Macbeth
Lesson Plans, Figurative Language,
Tragic Themes,
and the Backstory of Macbeth

Fuseli, Henry, 1741-1825, artist. Macbeth consulting the vision of the armed head. (1793).

Folger Shakespeare Library Shelfmark: FPa27. Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library

(under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License).

Nexus: Macbeth and the Dark Ages

  • Common Core Aligned and More Engaging Than Ever.
  • Shakespeare’s Language Made Accessible, Engaging and Relevant without Paraphrasing
  • Students explore the erosion of conscience after a moral line is crossed.
  • Intriguing Windows into History and Culture that Illuminate Shakespeare’s Darkest Drama.

“The wonderfully rich historical background — colorful anecdotes and clear, conversational accounts of family ties, political motives, events, and phenomena — will definitely enhance students’ study of the play. The illustrations for the 14 short sections of this volume are stunning: maps, production photos, beautiful reproductions of tapestries, and manuscript illuminations.” – THE COLLEGE BOARD

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Figurative Language in MacbethMacbeth Themes and Lessons

Stratford director Richard Rose

Lesson on Creative Ways of Staging Macbeth

The Macbeth theme of conscience vs. ambition is explored in a Stratford, Ontario production in which Macbeth’s personality is split between several versions of the character.   At the same time, Stratford Festival director Richard Rose, the former head of the Festival’s Young Company, teaches students to read the subtext of Macbeth from multiple viewpoints and to stage the play with a modern spin. This chapter is aligned with CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.1, RL.2, RL.3, and RL.5 (for 9-10 and 11-12).

NEXUS Illustration of Macbeth quote, “fair is foul and foul is fair”

Macbeth Figurative Language Lesson

Lesson on Antithesis in Macbeth – Word Tug-of-Wars
Language Tug-of-Wars in the Scottish play – fair is foul and foul is fair – reflect major themes that students explore in this chapter.
The extensive use of antithesis in Macbeth (opposites placed in what are virtually word equations: fair = foul and foul = fair) suggests the powerful thematic contrasts in the play: chaos vs. order, dark vs. light, and the hovering, passive force of the “Holy King” Edward vs. the hyperactive “hellhound” Macbeth. The “Word Wars” chapter teaches students a simple and fun way of identifying and interpreting antithesis, thereby helping them to grapple more effectively with the play’s themes. This interactive chapter is aligned with Common Core Language Arts Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.1, RL.4 and RL.5 (for 9-10 and 11-12) and includes activities.
For additional activities that rigorously meet RL.4 refer to the Macbeth LESSON PLANS menu and see “Word Games (Shakespeare’s Figurative Language)” in Romeo and Juliet and the Renaissance, NEXUS, “Shakespeare and Caesar, Mysteries of the Mind,” in Julius Caesar and Ancient Rome, from Republic to Empire (NEXUS), and visit the Shakespeare Study Hall/Macbeth (coming in the spring of 2020).
The Release of Souls from the Mouth of Hell, from the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleve, ca. 1440, Utrecht, Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

Macbeth Themes Lesson: Fatal Passion and The War Within

Lesson explores Metaphor in Macbeth and Macbeth’s Conscience
Students learn to identify and explicate metaphors in Macbeth, particularly metaphors that illustrate the erosion of Macbeth’s conscience.
This interactive lesson includes activities and is aligned with Common Core Language Arts Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.1, RL.2, RL.3, and RL.4 as well as Common Core Reading Anchor Standards: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1, R.2, R.3, and R.4 (for 9-10 and 11-12).
For additional activities that rigorously meet RL.4 see “Word Games ” (Shakespeare’s Figurative Language) in Romeo and Juliet and the Renaissance, “Shakespeare and Caesar, Mysteries of the Mind,” Julius Caesar and Ancient Rome, from Republic to Empire.
The Witches Sabbath, Francisco Goya, 1798, Museo Lazaro Galdiano, Madrid, from NEXUS “Cauldron of Chaos”

Macbeth Witches Lesson – Cauldron of Chaos

In this lesson students explore the roles of the witches and their familiars Graymalkin, Harpier and Paddock as they relate to the Macbeth theme of order versus chaos. In addition, they contrast the role of the witches with the hovering presence of England’s “Holy King” and examine the widespread belief in seductive, dark forces during King James’s reign. This lesson aligns with CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL1, RL.2, RL.4, RL.5, and RL.6 as well as Common Core History Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.1, RH.2 and RH.3 (for 9-10 and 11-12)

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Macbeth Pre-Reading Activities – The Backstory of Shakespeare’s Darkest Drama

Image of Viking warriors

Macbeth Pre-Reading Lesson for Act 1: Macbeth and the Vikings

The Viking (Norwegian) invasion that begins the play is supported by Scottish rebels. Such alliances were typical in the 10th and 11th centuries. In this chapter students investigate the the Viking assaults on Scotland and the Scottish factionalism that it provoked. This chapter prepares students to understand not only the opening scene of the Scottish play, but also the closing scenes (Siward was a Viking).

