Examination of the Prologue: An Activity in Annotation, Translation, and Recitation

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SWBAT analyze how an author's choices concerning how to structure a text to create tension by annotating, "translating," and reciting the prologue of Romeo and Juliet.

Big Idea

Why does Shakespeare write his own Sparknotes?

Getting Started

5 minutes

In the first few minutes of class, I will check in with students on their out of class choice reads. Last class, we went to the library, so that everyone could pick a book to read outside of class while we start Romeo and Juliet in class.

Today, I want to check for two things: first, that students have started the books, and second, that they are enjoying them. It's early enough that they can switch out their book for a new one if they regret their initial decisions. We will have a quick conversation about how they are enjoying their books.. anyone who avoids my eyes is probably also avoiding their book. I will try to grab these students quickly at the end of class to make they know that I know what sudden shyness typically means.

The Prologue: A First Read

10 minutes

We've prepped for it over the course of a week, but it's finally time to start reading Romeo and Juliet. Today we will focus on the prologue and will specifically focus on its structure (RL.9-10.5). I will hand out a copy of the prologue, so that students can annotate it, but it will take a few more steps before they are ready to do that. First, I will ask that students read it to themselves, circling words or phrases that are new or confusing. Then we will read it aloud, all together. This step helps students hear the lyrical nature of a sonnet. Next, we will read it aloud, going around the room, but the speaker will switch at every punctuation: comma, semi-colon, and periods. This steps helps students hear how meaning is developed over the course of several lines; therefore, it is not usually helpful to take a great pause at the end of a line, if it lacks punctuation.

One Line at a Time: Translations

20 minutes

This step always works. I have numbered and pre-cut each line of the prologue into strips. I will distribute each line, or combination of lines, to a student or pair of students. This photo shows which lines stand alone and which lines work best combined. Students need to figure out what their assigned line means and translate it into "modern English." They can use dictionaries, and they can collaborate with their peers with connected lines (the student who is assigned line 2 can speak with the student with line 1 and line 3). They will write the translation on the back of the slip (RL.9-10.4). During this time, I will try to guide students to the answer, but I want them to do the heavy lifting. For instance, I'll remind the student with line 4 that the word "civil" has different meanings and to consider each one when translating.

Now the fun part! Students will line up in order by line and then come together in a circle facing inward. First, we will read Shakespeare's prologue. Here is our rendition. Then, we will read our translated version. During this step, you can practically see light bulbs appear above heads, as students make connections that they couldn't make before. Once we understand more of the story, we will read Shakespeare's version again, in order to emphasize the primary text (SL.9-10.1).

Let's Talk to the Page: Annotations

10 minutes

At this point, we are ready to annotate. We will head back to our seats and "talk to the page," adding comments and summaries of what we just learned.


Once students have taken their own notes, I will ask them to add a few more about sonnets. We have already looked at Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 and we have written humorous sonnets about each other, so students have a beginner's understanding of sonnets. I want to reinforce some of the concepts we have already discussed. For instance, I will ask students to mark the rhyme scheme, the iambic pentameter, and the thematic turn in the rhyming couplet (L.9-10.3).


I have printed the prologue for them, precisely so they can take these notes. I think that notes on the prologue are important for a few reasons.

  • First, the prologue is, for some, the first Shakespearean language they have ever seen, so it must be overwhelming. To hand them the book and say "don't write on it, but learn it" just doesn't make any sense. They need to work through this language.
  • I want them to remember details about sonnets. We are going to address sonnets again, specifically when Romeo and Juliet meet. Understanding the nature of a sonnet will only deepen their understanding of the party scene and Romeo quick switch from Rosaline to Juliet.
  • I want them to remember details about prologue. I know that they know how it ends for Romeo and Juliet; they're supposed to. But the prologue also provides details about the family that only increases the tension.


Why Does Shakespeare Write his own Sparknotes?

10 minutes

It's now time to answer the question at least one student inevitably asks before we begin reading: Why read Romeo and Juliet, if we already know the ending?


Well, the first audience also knew the ending of the play before they had met a single character and it seemed to work out in the long run. The real question is: Why does Shakespeare "give away" the ending? I also pose the same question in a way that intrigues all students: Why does Shakespeare write his own Sparknotes?


Of course, there is no one answer to this question, but it's important to pose nonetheless. It trumps the original "why read" question and it encourages students to think broadly, abstractly, and analytically. Shakespeare purposely structured the text this way in order to build tension and I want my students to come to realize that through this discussion (RL.9-10.5).

Wrapping Up

5 minutes

For homework, students are reading their choice book. I will remind them of this in the last few minutes of class (RL.9-10.10).

I don't like to assign Romeo and Juliet reading for homework, especially in the beginning. For one, it would be a comical at this point, like asking kids to look up the translation online, instead of working through it themselves. Additionally, Shakespeare is meant to be heard! It was designed to be enjoyed in a group. And I'm looking forward to it.