Romeo and Juliet Teen Suicide Activity

This is a lesson plan I’ve made that is designed to help students recognize the signs of teen suicide within the context of Romeo and Juliet. I realize this is a very heavy topic, but , much like my post about “Merchant Of Venice,” Shakespeare is my area of expertise, and since he is taught in most English speaking schools, I believe studying his plays is a safe way to address the topic of suicide. If you choose to do this activity in your class, or to adapt it, please let me know in the comments.


There are several warning signs to suicidal behavior, and Romeo exhibits all of them, especially in Act V, Scene i.

It could be an eye opening experience for students to look through the scene and write down analytical paragraphs examining Romeo’s lines for warning signs of suicide such as:

  1. Sudden, abrupt changes in personality
  2. Increased irritability and aggressiveness
  3. Withdrawal from family, friends and relationships
  4. Giving away prized or favorite possessions (like gold)
  5. Putting their affairs in order
  6. Saying good-bye to family and friends

Other project ideas

  1. We could have the students annotate this scene for signs of suicide, then have Balthazar write a letter to Romeo’s father about his behavior, warning him about this being a preciptating event.
  2. I also found this presentation that we could show: 
  3. Finally, there’s a webquest activity you could adapt for class: 


Learning Context: 

In Act V of Rome and Juliet, once Romeo hears of Juliet’s supposed death, his personality and demanor changes as he becomes systematically and purposefully committed to suicide. According to The Jason Project, there are several warning signs that people often exhibit when threatening suicide, warning signs that could be used to prevent the suicide. If you were Romeo’s servant Balthazar, watching him give away his gold, become increasingly angry and aloof, and withdraw form the people who love him, how could you prevent him from committing suicide?


  1. Anticipatory Set

Students will read Act V Scene 1 in modern language. We can warn them that this class will be about a very painful topic, so if they need a break or need to go to the counselor, they can signal one of us over GoGuardian.

  1. Direct Instruction
    1. I will play some or all of the Prezi on Suicide Prevention and Romeo and Juliet: \
      1. I will probably skip the bullying section and the Warmup.
  2. Guided Practice
    1. We’ll annotate the script below with signs of suicide. I’ll ask questions while we go over the script to make sure the students are making connections with Romeo’s behavior and suicide.
  1. Independent Practice– The students will write a paragraph about suicide prevention, imagining they were Balthazaar and Romeo was a friend of theirs.
  2. Closing Even though this play is 400 years old, a lot of Shakespeare’s plays touch on issues effecting us now. I hope that this activity might make you better prepared for a situation that I hope you don’t need to encounter.

Materials & Resources

  1. Instructional Materials:
    1. Romeo and Suicide Prevention Prezi: 
    2. The Jason Project:  
    3. Make The Warning Signs for Suicide:


Students could be assessed by their ability to recognize at least 3 signs of suicidal behavior in the play.

Annotation Activity: Warning Signs for Suicide

Directions: Annotate the speech below for warning signs of suicide such as: 

  1. Sudden, abrupt changes in personality
  2. Increased irritability and aggressiveness
  3. Withdrawal from family, friends and relationships
  4. Giving away prized or favorite possessions (like gold)
  5. Putting their affairs in order
  6. Saying good-bye to family and friends

The Text: Act V, Scene i.

Balthasar. Then she is well, and nothing can be ill:

Her body sleeps in Capel’s monument,

And her immortal part with angels lives.2825

I saw her laid low in her kindred’s vault,

And presently took post to tell it you:

O, pardon me for bringing these ill news,

Since you did leave it for my office, sir.

Romeo. Is it even so? then I defy you, stars!

Thou know’st my lodging: get me ink and paper,

And hire post-horses; I will hence to-night.

Balthasar. I do beseech you, sir, have patience:

Your looks are pale and wild, and do import

Some misadventure.

Romeo. Tush, thou art deceived:

Leave me, and do the thing I bid thee do.

Hast thou no letters to me from the friar?

Balthasar. No, my good lord.

Romeo. No matter: get thee gone,

And hire those horses; I’ll be with thee straight.


Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee to-night.

Let’s see for means: O mischief, thou art swift

To enter in the thoughts of desperate men!

I do remember an apothecary,—

And hereabouts he dwells,—which late I noted

In tatter’d weeds, with overwhelming brows,

Culling of simples; meagre were his looks,

Sharp misery had worn him to the bones:2850

And in his needy shop a tortoise hung,

An alligator stuff’d, and other skins

Of ill-shaped fishes; and about his shelves

A beggarly account of empty boxes,

Green earthen pots, bladders and musty seeds,2855

Remnants of packthread and old cakes of roses,

Were thinly scatter’d, to make up a show.