This lesson meets CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.1 and RL.4 as well as Common Core History Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.2, RH.6, RH.8 and RH.9 (for 9-10 and 11-12).

Scenes leading up to the Battle of Hastings from the Bayeux Tapestry

Unraveling the Bayeux Tapestry Lesson

In this lesson students explore the Battle of Hastings – which reshaped Scotland during Malcolm and his son’s reigns nearly as much as it did England – through the Bayeux Tapestry’s scene-by-scene the lead-up to the battle and the battle itself. In addition, the Bayeux Tapestry provides contemporary views of feudal customs, military dress, battle tactics, medieval dining and so forth.

This lesson includes activities and exercises and is aligned with Common Core Language Arts Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.1 and RL.6 and Common Core History Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.2 and RH.8.

Macbeth, King of Scotland, by Jacob Jacobsz de Wet II, 1697, Palace of Holy Rood House, Royal Collection Trust

Royal Murder and the Real Macbeth – Macbeth Pre-Reading Lesson

This lesson introduces students to the real Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and investigates the bloody competition for the throne that dominated Scottish politics throughout the 10th and 11th centuries. The lesson also explores the reign of Macbeth’s successor, Malcolm III, who was exiled at the court of Edward the Confessor during Macbeth’s reign. In addition students learn how the death of Macbeth helped make the consolidation and Anglicization of Scotland possible under Malcolm (Shakespeare implies the latter in the final scene).

King Malcolm III and his wife Saint Margaret, granddaughter of Edmund Ironsides, Saxon King of England, 1562

Malcolm Canmore and Saint Margaret of Scotland

From this lesson students learn the enormous influence of Malcolm III’s Anglo-Saxon queen, Saint Margaret of Scotland, on the next two centuries of Scottish history. Malcolm’s and Margaret’s marriage was an important side effect of the Battle of Hastings.

This lesson meets Common Core History Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.1, RH.2, RH.3, RH.6, RH.8 and RH.9 (for 9-10 and 11-12).

Edward the Confessor depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry

Macbeth Pre-Reading Lesson for Act 4 – Edward the Confessor

Students investigate Edward the Confessor’s role as an exemplary king in Macbeth. They also explore how events during Edward’s reign led to the Battle of Hastings.

Shis lesson meets Common Core ELA Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.1 and RL.4 as well as Common Core History Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.2, RH.6, RH.8 and RH.9 (for 9-10 and 11-12).

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Lesson on Reading Visual Metaphors in Medieval Art

  • Reinforces literary figurative language reading skills and appeals, in particular, to visual learners
The Jaws of Hell, Winchester Psalter, 1150-1160, British Library

Metaphors in Illuminated Manuscripts

In this lesson students identify and explicate visual metaphors and contrasts in two medieval images of Hell Mouths and relate them to the Porter Scene in Macbeth. Morality plays about the Mouth or Gate of Hell were very popular during Shakespeare’s youth; the Porter’s allusion to the Mouth of Hell in Macbeth would have resonated with a Shakespeare audience. This lesson meets Common Core Language Arts Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.1, RL.4 and RL.7 (for 9-10 and 11-12).

Scenes from The Life of David, rejected leaf of the Winchester Bible, 1150-1160, 12th century, Pierpont Morgan Library

Books of Light – Illuminated Manuscripts Lesson

Students study the functions and styles of the medieval book or illuminated manuscript and learn to identify and trace image patterns in the illuminations of several manuscripts , including the 8th-century Lindisfarne Gospels (illuminated on one of Scotland’s “Holy Islands”) and a rose window. This chapter includes activities and meets Common Core Language Arts Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.7 and Common Core History Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.1, RH.2, and RH.8 (for 9-10 and 11-12) as well as National Core Arts Standards 7, 8, 9 and 11.

Manuscript illumination by Steve Otlowski

Manuscript Making Lesson, the Monk’s Art

In this lesson, a modern manuscript illuminator takes students through the stages of illumination enabling them to illuminate a scene from Macbeth, using techniques discussed in this section, as well as patterns, limited palette and visual metaphors that reflect metaphors or themes in the play. Lesson meets Common Core Language Arts Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.4 and RL.7 (for 9-10 and 11-12) as well as National Core Arts Standards 1 through 8.

