The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Teacher Guide by Rebecca Ray

Find this Common Core aligned Teacher Guide and more like it in our High School ELA Category!

This Teacher Guide Includes:

    Are you looking to inspire and engage your students during a unit on The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare? Check out this teacher guide with valuable ways to create visual Storyboards that incorporate all four ELA Common Core standards with your class!

    By the end of this lesson your students will create amazing storyboards like the ones below!

    A Quick Plot Spoiler for The Tragedy of Macbeth

    The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare is perhaps one of his most well-known works. As the shortest and bloodiest tragedy, the story begins with a brave Scottish General named Macbeth. The premise of Macbeth’s tragedy is his demise from an honorable soldier to a coward and traitor. The conflict begins when Macbeth receives a prophecy from three witches that, one day, he will become King. This prediction inevitably consumes him with ambition and greed. Macbeth is further lead down his treacherous path by his wife, Lady Macbeth, who urges him to murder King Duncan and seize the throne without hesitation. Consumed by guilt and fear, Macbeth becomes tyrannical, paranoid, and suspicious. He resorts to killing others to secure his place and as the bloodbath continues, it drives Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to arrogance, madness, and eventually their deaths.

    Additionally, the three witches’ made another prophecy to Macbeth’s good friend, Banquo. They eluded that, although Banquo would never be King, he would produce a King. Banquo accepted this fate with patience while Macbeth took action against his friend and his son, Fleance. Both Macbeth and Banquo’s reactions to the prophecies are what created the theme of good vs. evil, embodied by Macbeth and Duncan, respectively, as well as the themes of power vs. ambition and guilt vs. remorse.

    The Tragedy of Macbeth is not Shakespeare’s most complex play, but it is one of his most thrilling and emotionally intense. Shakespeare’s other major tragedies explore the intellectual dilemmas faced by the characters, while The Tragedy of Macbeth plummets tragically from beginning to end.

    Essential Questions For The Tragedy of Macbeth:

    1. How can ambition motivate people and how can it be both a positive and negative trait?
    2. When do you feel guilt and when do you experience remorse?
    3. To what extent does power affect a person's actions?

    Five Act Structure in The Tragedy of Macbeth

    A common activity using Storyboard That is for students to create a diagram of the five act structure to show the sequence of events from the play. Not only is this a great way to teach the parts of a plot, but also to reinforce major actions from the play and help students develop a greater understanding of literary structures. Read more about the five act structure in our article!



    Act 1: The Exposition

    • The play takes place in Scotland.
    • The war is ending and the Scottish General and his faithful friend, Banquo, have emerged victorious. However, three witches have brewed an evil plot against Macbeth and when they meet him, they tell him that he will be King! “We shall tell Macbeth he will be Thane and King! As for Banquo, he will have kings!”

    Act 2: Rising Action

    • Macbeth and his wife kill the King and take the throne. They then go on a bloodthirsty tyrannical killing spree. The action rises as the audience notices how ambitious Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have become.
    • “How can I be king someday?” “Macbeth we had to Kill King Duncan, and we will have to kill others to keep our place on the throne!”

    Act 3: The Climax

    • Macbeth holds a banquet and sees the ghost of Banquo (who Macbeth had killed). Lady Macbeth then becomes mentally unstable, and the couple begins to fear their murderous deeds.

    Act 4: Falling Action

    • A rebellion is set in place by Macduff to restore the throne to the former Kings’ son (who is hiding in exile). Macbeth learns another set of prophecies from the witches and begins to think he will be saved.

    Act 5: Denouement or Resolution

    • The three witches’ predictions come, and the castle is stormed. Macbeth is killed.
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    Character Reference Log for The Tragedy of Macbeth

    While students are reading, it is often helpful to use a storyboard that creates a character reference log. A character map allows students to recall important information on characters. When reading a play, it is often little attributes that later return and become an important detail in the plot. Through the use of character mapping, students will not miss this information and will be able to follow along better, catching subtle points that make reading more enjoyable.

