, following directions, safety, and partnering.
BREAK A LEG!