Noting this penury, to myself I said

‘An if a man did need a poison now,

Whose sale is present death in Mantua,2860

Here lives a caitiff wretch would sell it him.’

O, this same thought did but forerun my need;

And this same needy man must sell it me.

As I remember, this should be the house.

Being holiday, the beggar’s shop is shut.

What, ho! apothecary!

[Enter Apothecary]

Apothecary. Who calls so loud?

Romeo. Come hither, man. I see that thou art poor:

Hold, there is forty ducats: let me have

A dram of poison, such soon-speeding gear

As will disperse itself through all the veins

That the life-weary taker may fall dead

And that the trunk may be discharged of breath

As violently as hasty powder fired

Doth hurry from the fatal cannon’s womb.

Apothecary. Such mortal drugs I have; but Mantua’s law

Is death to any he that utters them.

Romeo. Art thou so bare and full of wretchedness,

And fear’st to die? famine is in thy cheeks,2880

Need and oppression starveth in thine eyes,

Contempt and beggary hangs upon thy back;

The world is not thy friend nor the world’s law;

The world affords no law to make thee rich;

Then be not poor, but break it, and take this.2885

Apothecary. My poverty, but not my will, consents.

Romeo. I pay thy poverty, and not thy will.

Apothecary. Put this in any liquid thing you will,

And drink it off; and, if you had the strength

Of twenty men, it would dispatch you straight.2890

Romeo. There is thy gold, worse poison to men’s souls,

Doing more murders in this loathsome world,

Than these poor compounds that thou mayst not sell.

I sell thee poison; thou hast sold me none.

Farewell: buy food, and get thyself in flesh.

Come, cordial and not poison, go with me

To Juliet’s grave; for there must I use thee.

Writing Prompt:

What should Balthezar do? If Romeo and he lived in modern times, how could he help prevent his friend’s suicide? What resources are avialible to people with suicidal thoughts or behaviors? Do some research using the following resources:

  1. The Jason Project:  
  2. Make The Warning Signs for Suicide:

 Write a paragraph on how you would help Romeo if you were Balthazaar, using the resources above.

The Fashion Is the Fashion 3: The Merchant Of Venice

Thanks for recommending this topic. I really enjoyed researching it. Disclaimer: Although I have a degree in Renaissance literature, I don’t have a degree in world religions. I don’t pretend to be an expert in Judaism and I apologize if I have gotten any cultural details wrong. As I have written before, this play has been used to spread harmful stereotypes and misinformation against Jews and Muslims, and I have no desire to do so. So don’t take this information as a comprehensive guide to the lives of Jews or indeed any 16th century Venetians. What I do intend to do is analyze how costumes from the play can evoke the people and cultures of that time.

1. Background

Venice in the 16th century was a lot like modern day Manhattan- a multicultural epicenter of trade and commerce.

Many productions have costumes that emphasize the wealth and privilege of the Venetian world, except for Shylock

As this video shows, Jews in 16th century Venice were segregated into separate communities known as ghettos. Although the Jews found ways to survive and thrive in this situation, they faced constant discrimination and harassment.

In a modern productions or a period production the costume has to reflect a single vision for the show. Watch this interview with Globe Costume coordinator Laura Rushton:

2. Men’s Fashion- Italian fashion was all the rage in Shakespeare’s day. Gone were the stiff woolen tunics of the Middle ages, in with brightly colored silks and leathers. Young Men wore leather jackets called doublets and tight pants that showed off their legs. In the hot sun of Venice, light linnen undershirts were wore underneath the doublet. Wealthy men would wear fine silks and their jackets had slashed sleeves to show off the fine embroidered silk underneath.

Joseph Fiennes’ costume as Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice

Servants- Servants were given distinctive clothes known as liveries by their masters, which for a man would typically be a distinct colorful jacket. Women like Narissa, who were high-ranking ladies maids, would wear hand me down clothes from their mistresses. So this is why in most productions I have seen, Narissa and Portia wear similar clothing. This also helps show the trust and respect they have for each other.

A Note On Masks:

Act II, Scene 5, takes place during Carnival, one of the most celebrated holidays of Venice, and it’s usually celebrated by people wearing brightly colored masks. This great video below from history YouTuber Metetron shows just a little bit of background on Venetian masks:

3. Women’s Fashion- The women in the play Merchant Of Venice are treated line birds in a cage, especially Portia who literally lives on an island and has to marry the man who wins her at a carnival! With the restrictions of garments like partlets, bodies, or corsets, if you wore the fashions of the period, you would feel like your lungs were birds in a cage!

Although the dress was richer and more ornate (reflecting the relative peace during this period), the clothing was much more physically restrictive than medieval dresses:

Costume for a production of King John. The fashion is reminiscent of the late 15th century. There is no corset, the dress helps shape the silhouette. Notice also the long sleeves.