    Using a character map for Shakespeare is often even more beneficial because it also allows students to record the nuances of characteristics which create foil characters. The information that they record will help them to return and review personalities that contrast. The ability to visually see this with help bridge connections for students and make understanding the concept easier.

    Note that you can click on this map and create a copy to your teacher account. Feel free to use this one or edit it to make it easier or harder for more advanced classes! The easiest way to use this is to print it and use as worksheets for your students to complete while reading!

    Macbeth as a Tragic Hero

    The Tragedy of Macbeth is full of common literary elements that are important for students to explore. Because this is one of Shakespeare's most famous tragedies, it is often beneficial for students to understand why is it is categorized as such. One of the main reasons is because it contains a tragic hero. This is a protagonist who is typically of noble birth and seems to be ill-fated and destined for doom. In this play, it is clear that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth fit this description.

    The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle was the first to record the specific attributes or principles of a tragic hero as follows. For the storyboard below, students use a template to storyboard the qualities that make Macbeth a tragic hero. The finished product outlines each of Aristotle's principles with a detailed explanation of the specific attributes.

    • Harmartia: The flaw that causes the downfall
      The Three Witches tell Macbeth a prophecy that causes Macbeth to take matters into his hands (ambition).

    • Hubris: Extreme Pride
      Both his ambition and pride influence Macbeth and his wife to kill the current King so that he can usurp the throne. "How can I be king someday?"

    • Peripeteia: Reversal of fortune
      After killing the King and numerous others, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth become suspicious and paranoid. Macbeth even states “Lady Macbeth, I fear our murderous deeds.”

    • Anagnorisis: When the hero makes a critical discovery
      Macbeth later finds out that the former King's son is planning a rebellion against him.

    • Nemesis: Fate that cannot be reversed
      "The battle is won! ALL HAIL KING MALCOLM! The tyrant and his fiend wife are dead."

    • Catharsis: The audience is left with fear or pity for the hero
      In the end, the witches' final prophecy comes true and Macbeth is killed. The audience is left with the feeling of remorse.

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    Key Themes, Symbols, and Motifs in The Tragedy of Macbeth

    Valuable aspects of a play to teach are the concepts of theme(s), symbolism, and motif(s). Part of the Common Core ELA standards is to introduce and explain these complex concepts. However, abstract ideas are often difficult to get students to anatomize without much assistance. Using a storyboard, students can visually demonstrate their understanding of these concepts and master their ability to analyze broad literary elements. For best practices, see our article with specific lesson plan steps on setting up your classroom and activities forconcepts of theme(s), symbolism, and motif(s).

    An example of this in the classroom could be to track the rich motifs that William Shakespeare uses throughout The Tragedy of Macbeth. In the example storyboard below, the creator has focused on the particular use of Shakespeare's motif of visions in the play. The recurrence of this structure throughout the play proves that it has a high significance. The fact that one of the central themes is that things are not what they seem also helps to reinforce the importance of this structure. Since the actions and deeds of Macbeth throughout the play weigh heavy on his conscious, it is not unusual that he would have some second thoughts about the course of events. The visions that are consistently seen throughout the play by him and Lady Macbeth serve as a constant reminder that his ambition has corrupted him and that his deeds will haunt him until his death.

    Additional Ideas and Themes to Discuss:

    • Things are not what they seem: Throughout the play, the idea that ‘fair is foul, and foul is fair’ is repeated, meaning what you expect is not what will come.
    • Nature at war with itself / Man goes against his nature: Another favorite theme is that nature is ominous and that it foreshadows and mimics what is to become of Macbeth and Macbeth's actions.
    • Ambition: Macbeth and his wife’s personal ambition to control the crown ultimately ends up controlling them.

