Teacher Guide to The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare

By Rebecca Ray

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 strands with your unit.

This Teacher Guide Contains Plot Spoilers
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A Quick Plot Spoiler of The Tragedy of Macbeth

The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare, is perhaps one of his most well know 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 leads 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. Hence 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 accepted his with desire and 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.

Macbeth is not Shakespeare’s most complex play, but it is one of his most thrilling and emotionally intense. Whereas Shakespeare’s other major tragedies, explore the intellectual dilemmas faced by their subjects and the detailed characters, Macbeth plummets tragically from its opening to its conclusion.

Essential Questions For Macbeth Unit:

  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 persons actions?

Activities for a Unit on Macbeth

Students Create a Five Act Structure Diagram Using Macbeth

A common use case for storyboard that is for students to create a Diagram of the five act structure to show the sequence of events from the novel. Not only is this a great way to teach the parts of plot, but to reinforce major actions from the play and help students develop greater understanding for literary structures. Read more about the five act structure in our article.



Act 1: The Exposition

  • The setting takes place in Scotland
  • 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 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 his friend Banquo. Lady Macbeth then becomes mentally unstable and the couple begins to fear their murderous deeds.

Act 4: Falling Action

  • A rebellion led by Macduff is set in place 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: Denouncement or Resolution

  • The three witches’ prophecies come and his castle is stormed and he is killed.
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Creating a Character Reference Log for 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 novel 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 better follow along and catch subtle fine points which 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 characters 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 own 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!

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Macbeth as a Tragic Hero

The Tragedy of Macbeth is full of common literary elements that are important for students to explore. Due to the fact that 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 can use a template to help them begin their journey of storyboarding the qualities that make Macbeth the protagonist 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 3 witches tell Macbeth a prophecy which causes him to take matters into his own hands (ambition).

  • Hubris: Extreme Pride
    Coupled with his ambition his pride temps him 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 his Queen 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 Kings son is planning a rebellion against him.

  • Nemesis: Fate that cannot be reversed Catharsis: The audience is left with fear or pity for the hero
    The battle is won! ALL HAIL KING MALCOLM! The tyrant and his fiend wife are dead. 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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Analyzing Key Themes, Symbols, and Motifs in Macbeth

Valuable aspects of a novel to teach are the concepts of theme(s), symbolism, and motif(s) . Part of the common core ELA strands is to introduce and explain these complex concepts however, abstract ideas are often difficult to get students to anatomize without much assistance. Howbeit, using a storyboard students can visually demonstrate their understanding of these concepts and master their ability to analyze deep 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 specific 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 main 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 type of second thoughts about the course of events. The visions that are constantly seen throughout the play by him and his wife 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 own nature: Another popular theme is that nature is ominous and that it foreshadows and mimics what is to become of Macbeth and his actions.
  • Ambition: Macbeth and his wife’s personal ambition to control the crown ultimately end 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 in Macbeth's ambition continuously reappears as a reminder that 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 King and Queen Macbeth which 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.
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Understanding LIterary Conflict Using Macbeth

Literary conflict are another major element often taught during ELA units. As we are constantly building upon prior knowledge to achieve mastery level with our students a great 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 which causes his downfall. Through out each act the witches give Macbeth a prophecy which comes true. However, in the end they decide that they are upset with him and decide to cause him misfortune.

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

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

  • Man vs. Man:
    Duncans heirs come back to over through Macbeth

  • Man vs. Society:
    Once Macduff catches on and realizes that the deaths surrounding Macbeth seem suspicious he joins forces with kings 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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Visuall Vocabulary with Macbeth. Using Shakespearean Langugage in Context!

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 comprehension. In the example below students were asked to create storyboards that use common Shakespearean terms.

In the Shakespearean vocabulary board students can choose to use the words in a sentence they create or they can find and depict the words in use from the play. In the example storyboard the student has chosen to create their own 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!
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Other Lesson Plan Ideas

  1. Who's the third Murderer... Mystery? Students come up with their own solution.
  2. Connect witches prophecy to Macbeth 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 classes abilities and hit CCSS Speaking and Listening Strands!

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 definitely 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 them more complete and visually appealing. Try adding items onto shelves, tables and other surface to create a more immersive environment for your characters!
  • The artists always do their best to create items and scenes tailored to certain books. Great castle scenes can be found under the Historical tab and useful characters (including Macbeth himself) can be located under the Medieval & Renaissance tab.

Make sure to search for extra images with Shakespeare


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