Jessica- Though most productions have Shylock’s daughter dressing like the Christian women, there is a long history of distinctive clothing for Jewish women as well as men. Sadly, the only video I could find refers to 14th century clothes, I think this video is very informative and extremely thoughtful

4. Shylock

It’s worth noting that Shylock is not the central character in the story; the titular merchant is Antonio. Probably Shakespeare’s original audience saw him as a one dimensional villain for the audience to boo and hiss, then rejoice when he fails. He probably came onstage in 1596 wearing stereotypical red wig, a long gown, and a grotesquely oversized nose. The costume and performance gave the impression of someone foreign, alien, even demonic. This was one reason why some modern actors have balked at playing Shylock, as Patrick Stewart explains:

That said, Shakespeare clearly didn’t write him as one dimensional; he dominates the scenes he’s in and for centuries great actors have yearned to play Shylock over all the other characters. Slowly Shylock has become the focus of the play and the romantic comedy aspect has become less and less important in most modern productions. Like every great part, Shylock’s costume proclaims his social class, his background, and his relationship with other people.

In the play, Shylock only refers to his clothes once, referring to the gown he wears as “My Jewish gaberdine.” A Gaberdine is a long cloak like the one in the painting above, but as you can see, Jews were not the only people wearing them.

Because of rampant antisemitism and fear of the growing influence of the Jewish community in the 16th century, the Senate and local magistrates segregated and kept constant watch on the Jews of Venice, and one way they did that was by forcing Jewish people to wear distinctive clothes.

According to the Online Jewish Museum:

Jews were forced to wear various markings on their clothing to identify themselves as Jews. In 1394 they had to wear a yellow badge, it was changed to a yellow hat in 1496 and to a red hat in 1500.

Charles Keen as Shylock

As Shylock grew in popularity with actors and audiences, actors played him with more nuance. Contrast the foreign looking gown in the previous picture, with Charles Keen in the 19th century.

That is not to say that all productions played Shylock as a fully formed human: in 1934, the Nazi Party sponsored a German production of Merchant with horror actor Werner Krauss, (famous for films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) as Shylock. You’ll notice that the costume again emphasizes otherness, and exaggerates Jewish stereotypes.

Warner Krauss in the infamous 1934 production of Merchant sponsored by the Nazi party.

Patrick Stewart when he played Shylock in the 1970s, emphasized how Shylock is essentially an immigrant in his own country and played him with tattered clothes, a dirty bushy beard, and with an air of a stray dog. His clothes emphasise both his race’s oppression, while also telegraphing Shylock’s miserly attitude. Sir Patrick emphasized that his Shylock had lost so much in his life that he clings to Earthly wealth to feel in control of his life.

Patrick Stewart as Shylock
David Suchet as Shylock
David Suchet as Shylock, RSC.

By contrast, David Suchet. (famous for his portrayal of detective Hercule Poirot), chose a near polar opposite interpretation of Shylock at about the same time. The main difference between Suchet and Stewart could basically be summed up by this fact, Suchet is actually Jewish, Stewart is not.

Because Stewart was portraying a member of a community to which he didn’t belong, his portrayal downplayed Shylock’s Jewish identity since he didn’t want to make assumptions about what being Jewish is like. This is why Stewart gave his Shylock an over-refined accent and made sure his costume didn’t emphasize any stereotypical Jewish elements.

Since Suchet actually is Jewish, he did not shy away from portraying Shylock’s jewishness. His Shylock is proud of being Jewish but is well aware of how other people see him. He knows that he is othered by the other Venetians, and can use their fear and hatred of him as a weapon against them. Suchet also dressed his Shylock as well to do, but not gawdy to try and command respect from other people, but also carried around a walking stick to use as a weapon.

Ian McKellen
Al Pacino in the 2009 movie of Merchant, wearing the red hat that real Jews were required to wear in the 1590s.

6. Case study: the 2009 movie

The Prince of Morrocco: In Act II, Scene 7, The Princes of Morrocco and Aaragon (A region of Spain), come to Portia’s home on the island of Belmont to try solve the riddle of the three caskets. In order to show the audience that these men are foreigners, their costumes have to be distinct from the Venetians. Take a look at this was accomplished in the 2004 movie:

The Prince of Morrocco (David Harewood) tries to guess the casket in the 2004 movie.

Mr. Harewood’s costume was inspired by the real Morroccon ambassador to Queen Elizabeth, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, who many scholars believe, might have also inspired Shakespeare to write Othello 6 years later.

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud
Al Pacino dons the distinctive red cap that all Venetian Jews were required to wear in the 1590s.
Shylock after he converts to Christianity.

6. Works Cited

Venetian Fashion in the 16th Century