If you’re a teacher and your students are reading Romeo and Juliet, one question that your students might innevitably ask is, who’s to blame? The play ends with The Prince and the Watch trying to ascertain what happened over the past 5 days to Romeo and Juliet. He seems to place blame loosely on everyone, but it does make one wonder- will anyone face consequences for the numerous deaths, damages, anguish, and broken promises that resulted from the double suicides?
In 2021, I decided to create an activity that would allow the students in the English class I worked in to decide who is to blame for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. I developed the project with the help of an English teacher and a real judge. We designed the project so it would test the kids’ knowledge of the play, and their persuassive speaking abilities (which we worked on in a previous unit).
I would like to share the journey of this project, which I think is a lovely way to get kids to engage with English Literature, as well as touching on other topics in high school English courses like persuassive writing, critical thinking, and research.
What kind of trial is it to be?
My original idea was to put Friar Laurence on trial for criminal negligence and/ or conspiracy to assist a suicide, There’s been plenty of classrooms, comedy sketches, and even some juries that blame Friar Laurence for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, including the US Supreme Court, who put him in the dock as part of a mock trial at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington DC bac in 2016. If you go to C-Span’s website, you can watch the full trial itself: https://www.c-span.org/video/?419930-1/federal-judges-discuss-romeo-juliet
Though mock trials have tried Friar Laurence for murder in the past, the teacher I worked with decided we wanted to be sensitive to the issue of suicide and not place the blame for suicide on anyone other than Romeo and Juliet. This is a valid concern- since teenagers do occassionaly encounter suicide, we didn’t want to suggest that anyone could be held responsible for someone else’s suicide. However, if you decide to have a criminal murder or manslaughter trial, you can do so.
Our trial chose to focus on a different sort of negligence: we noted that, although Friar Laurence arguably isn’t guilty of murder, he certainly did perform the wedding of two minors without parental consent, a wedding that their parents absolutely didn’t apprve of, and that arguably caused irreperable financial damages to the houses of Capulet and Montegue. I therefore went about consstructing a criminal trial based on this perceived negligence.
The CRIMINAL PROHIBITIONS ON THE MARRIAGE OF MINORS ACT
In most states in the United states, parental consent is required to marry a minor, so in reality, Friar Laurence would almost certainly be found guilty of illegal marriage. The judge I worked with wanted to give the case a fighting chance, so she created a fae law that is just for our class called the CRIMINAL PROHIBITIONS ON THE MARRIAGE OF MINORS ACT, which you can read below. This law is designed to provide a loophole for Friar Laurence that allows a clergyman to perform a minor wedding without parental consent if the parents are themselves creating an unsafe and dangerous home. Our teacher liked this aspect of the case, becasue it allows the class to consider the partriarchial values of Lord Capulet, who for most of the play, treats his daugher like a piece of property, and threatens her with dire consequences if she chooses her own husband. This is the central argument of the trial- Was Friar Laurence negligent and irresponsible in marrying Romeo and Juliet, or was he respecting Juliet’s autonomy and trying to free her from an abusive household? Below is a complete description of the project, a presentation I created for the class, and some downloadable materials to get you started. If you have questions or suggestions for other projects, let me know!
A mock trial is an excellent way to engage a student’s critical thinking skills, persuasive writing skills, and challenge their knowledge of a sequence of events. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, several violent deaths occur and at then end of the play it’s ambiguous who will be punished and how. Therefore, to engage students in the play, they can play judge, jury, and lawyers in a trial to answer the question: was Friar Laurence guilty of performing an illegal marriage?
- Test the student’s knowledge of the plot of the play
- Get them to make persuasive arguments defending and prosecuting the character of Friar Lawrence.
- Come to conclusions
- Get the Jury to look at the rhetoric of the prosecution and defense.
- Quiz on the play to help assign roles- The highest scorers get to be lawyers and prosecutor, the next highest get to be witnesses, and the lowest scorers get to be the jury.
- Mock trial where the students take on the roles of witnesses, judge, lawyer, prosecutor, and jury
- The Jury delivers a verdict
- Class discussion.
