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Romeo and Juliet

Who's to Blame?

Romeo and Juliet

Unit Summary

Students explore the themes in Romeo and Juliet and see how the themes apply to modern life and relationships. Students pair with assigned ePALS partners and discuss the differences they see between Shakespeare’s time and their own as well as discuss their impressions and reflections. As students read, they collect evidence as to who or what is guilty of murder. They present arguments in Verona’s court to support whether the deaths of Romeo and Juliet were the result of fate, other people’s decisions and actions, or their own choices. Using these arguments, students then write a jury statement discussing their findings and who or what they find guilty. 

Curriculum-Framing Questions

  • Essential Questions
    How does literature help us better understand ourselves?
  • Unit Questions
    How does Shakespeare still speak to a 21st century audience?
    Who or what is ultimately to blame for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet?
  • Content Questions
    How do you read and understand Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English?
    Who are the characters in Romeo and Juliet, and how do they contribute to the deaths in the play?
    What is imagery and what are some examples of how Shakespeare uses imagery in Romeo and Juliet to present a compelling and powerful message?
    What are the themes and issues in Romeo and Juliet that are relevant today?

Assessment Processes

View how a variety of student-centered assessments are used in the Romeo and Juliet: Who’s to Blame? Unit Plan. These assessments help students and teachers set goals; monitor student progress; provide feedback; assess thinking, processes, performances, and products; and reflect on learning throughout the learning cycle.

Instructional Procedures

Setting Up an ePALS Partner Project

Search for a class wanting a partner class to study Romeo and Juliet at ePALS*. If none exists, set up a project proposal. Do this as far in advance as possible.

Beginning of the Year
Introduce a discussion about why people like a good story. What is it about the writing of characters that helps them “come alive” off the page? What kind of characters can students identify with? What do stories do for us, anyway? Are they just a means of escaping into fantasy? Then, introduce and discuss the Essential Question that will be used all year, How does literature help us better understand ourselves?

Weeks 1–4

Understand the Play
During the first four weeks of the unit, set up a variety of activities to help students understand Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This helps students gain an initial understanding of Shakespeare and his time. Activities may include:

  • Read the passage by Bernard Levin* about the influence of Shakespeare on our everyday speech.
  • For homework, ask students to bring in examples of where they see Shakespeare’s influence in their world today (movies, TV, magazines, other storylines, and so forth).
  • Present background information about Shakespeare, his time, and Elizabethan theater, so students can better understand his work. Resources are available at the Shakespeare Resource Center* and Shakespeare’s Life and Times*.
  • Discuss the following questions:
    • What plot elements are usually required in a blockbuster movie?
    • Which elements do you think are present in Romeo and Juliet?
    • How does Shakespeare still speak to a 21st century audience?
    • Do you think Shakespeare still has any impact on what we hear, see, and think today?
  • Hand out the understanding Elizabethan English document for students’ use throughout the unit.

Discuss the projects in this unit:

  • Trials in Verona’s court to determine who or what is at fault for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet
  • Use of ePALS partners (an assigned e-mail partner from an English class in another part of the country—or even the world) to help each other analyze the play

Assign each student an e-mail partner from an English class in another part of the country (or world) to help them analyze the play. Explain that students have 30 minutes one day a week to e-mail their ePALS partner. Discuss expectations. Distribute the ePALS discussion document electronically, in hard copy, or both. This document is to be used to write notes, questions, and summaries for each of the scenes and is a scaffold for their discussions with their ePALS partners. Discuss how the questions help them form an opinion about the Unit Questions as to whether Shakespeare still speaks to a 21st century audience. Point out that the questions also help them to gather their thoughts about who is to blame for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. Assign ePALS partners. Explain that students’ reading logs will be checked periodically. Distribute and review the reading log checklist. Have students brainstorm “two truths and a fib” for their ePALS partner introduction. (See the ePALS discussion document.) Students must have the three statements written out as their “ticket” to use the computer. Provide a short amount of time for students to e-mail their introduction to their ePALS partners.

Assign students to read the play. Read difficult parts aloud in class. Act out some of the scenes. During the reading of the play, explore plot elements, Elizabethan English, metaphors, and imagery. Present the following questions:

  • How do the metaphors help to paint a picture of not only Juliet, but Romeo’s state of mind?
  • How does that imagery affect how we judge Romeo's true intentions or inclinations?
  • How does the use of imagery add to the mood of this scene?
  • How does the imagery affect the way we respond to this scene?
  • Considering how Romeo talks about Juliet, what does that suggest about Romeo's character and primary focus?

Explain that these initial activities prepare students for trials in Verona’s court to determine who or what is at fault for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet.

Set Up Verona’s Court
Verona’s Court hears four cases. Assign different prosecuting attorneys, defending attorneys, judges, witnesses, and jurors for each case. The cases are against the following as the ones who should be held accountable for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet:

  • Romeo and Juliet themselves
  • The Montague and Capulet families
  • Friar Laurence
  • Fate

Assign or ask for volunteers for the following court case members:

  • Eight students (each case has a team of two students) as the prosecutors
  • Eight students (each case has a team of two students) as the defending attorneys Four judges
  • Witnesses (if a witness will be called in different cases, assign a different student so all get a chance to participate; costumes encouraged; prosecutors and defending attorneys submit a witness list for their case to determine which witnesses will be required for all the cases):
    • Balthasar
    • Fate (personified)
    • Friar Laurence
    • Juliet
    • Lady Capulet
    • Lord Capulet
    • Mercutio
    • Prince Escalus
    • Romeo
    • The Nurse
    • Tybalt
  • When not participating as a character in a case, students act as jurors.

Week 5

Practice Using the Tool
Click here to set up the practice Is the Nurse guilty? project in your workspace.