Edward the Confessor depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry

Tapestry Threads

Students learn to read the pictorial language of the Bayeux Tapestry and the tapestry borders, which provide an alternative Saxon perspective that seems to contradict the Norman point of view emblazoned in the principle imagery. Students also explore techniques employed in creating this celebrated visual history of the Battle of Hastings.

This lesson meets Common Core Language Arts Standard CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.7 (for 9-10 and 11-12) as well as National Core Arts Standards 7, 8, 9 and 11.

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Medieval Music and Science

Guido of Arezzo determining string lengths for the notes of the scale with a monochord, from a manuscript, Vienna

An 11th-Century Musical Revolutionary

In this lesson students explore the work of Guido of Arezzo whose book on medieval music theory, Micrologus, laid the foundation for Western musical notation. The lesson also emphasizes the importance of recognizing musical patterns in sight singing.

This lesson meets Common Core Anchor Reading Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1 and R.7 and Common Core History Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.1, RH.2, and RH.7 (for 9-10 and 11-12) as well as Music Standards 7 and 11.

19th-century sketch of a medieval trebuchet

The Trebuchet— Nightmare Weapon of the Middle Ages

In this lesson students investigate the history and laws of physics associated with the most powerful weapon of the Middle Ages: the concepts of potential energy and work, and the physics of levers, hinges and rotational motion are examined.

This chapter is aligned with the following Common Core Science Standards: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.1, RST.2, RST.3 RST.5, and RST.7 (for 9-10- and 11-12) and includes activities.

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Macbeth Lesson Plans, Teaching Guidelines, and Supplements

NEXUS Supplements can be accessed under the SUPPLEMENTS menu. NOTE: NEXUS supplements and magazines are protected by U.S. Copyright and cannot be photocopied, photographed or downloaded.

Portrait of Saint Margaret of Scotland, 13th century

From this lesson students learn more about the highly influential Scottish queen, Saint Margaret, who Malcolm Canmore met, protected (after she fled from the Norman Invasion of England in 1066) and married. Students also explore how Saint Margaret’s sons ruled Scotland after the fall of Macbeth. This supplementary lesson is aligned with Common Core History Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.1 and RH.2.

Soldiers fighting in chainmail, Manesse Codex.

In the Medieval Armor Supplementary lesson students examine the type of armor Macbeth and MacDuff would have worn, and they learn about the evolution of armor through the centuries.

This lesson is aligned with Common Core History Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.1, RH.2 and RH.4 (for 9-10 and 11-12).

Sainte-Trinité, Lessay Abbey, Normandy

This lesson introduces students to the Romanesque style, which spread from France to most of Western Europe during the Macbeth era. However, like other Continental influences, Romanesque Architecture reached Scotland late. The supplement focuses on the Fortress Cathedral of Durham, which was begun in northern England the year Malcolm III and Saint Margaret died, 1093, and helped defend the border between Scotland and England.

This supplementary lesson is aligned with Common Core History Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.1, RH.2, RH.4 and RH.8 (for 9-10 and 11-12)

Robert the Bruce reviewing troops before the Battle of Bannockburn, woodcut by Edmund Blair Leighton

The Braveheart and Bruce supplementary lesson explores the unification of Scotland & England, which is alluded to in Macbeth. The unification of the two kingdoms began, of course, with James I, two or three years before Shakespeare wrote his tragedy.

This lesson is aligned with Common Core History Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.1, RH.2, RH.3, RH.6, RH.8 and RH.9. (for 9-10 and 11-12).

We provide free interdisciplinary Macbeth lesson plans with interdisciplinary activities for all subjects with class-set orders of Macbeth and the Dark Ages.

  • Macbeth Vocabulary (Coming Soon)

  • Macbeth Quizzes (Coming Soon)

  • Macbeth Test (Coming Soon)
  • Shakespeare Study Hall/Macbeth (Spring 2020)

Macbeth vocabulary exercises and quizzes, plot quizzes and the Macbeth Test will soon be available.

GUIDELINES: The outstanding and thorough Macbeth Guidelines provide additional lesson ideas for using the NEXUS book, suggestions for reports, research and cross curricular projects, including dramatic stagings of scenes from Macbeth and other Shakespeare plays. They also include multiple suggestions for ancillary readings in primary sources that offer different perspectives on the same topic and teach students to recognize biases in divergent accounts. Thus they enable teachers to rigorously meet three Common Core Anchor Standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.6
    “Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.”

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.8
    Assess the extent to which the reasoning and evidence in a text support the author’s claims.

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.9
    COMPARE AND CONTRAST treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.

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