Jess Laven graduated in 2020 with an ATAR of 96.60. In this article, Jess runs through 5 top tips for success when studying Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Check out ATAR Notes' Text Guide for Romeo and Juliet here. đź“š

You may study Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in English. I studied Romeo and Juliet in Year 10 and had an exam based on the play and a film review assignment.

Whether or not Romeo and Juliet is your first encounter with Shakespeare, you probably aren’t keen to learn about these famous star-crossed lovers. Thankfully, the stars have aligned. We’re here to give you 5 tips that you need to know when studying Romeo and Juliet.

1. Don't forget about the supporting characters

Despite the title, Romeo and Juliet is about more than Romeo and Juliet. There are quite a few characters in the play, and some of them significantly influence how the story unfolds.

For example, the Romeo and Juliet exam I did was based on Friar Lawrence and his role in the tragic ending of the play. Make sure you study the supporting characters and their roles so you don’t get caught out by a surprise exam question that doesn’t revolve around Romeo and Juliet themselves.

2. Don't fully blame the tragic storyline on Romeo and Juliet

Exam questions about who is to blame for the death of Romeo and Juliet and whether their deaths could have been prevented are common. Don’t fully blame the tragic storyline on Romeo and Juliet based on the logic that they chose to kill themselves. Dig deeper.

The play was written in the Elizabethan Era when people believed that human destinies were controlled by supernatural forces. Furthermore, the play is full of events that are beyond Romeo and Juliet’s control, such as Tybalt’s decision to kill Mercutio and the delay of Friar Lawrence’s letter to Romeo.

Furthermore, the play is full of events that are beyond Romeo and Juliet's control...

While you could still argue that Romeo and Juliet were partially responsible for their deaths, acknowledging these other points will show that you understand the play and the era in which it was set.

3. Don't compare the Elizabethan Era to today when analysing the play

Following on from my previous point, ensure that you don’t analyse the play from a modern perspective, unless you are asked to do so. We may believe that it is odd for 13 or 14 year olds to be considering marriage, but keep in mind that it was legal to marry at this age in the Elizabethan Era, though it was uncommon.

Similarly, fathers in the Elizabethan Era were the head of the family and mothers and children were subservient to him. Arranged marriages were common as a means to build family status or wealth and women had little choice about whom they could marry.

It’s easy to label the characters in Romeo and Juliet as sexist or childish and the events as unrealistic, but try to avoid this unless you are told otherwise. 

4. Consider how contemporary movie adaptations modernise the play

One of the Romeo and Juliet assignments I did was a film review in which I analysed how Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 movie adaptation modernised Shakespeare’s original play.

You may do a similar assignment or exam in which you have to analyse how a movie adaptation modernises the play. If this is the case, think about music, sound effects, camera shots, editing and cinematography. Furthermore, consider the characters’ costumes and the use of props like guns instead of daggers. These aspects of the play were altered in the 1996 adaptation to appeal to contemporary audiences.

5. Write notes as you read and watch

You may think that the basis of Romeo and Juliet is pretty simple: two teenagers from enemy families fall in love and end up killing themselves after a series of unfortunate events; however, the play and the movie adaptations are each far more nuanced than this.

... the play and the movie adaptations are each far more nuanced than this.

If you are analysing a movie adaptation, you may need to know what film codes were used, such as camera angles, sounds and editing techniques. If you are analysing the play, you may need to discuss quotes, literary devices and specific acts and scenes.

Doing either of these things is far easier if you write notes as you read the script or watch the movie. Create a table or add headings to a document and keep notes. This may feel like a hassle at the time, but it will be worth it in the long run.

Good luck!