  • Open the practice project and, as a whole class, walk through the creation of a claim that the Nurse is to blame for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. Have a Web site up with the entire play* available so you can copy and paste appropriate quotes. Have the students come up with ideas as to why the Nurse might be to blame as well as evidence that she is not, but be sure to have a few pieces of evidence as backup. 
  • Discuss what can be used as evidence, such as quotes from the play, historical references, even psychological findings, and remind students that all evidence must have citations. Discuss the rating of the evidence and hand out the rating rubric document. Discuss the sections that should be left to last, after all the evidence has been gathered and assigned to the claim, such as the claim rating, explanation, and conclusion.The following Showing Evidence Tool space represents an example of the practice case. You can double-click on the evidence and comments to read the descriptions.

  Project Name:   Is the Nurse guilty? (Click here to set up this project in your workspace)

  Prompt:  Is the Nurse to blame for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet?

Explore an interactive demo.

Is the Nurse guilty?
  • After practicing with the tool, have teams meet to brainstorm evidence on paper. Prosecutors and defenders must turn in their witness lists prior to having students work with Showing Evidence.

Prepare the Case

Based on the prosecutors’ and defenders’ witness lists, assign students (or let them sign up) to be a witness. You may have several Romeos, Juliets, Friars, and so forth, if they are needed in more than one case. If you still have students who have not been assigned a role, you can also have two of the same witnesses per case, one for the defense and one for the prosecution.

Provide teams with their team IDs and passwords, along with the teacher ID. Have them log in at the Showing Evidence Tool workspace. Explain that they will work on only one claim at this time. The assigned prosecutors or defenders or specific witnesses will work on a claim and evidence based on their assignment.

Have students use the print feature of the tool to see the layout of their evidence and to prepare for their day in court. Encourage students to use visual aids, timelines, charts, forensic evidence, and other props to help present their cases. However, they must use specific quotes and content from the play to back up their evidence and reasoning. Let them know they will have a maximum of 20 minutes for their case to be heard in court, so they should use their best evidence and witnesses. Hand out the court case scoring guide so they know what will be expected of them in the trial.

Week 6

Court is in Session

Provide guidelines for the roles in the court, explaining the following:

  • Attorneys can object if a witness makes a statement that is contrary to what is written in the play or goes beyond accepted interpretation.
  • The judge must know the play well enough to rule on the objections.
  • The prosecution will call its witnesses and the defense can cross-examine.
  • After the prosecution, the defense can call any witnesses not already heard, and the prosecution can cross-examine.
  • Both the prosecution and defense must provide closing statements, which should be based on the conclusion stated in the Showing Evidence Tool.
  • Students not currently acting in their roles are jurors and take notes to use in their future Showing Evidence case as well as their jury report (essay).

Return to Showing Evidence

Before proceeding with the next activity, click here to set up the CSI Verona project in your workspace.

After the cases have been heard, the teams will return to Showing Evidence and complete at least two other claims based on the evidence they heard in the trial and their own ideas that are supported in the text or other appropriate sources. Remind them to use the rating rubric as a guide.

After teams have worked on their case, demonstrate how teams can leave comments. Provide a portion of the time for teams to review each other’s work using the claim and evidence rubric. Be sure teams have time to review comments and make changes as necessary. 

After students complete three to four claims and their associated evidence, discuss with students the process for writing a jury report (essay). A jury report presents and supports a three-part jury finding (thesis statement) on who or what is found guilty. Explain that in their jury reports, each student identifies the top three characters or elements most to blame, and ends the report with an analysis and conclusion of the one who ultimately must take responsibility. Hand out the jury report checklist for students to self-assess and peer review their work.

Examine the Showing Evidence Activity

The Showing Evidence Tool space below represents one team's investigation in this project. You can double-click on the evidence and comments to read the team's descriptions.

  Project Name:   CSI Verona (Click here to set up this project in your workspace)

  Prompt:  Who or what is ultimately to blame for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet?

Explore an interactive demo.

CSI Verona


Wrap Up and Revisit the Essential Question

Discuss what students have learned from Romeo and Juliet and whether Shakespeare still speaks to a 21st century audience. Reflect on how literature helps us better understand ourselves.

Prerequisite Skills 

  • Basic computer skills
  • Essay writing experience

Differentiated Instruction

Resource Student:

  • Provide a parallel text of Romeo and Juliet in modern English
  • Provide fill-in-the-blank plot worksheets to help the student simplify and identify the characters and action
  • Include scaffolds for the jury report (essay) to help the student identify the form and content of the report
  • Allow the student to choose the type of participation in the trial that draws upon on the student’s strengths

Gifted Student:

  • Pair the student with another gifted student for the ePALS partners discussions
  • Encourage the student to support the cases creatively and appropriately
  • Encourage the student to look beyond the obvious text quotations and come up with creative but appropriate evidence to support claims

English Language Learner:

  • Provide a parallel text of Romeo and Juliet in the student’s native language whenever possible or use a modern English version of the text
  • Use some of the scaffolds provided for the resource student, such as the fill-in-the-blank plot worksheets, if appropriate
  • Allow the student to choose the type of participation in the trial that draws upon on the student’s strengths


Some resources in this unit were developed by teachers participating in the Intel® Teach Program. A team of teachers expanded the plan into the example you see here.

Romeo and Juliet

At a Glance

Grade Level: 8-10

Subject: Language Arts

Topics: Shakespeare

Higher-Order Thinking Skills: Literary Analysis, Interpretation, Argumentation

Key Learnings: Literary Devices, Literary Themes, Persuasive Writing

Time Needed: 5-6 weeks, 55-minutes/5 days per week

Background: California, United States