Before the Trial
Only people who know the plot of the play should be allowed to be the lawyers, so I propose that before the trial starts, each student should be quizzed on the plot of the play. The students who score the highest should be allowed to play the prosecutor and defense lawyer. The third, fourth, and fifth highest scoring students can be The Judge and the two witnesses. Everyone else can be the jury. I would propose that the teacher or teaching assistant play the part of Friar Lawrence, as he/she will have to answer the toughest questions and know the most about the play. Of course, if you have a student with real acting talent, he or she can play Friar Lawrence.
The Trial will take place over at least two days- one day for constructing legal arguments, and one day for the trial itself.
When the trial begins, each person will get a character sheet that details who they are, what their role is, in the trial, and what they know about the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. Unlike other mock trials, this will not be scripted. Think of it more like a D&D character sheet or murder mystery game; the characters are given information but not told what to say. Below is a sample character sheet I made for the Prosecuting Attorney.
Structure Of the Trial
The Prosecutor intends to prove that Friar Lawrence performed an illegal marriage because he married two minors without their parent’s consent. The Defense intends to prove that the marriage was legal under the CRIMINAL PROHIBITIONS ON THE MARRIAGE OF MINORS ACT (a fake law made up for our class).
- Jury Instructions- The Judge
- Opening Statements- Prosecutor and Defense Lawyer
- Witness For the Prosecution- Lord Capulet
- Cross-Examination- Lord Capulet
- Witness For the Defense- Ghost Juliet
- Witness For the Prosecution- The Nurse
- Cross-Examination- The Nurse
- Defendant’s Testimony- Friar Lawrence
- Cross-Examination- Friar Lawrence
- Witness For the Prosecution- Lady Capulet
- Cross-Examination- Lady Capulet
- Closing Statements- Prosecutor and Defense Lawyer
- Post Trial Instructions- Judge
- The Verdict- Jury
- Weighing In- Judge
All characters will have a packet explaining who they are, their goal for the trial, and what their character knows about the alleged crime. They also have a copy of the structure of the trial, so they know when to speak. During the pre-trial prep day, the lawyers will decide on questions to ask the witnesses and construct arguments based on their knowledge of the law and the play.
- -Friar Lawrence
- -The Nurse
- -Lord Capulet
- -Defense Lawyer
Everyone will receive a copy of the CRIMINAL PROHIBITIONS ON THE MARRIAGE OF MINORS so the prosecution and jury can construct their arguments, and the Jury can judge the effectiveness of those arguments.
CRIMINAL PROHIBITIONS ON THE MARRIAGE OF MINORS ACT
- The purpose of this act is to protect the integrity of the family and the independent rights of minor children.
- No officiant shall perform the marriage of a minor child without the consent of the child’s parent, unless such minor child has first been determined to be emancipated and such determination was in the minor’s best interest.
- Officiant means a person authorized to perform weddings, including but not limited to a priest, minister, friar or pastor.
- Minor child means a person 14 years but under the age of 18 years.
- The parent of a minor child shall mean the biological father of said child.
- The factors used in the determination of emancipation shall include the following;
- The demonstrated ability and capacity to manage his/her own affairs,
- The demonstrated ability and capacity to live independently,
- The wishes of the minor child,
- The wishes of the parent,
- Any other factors including compensation which could influence the officiant.
7) The factors used in the determination of the best interest of the minor child shall include the following:
- The age of the minor child,
- The home environment of the minor child, especially if there is a risk of violence or harm to the minor child,
- Whether the marriage of the child promotes a union that is beneficial to society,
- Whether the minor child can manage his/her own finances.
- Whether the minor child has demonstrated other characteristics of maturity
8) An emancipated child shall be entitled to enter into contracts, marry and enjoy the legal rights of an adult without the permission of his/her parent.
9) Whoever violates this law shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree, which is punishable by up to 6 months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.
Jury instructions (to be handed out ot the jury)
The jury need not be given a passive role- they can write down reactions on how effective the lawyers wer in presenting their arguments, which witness gave the best testimony, etc. In most jury trials, judges instruct the jury on how to put aside their personal biases when listening to the evidence, which I’ve written into some instructions below, based on instructions that Judge Taylor gave me.
So, that is my version of the Romeo and Juliet mock trial that you can freely use in your classroom. If you want to use it, please just give me credit. If you want to collaborate with me on your version, send me an email. I hope this project can be a widespread activity that will help students hone their persuasion, analysis, research, and of course, their interpretation of literature in a realistic context.
You can download the entire project for free on my TeachersPayTeachers page:
Thanks for reading, and see you in court!