    Motifs and Imagery to Look For:

    • Supernatural - Ghosts, witches, and spirits are used throughout the play to add a sense of suspicion and suspense.
    • Blood - The blood that was split because of Macbeth's ambition continuously reappears as a reminder that he cannot wash away his evil deeds.
    • Sanity / Insanity - As his corruption begins to control him, Macbeth and his wife slip out of reality and struggle between sanity and insanity.
    • Order / Disorder - Because of the self-caused chaos, order and disorder surround the King and Queen. This contributes to the theme that things are not what they seem.
    • Sleep / Sleeplessness - The motif of sleep surrounds the tyrants as they struggle to overcome their deeds.

    Literary Conflict in The Tragedy of Macbeth

    Literary conflict are another major element often taught during ELA units. As we are continually building upon prior knowledge to achieve mastery level with our students an excellent way to focus on the various types of literary conflict is through storyboarding. Have students choose one example of each literary conflict and depict this using the storyboard creator!

    In Macbeth conflict is ever present. Much of the conflict that arises stems from the three witches and Hecate, who toy with Macbeth and ultimately hold back information that causes his downfall. Throughout each act, the witches give Macbeth a prophecy that comes true. However, in the end they decide that they are upset with him and choose to cause his misfortune.

    Having students create storyboards that show the cause and effect of different types of conflicts reinforce and develop literary analysis strengths.

    • Man vs. Man:
      Duncan's heirs come back to overthrow Macbeth.

    • Man vs. Self:
      Lady Macbeth begins to hallucinate and believes she has physical blood stains on her hands....” why won't these wash off?”

    • Man vs. Society:
      Once Macduff catches on and realizes that the deaths surrounding Macbeth seem suspicious, he joins forces with king's heirs and the army of Scotland to wage war.

    • Man vs. Nature: One of the witches' prophecies was that Macbeth would only die if the woods came to the castle.
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    Shakespearean Vocabulary

    Another great way to engage your students by creating a storyboard that uses Shakespearean vocabulary. Many students struggle with the meaning of commonly used Shakespearean terms; getting them to use them in context before reading is an excellent way to cultivate the comprehension of vocabulary. In the example below, students were asked to create storyboards that use familiar Shakespearean terms.

    In a Shakespearean vocabulary board, students can use the words in a sentence they create, or they can find and depict the phrase from the play. In the example storyboard, the student has chosen to create their sentences for their words:

    • Marry - Indeed:

      Then they asked me if that was the word of the Prince, and I replied, "It was marry!"

    • Pray - to ask:

      I pray the nurse comes quickly with good news!

    • Sauce - sassy:

      The saucy porter wouldn't let me in without a password.

    • Thou - you (to be):

      If thou hast a cold come see me... the friendly apothecary!

    Other Lesson Plan Ideas

    1. Who's the third murderer? - Students come up with their solution to this mystery.
    2. Connect the witches' prophecy to Macbeth's downfall in each act.
    3. Show the ways Lady Macbeth portrays the theme of ambition.
    4. Visually depict a major soliloquy or monologue from the play.
    5. Add a presentation to any storyboard project to showcase your students' abilities and meet CCSS Speaking and Listening Standards!

    From Our Artists

    From Sarah (Head of Character Development)

    When one thinks about the story of Macbeth, images of darkness, blood, and madness come to mind. This tale is one of the darker plays that Shakespeare wrote in his time, focusing on murder and the quest for power.

    • Personal Favorite - The dark castles and ominous woods lend themselves to create some very powerful and enveloping scenes.
    • Pro-Tip - Adding blood, shadows, and other gruesome little details to your storyboards will make your storyboards more complete and visually appealing. Try adding items onto shelves, tables, and other surfaces to create a more immersive environment for your characters!
    • The artists always do their best to create items and scenes tailored to particular books. Great castle scenes can be found in the 'Historical' tab and useful characters, including Macbeth himself, can be located under the 'Medieval' tab.

    Make sure to search for extra images using 'Shakespeare' as a search term!

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