Updated: May 14, 2019
Some cracking ideas for nailing your Romeo and Juliet revision for GCSE English Literature.
Introduction to Romeo & Juliet
Romeo and Juliet is the most popular Shakespeare text for GCSE. It’s taught by almost every school, as even if it’s not a set text on their particular exam board, it’s seen as a great introduction to Shakespeare for teenagers. You can see why: the main characters are teenagers whose parents are ruining their lives, there’s romance but also fighting, murder and suicide, and the language is nowhere near as knotty as it is in some of his other tragedies.
When was Romeo & Juliet written?
Romeo and Juliet was written around 1595. It’s always impossible to be absolutely sure about the dating of Shakespeare’s plays, but the first published quartos, known first performances, and sources influencing the story all point to R&J being written around this date, as well as its relative linguistic simplicity firmly marking it as an earlier work.
Romeo & Juliet Plot
The plot is based on a well-known story in both Italian and French literature, that was translated into English in 1562 by Arthur Brooke as The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet. There are also echoes of the Latin story of Pyramus and Thisbe, told in Ovid's Metamorphoses, where two parted lovers die tragically through a series of misunderstandings; and of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, with its depiction of the secret, passionate intimacy of two forbidden lovers.
Today it is one of the most performed of Shakespeare’s plays, and the most filmed. There have been multiple operas and ballets based on the story, as well as Bernstein’s 1961 musical adaptation West Side Story.
Sample Edexcel Romeo & Juliet Questions and Answers
This time, we’ll look at some sample questions from Edexcel, though you might notice they’re very similar: ‘Explore how Shakespeare presents the characters of Romeo and Juliet as falling deeply in love in this extract’; ‘Explore how Shakespeare presents the relationship between Mercutio and Tybalt in this extract’; ‘Explore how Shakespeare presents Juliet as loyal in this extract’.
The key with the first and last of these three questions is to find and explore the differences between Romeo and Juliet. We can tend to lump them in together, and treat them the same either when sighing after their romance, or rolling our eyes at their stupidity. But Shakespeare depicts them as very different people. Juliet is younger, but in more pressing danger: she will be married off against her will if she doesn’t take action. Romeo has more independence, and is therefore free to sing songs and be in love. These motivations come across very clearly in their language and actions. Romeo makes grand, impossible gestures, and declares the enormity of his love repeatedly. Juliet is much more practical, bringing Romeo down to earth and making plans for their survival. But she can also get extremely carried away with excitement: her famous ‘Wherefore art thou Romeo’ and ‘Gallop apace’ speeches are spectacularly passionate.
When it comes to the second question, it’s really tempting to treat Tybalt and Mercutio in isolation, as the cool characters with swords in the middle of a soppy love story, or as the irritating shouty boys getting in the way of the romance. But it’s vital to explore their place in Romeo and Juliet’s story – they are victims of, and fundamental to, the plot. Exploring how they openly enact the violence that ends up killing both of the protagonists gives a much deeper and richer understanding of the play.
Fun Ways to Enjoy Romeo & Juliet Revision
There are some great film adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, although all of them cut a lot of the lines and replace them with visual splendour. Franco Zeffirelli directed the enormously popular 1968 film adaptation, only matched by Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version, with original language but modernised setting, famously starring a very young Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio. The ridiculous yet wonderful film Shakespeare in Love also depicts Shakespeare’s love life whilst writing, rehearsing and performing Romeo and Juliet. On stage, annoyingly the RSC’s London run of the play has just finished, but there’s a good filmed version of the Globe’s recent production on Digital Theatre – ask your school to get a subscription if they haven’t already!
Blog Post Crafted by Rebecca
Background: Rebecca is one of our most popular tutors, with a degree in English from the University of Cambridge and hundreds of hours of private tuition experience in 7+, 11+, English and Maths. She is also an assessor for Titanium Tutors, observing the mock lessons taught by potential tutors and deciding whether or not they meet the high standards of the agency.