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 Synopsis of The Tragedy of Macbeth (Contains Plot Spoilers)

    The Tragedy of Macbeth is one of William Shakespeare's best-known works. The shortest (and one of the bloodiest) of Shakespeare's tragedies, the story begins with victory and honors for the brave Scottish general, Macbeth. The play follows Macbeth's descent from noble soldier to nefarious traitor.

    As the play begins, 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. Having done so, and ascended to the throne, Macbeth is consumed by guilt and fear. He becomes tyrannical, paranoid, and suspicious. He resorts to killing others to secure his place, and, as the bloodbath continues, this drives Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to arrogance, madness, and their eventual deaths.

    Macbeth’s good friend, Banquo also was also given a prophecy by the witches. They said that, although Banquo would never be a king, he would produce a line of kings. Banquo accepted this fate with patience while Macbeth took action against Banquo and his son, Fleance.

    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 Macbeth meteorically rises and plummets from beginning to end.

    Essential Questions For Macbeth:

    1. How does ambition motivate people, as both a positive and negative trait?
    2. When do you feel guilt, and when do you experience remorse?
    3. To what extent, and in what ways 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.
    • A war is ending. The Scottish general, Macbeth, 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 go on a tyrannical killing spree. The action rises as the audience sees 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 becomes mentally unstable, and the couple begins to fear the consequences of their murderous deeds.

    Act 4: Falling Action

    • A rebellion is instigated by Macduff to restore the throne to Duncan's exiled son. 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 true, and the castle is stormed. Macbeth is killed.
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    Character Reference Log for The Tragedy of Macbeth

    As students read, a storyboard can serves as a helpful character reference log. This log (also called a character map) allows students to recall relevant information about important characters. When reading a play, small attributes and details frequently become important as the plot progresses. With character mapping, students will record this information, helping them follow along and catch the subtleties which make reading more enjoyable!

    Using a character map for Shakespeare is often even more beneficial. 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 helps students create connections and makes understanding concepts easier.

    You can click on this map and create a copy on your teacher account. Feel free to use it as is, or to edit it for the level of your class. Printing it as worksheets, for your students to complete while reading, is an fast and easy way to incorporate this character map into your classroom.

    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. 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.

    • Hamartia: The flaw that causes the hero's downfall.
      • The Three Witches tell Macbeth a prophecy that causes Macbeth to take matters into his hands (ambition).
    • Hubris: Excessive Pride
      • Macbeth’s pride combines with his ambition, and that of his wife. They plot 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. "Lady Macbeth, I fear our murderous deeds."
    • Anagnorisis: When the hero makes a critical discovery
      • Macbeth discovers that the former King's son is planning a rebellion against him.
    • Nemesis: Fate that cannot be avoided
      • "The battle is won! ALL HAIL KING MALCOLM! The tyrant and his fiend wife are dead."
    • Catharsis: The feeling of pity or fear the audience is left with after the hero's fall.
      • In the end, the witches' final prophecy comes true and Macbeth is killed. The audience is left with the feeling of pity and relief that Macbeth and his wife are dead.
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    Key Themes, Symbols, and Motifs in The Tragedy of Macbeth

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

    As a classroom activity, students could track the rich symbolism William Shakespeare uses throughout Macbeth. In the example storyboard below, the creator has focused on Shakespeare's use of visions in the play. The recurrence of this motif throughout the play proves its significance. Since Macbeth's actions weigh heavily on his conscious, it is not surprising that he would have some second thoughts. The visions Macbeth and his wife consistently see throughout the play serve as constant reminders of their ambition and corruption.

    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. What you expect is not what will come about.
    • 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 physical 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 - Order and disorder surround the new King and Queen. The Order of their rulership clashes with the chaos they have caused. This links to the theme that things are not what they seem.
    • Sleep/Insomnia - The motif of sleep (or sleeplessness) surrounds the tyrants as they struggle to overcome their deeds.

    Literary Conflict in The Tragedy of Macbeth

    Literary conflicts are another major element often taught during ELA units. Building on prior knowledge to achieve mastery level with our students is important. An excellent way to focus on the various types of literary conflict is through storyboarding. Having students choose an example of each Literary conflict and depict it using the storyboard creator is a great way to reinforce your lesson!

    In Macbeth, conflict is ever present. Much of the conflict 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 bring about his ruin.

    Having students create storyboards that show the cause and effect of different types of conflicts strengthens analytical thinking about literary concepts.

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

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

    • Man vs. Society:
      By the end of the play, Macbeth is faced with the united armies of Scotland, led by Macduff.

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    Shakespearean Vocabulary

    Another great way to engage your students is with 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 pick a 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 hope:

      I pray the nurse comes quickly with good news!

    • Sauce - Sassy:

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

    • Thou - You (used for one person who is the subject of a sentence):

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

    Other Lesson Plan Ideas

    1. Who's the third murderer of Banquo? - 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. It's one of Shakespeare's darkest plays, focusing on murder and the quest for power.

    • Personal Favorite - The dark castles and ominous woods lend themselves to create some very powerful and evocative 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. 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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    Find this Common Core aligned Teacher Guide and more like it in our High School ELA Category!
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