Activity Overview

Death of a Salesman is full of common literary elements that are important for students to explore. Because this is one of Miller's most famous tragedies, it is helpful for students to understand why it is categorized as a tragedy. Foremost, it centers around a tragic hero. However, Miller's protagonist is a new kind of tragic hero: “the common man”. This character differs from traditional tragic heroes, in Miller's essay, "Tragedy and the Common Man", he explains how this version differs from the classic Greek archetype.

After reading the play, ask students to read Miller’s essay on "Tragedy and the Common Man" and create a storyboard depicting Willy as a tragic hero.

Common Man/Tragic Hero

The common man is an apt subject for tragedy in its highest sense since the common man is easily relatable to the audience. In this play, Willy Loman is a middle-class salesman who wants to work hard and provide for his family.

AttributeMiller's ViewExample from Death of a Salesman
The Flaw in the Character
Miller believed it was the inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what the character conceives to be a challenge to his dignity. Willy refuses to accept that success is built by hard work and determination.
Excessive Pride
In Miller's view, the tragic hero is “a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing - his sense of personal dignity.” Willy is too proud to take a job from his neighbor, but commits suicide to ensure his family has the financial stability that he couldn't provide.
Reversal of Fortune
Miller believed that the hero could be displaced from fortune. Tragedy, then, “is the consequence of a man's total compulsion to evaluate himself justly”. Throughout the play Willy refers to others around him who are more successful as having luck or charisma. He talks about the regret he has over not going with his brother to Africa, which made him rich.
A Moment of Critical Discovery
For Miller, the destruction of the common man comes along with the protagonist’s realization that he is at odds with the world, and his environment cannot be altered to achieve his goals. After he is fired, Willy realizes he will never succeed in business, and that, despite his best efforts, his son's have not achieved the ambitions he held for them.
Fate that Cannot be Avoided
Miller says tragedy “posits a wrong or an evil in [the protagonist’s] environment.” Something is obstructing the protagonist from achieving his rightful place. What is done is done, what will be will be. Willy is too old to change and cannot change the past.
The Audience's Feeling of Pity or Fear After the Hero's Fall
In Miller's view, a modern audience can relate to the common man’s “ underlying fear of being displaced, the disaster inherent in being torn away from our chosen image of what and who we are in this world.” The audience is left with a feeling of pity for Lohman’s desperate suicide, and fear that they too may be living lives where their dreams will never be realized.

Template and Class Instructions

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Use This Assignment With My Students", update the instructions on the Edit Tab of the assignment.)

Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that shows how Willy can be considered a tragic hero.

  1. Identify events of the play or characteristics of Willy that fit into Aristotelian attributes of a tragic hero.
  2. Illustrate examples for Hamartia, Hubris, Peripeteia, Anagnorisis, Nemesis, and Catharsis.
  3. Write a short description below each cell that specifically relates Willy as a tragic hero.
  4. Save often!

Lesson Plan Reference

Grade Level 11-12

Difficulty Level 2 (Reinforcing / Developing)

Type of Assignment Individual

Type of Activity: Tragic Hero

Common Core Standards
  • [ELA-Literacy/RL/9-10/2] Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text
  • [ELA-Literacy/RL/9-10/3] Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme
  • [ELA-Literacy/W/9-10/1] Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence


(You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)

Tragic Hero Rubric Template
Create a storyboard that shows how the protagonist can be considered a tragic hero using Aristotle's Characteristics
Proficient Emerging Beginning Needs Improvement
Tragic Hero Characteristics
The six tragic hero characteristics are correctly identified and portrayed from the story. The explanation provided explains how the scenes depict each characteristic, and shows effective analysis.
Four or five tragic hero characteristics are correctly identified and portrayed from the story, or some of the elements may not be identified correctly. The explanations give context to the scene, but may be minimal, and there is some attempt at analysis.
Two or three tragic hero characteristics are correctly identified and portrayed from the story, or most of the elements are inaccurately depicted. The quotes and/or explanations are too minimal.
One or fewer tragic hero characteristics are correctly identified and portrayed from the story, or most of the elements are inaccurately depicted. The quotes and/or explanations are minimal or missing altogether.
Artistic Depictions
The art chosen to depict the scenes are accurate to the work of literature. Time and care is taken to ensure that the scenes are neat, eye-catching, and creative.
The art chosen to depict the scenes should be accurate, but there may be some liberties taken that distract from the assignment. Scene constructions are neat, and meet basic expectations.
The art chosen to depict the scenes is inappropriate. Scene constructions are messy and may create some confusion.
The art chosen to depict the scenes is too limited or incomplete.
English Conventions
Ideas are organized. There are few or no grammatical, mechanical, or spelling errors.
Ideas are mostly organized. There are some grammatical, mechanical, or spelling errors.
Ideas may be disorganized or misplaced. Lack of control over grammar, mechanics, and spelling reflect a lack of proofreading.
Storyboard text is difficult to understand.

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Death of a Salesman

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