• Romantic Misunderstandings



For this activity students will need copies of the printed resources found here. 


STEPS Language is how we get to know one another. But every time we speak, we make certain assumptions about what we mean, and every time we listen, we can’t help but make assumptions about what the other person means. Such assumptions are essential to the plot of Madama Butterfly. In this activity, students will take a close-up look at:

  • The words characters sing in Madama Butterfly 
  • The characters’ intentions
  • The way other characters understand their words
  • Students will then apply their analyses in writing psychological profiles of the two main characters, Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San

Step 1: If your class has not already discussed it, introduce the basic circumstances and plot of Madama Butterfly. Be sure they understand the specific legal relationship that sets the opera in motion. Students may have strong opinions about the morality or justice of “temporary marriages.” For the purposes of this activity, it’s important to recognize that, whether or not they approve, everyone in the place and time of this opera takes this kind of relationship for granted. Students also need to understand that Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San are legally “engaged” as the opera begins. During the activity, they’ll determine just what that engagement means to each of the characters.

Step 2: During this activity, students will consider three aspects of the dialogue among characters in Madama Butterfly:

  • Statements made by Pinkerton, together with
    – his actual underlying meaning, and
    – consideration of what Cio-Cio-San would think if she heard those statements

  • Statements made to Pinkerton by other characters, together with
    – their underlying meaning, and
    – Pinkerton’s reaction

  • Statements made to Cio-Cio-San by other characters, together with
    – their underlying meaning, and
    – Cio-Cio-San’s reaction

  • Statements made by Cio-Cio-San, together with
    – their underlying meaning, and
    – Pinkerton’s reaction.

You’ll find excerpts from the libretto in each of these four categories here. Following each set of excerpts, you’ll find a reproducible chart students can use to keep track of the statements, their meanings, and the ways in which they are understood.

Divide the class into two groups: the Pinkerton group (Group 1) and the Cio-Cio-San group (Group 2). Group 1 will look at the statements Pinkerton makes and hears: Give them the resources on page 26. Group 2 will consider statements made and heard by Cio-Cio-San, using the resources on page 27. Note that both groups will need to consider both characters’ points of view. Also, make sure that students understand that they don’t have to like or agree with the character they’re analyzing: opinions and judgments will come later.

Step 3: Allow the two groups time to read the libretto excerpts and fill in their resource sheets.

Step 4: Bring the class together for a discussion. One representative from each group should make a presentation about the character they’ve examined, covering these five topics (as noted on the resource pages):

  • Obligations: How does this character understand his/her obligations in the relationship?

  • Interpretation: Does this character understand the viewpoint of his/her counterpart? What brought your group to this conclusion?

  • Society: Are this character’s understandings in line with the social conventions of the time? Why?

  • Ethical Behavior: Does your group believe this character spoke ethically? Behaved ethically? Comported him/herself in a manner consistent with social convention?

  • Love: What does this character mean by “love?” Does your group agree? Why?

Please note that there may be disagreements within a group about some of these topics. The representative(s) should present any “minority” viewpoints. If time permits, continue with a whole class discussion about the issues your students have raised and about Cio-Cio-San’s and Pinkerton’s respective understandings of their relationship.

FOLLOW-UP: For homework, have students write an essay on either of the following themes, or on their own position on the relationship at the heart of Madama Butterfly:
“Pinkerton did nothing wrong. Cio-Cio-San is either ignorant, totally immature, or crazy.” or “Cio-Cio-San is a teenage girl who loves purely. Pinkerton should have known better, and he betrayed her.”