Use this Real-Life Lens Lesson to help students dive deep into Shakespeare’s Macbeth and examine the play’s themes, action, and characters through the lens of power and corruption. How does Shakespeare portray the influence of power? How do different personality types react to their desire for power? How dangerous is the desire for power? Can power exist without corruption? What warnings, if any, does Shakespeare present about the abuse of power and its potential to corrupt the human soul?
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Introduce the Lens
To activate students’ thinking, choose one or two of the following Real-Life Links to use in an engagement activity. Have students read or watch the material and discuss the content. Encourage students to jot down notes, or record class notes on the board for future reference.
Pose the Following Big Idea Questions to the Class:
What is power, and how can it corrupt those who wield it?
How are people impacted by different types of power, such as physical, political, spiritual, and supernatural?
1. Have students write quick initial responses to the questions.
2. Discuss the questions either as a class or in small groups.
3. Prompt students to consider the relationship between power and corruption. Encourage students to reflect on what they already know, from their personal lives, history, or current events, that can help inform their responses.
4. Following discussion, give students time to revise their initial responses, and ask volunteers to share what they wrote with the class.
Introduce the Driving Questions
Begin by having students write their own questions about the lesson topic. Encourage them to think about what they already know about power and corruption and what they are interested in exploring further.
Hand out the Driving Questions Worksheet. Review the questions as a class. Students should enter initial answers to the questions as they read Macbeth. They will revisit the questions and revise their answers following the lesson activities, classroom discussion, and the completion of the text. Remind students to support their responses with text evidence.
Integrate the Driving Questions into your classroom discussions. Use them to help guide students’ thinking about the Big Idea Questions.
1. How do the promise and acquisition of power corrupt Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in the play?
2. How does Macbeth’s morality change over the course of the play?
3. How does Lady Macbeth influence Macbeth’s choices?
4. Is Macbeth a hero? Is there a hero in Macbeth?
5. What are the different ways that characters in the play are affected by ambition to gain power?
6. To what extent is Macbeth responsible for his actions? Are his choices ultimately his own to make, or is he the victim of manipulation by others or just a pawn of fate?
7. How is the corrupting influence of power presented through the use of nontraditional gender roles and associations throughout the play?
8. How does the presence of the supernatural (e.g., prophetic witches, violent visions, natural omens) contribute to Macbeth’s corruption?
9. Who is corrupted by power? Who is not? What makes the difference?
Introduce the "Through the Lens" Activity
Activity: Power and Responsibility
In this activity, students will be asked what they think they would do if given absolute power.
Ask students to write a single page describing what they would do if they were in charge of the school for a week. For example, what might they change if they had complete control of the school’s budget, rules, and curriculum? In their writing, students should specifically note the things they would and would not change and explain their reasons for each decision.
Have pairs exchange finished pieces. Encourage students to return to the Big Idea Questions and consider how their answers informed their writing. Invite three or four students to share their writing with the class. Prompt whole-class discussion with questions such as: As you read each other’s paragraphs, were there examples of students abusing power? If so, was the power used to corrupt the purpose of school and education? Was the abuse of power a result of insecurities or fears?
Before moving on, explain that students will explore Shakespeare’s treatment of power and corruption and the effects of power on human behavior through his use of characterization, plot, and language as they read Macbeth.
Begin by having students define power. Then, rather than having all students write about what they might do if given complete power over the school, ask volunteers to make suggestions orally and record their responses on the board. Discuss each response as a class. Alternatively, have students perform the activity with a partner or in a small group.
Follow up by having students write short narrative accounts about their fictional experiences as supreme leader of your school, including how they felt and the challenges they faced. Ask two or three students to read their narratives to the class.
Introduce the Final Project
Before moving on, introduce the final projects to the class (see below for details). Have students choose the project they will complete and encourage them to keep their project in mind as they read the text. Facilitate the formation of project groups if necessary.
Assign the Midpoint Activities
Activity 1: #Macbeth
In this activity, students will design a faux Twitter account for either Macbeth or Lady Macbeth. The account should have the character’s name, a profile picture, and a maximum 160-character biography, including five interests the character has (or might have) and where the character lives.
Students will then review Acts 1-3 and choose the ten most important moments that show the character’s rise to power, his or her power-hungry nature, and/or how power and ambition are beginning to corrupt him or her as an individual. Using either a word processing program or poster board, students will then hashtag and write a tweet (280-character maximum) reflecting on each of the ten moments from the character’s perspective. Students must either draw or find five images to correspond with any five of these tweets. Have students share their finished work with the class.
Students may work in small groups or with a partner to complete the task. Preselect the ten important moments for students to tweet about. If necessary, decrease the number of tweets required.
Have students create Twitter accounts for both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. For an added challenge, increase the number of tweets required.
Activity 2: Witches, Ghosts, Visions, and Prophecy
Small groups of students will research Elizabethan superstitions and examine the corrupting influence that superstition and supernatural forces have on Macbeth by exploring the supernatural elements in the first half of the play. Pass out the Witches, Ghosts, Visions, and Prophecy Worksheet for students to use as a reference as they work through the activity. Review the worksheet as a class.
Have small groups research Elizabethan attitudes and beliefs regarding the corrupting power and influence of supernatural forces, including period perspectives on God and the devil, witches, fate, and magic. Students will relate their findings to an event in the play in which Macbeth is corrupted by some supernatural force. Students will work together to produce a slideshow presentation that details their findings and analysis.
Instead of requiring students to create a digital presentation, have them produce large poster boards depicting the information they gather.
After the digital presentation is complete, have individual students write a short narrative account, written from the perspective of an Elizabethan audience member, criticizing the scene presented for its use of these “foul” and “wicked” supernatural forces. Narratives must contain at least three references to the researched information.
Paired Text Recommendations
Encourage students to read passages from contemporary novels that similarly feature the theme of power and corruption. In pairing multiple texts with similar themes, students are challenged to look beyond the book they’re studying and find new ways to connect to the themes. Here are some books you can pair with Macbeth:
- Exposure by Kim Askew and Amy Helmes
- Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl
- Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
Students will work on their final projects after they have finished reading the complete text of Macbeth. Project 1 should be completed by students working individually, while Project 2 can be completed individually or in small groups.
Final Project 1: Philosophical Argument Essay: Fate Versus Free Will
Many scholars believe that Shakespeare’s use of the supernatural, including fate, and its effect on Macbeth as a character constitute an examination of the power we have (or do not have) over our own lives. Shakespeare uses the presence of the supernatural in his plays, especially in Macbeth, to present the idea that there may be forces at work in the universe that have power and influence over us, especially evil forces such as the witches and Hecate that conspire to corrupt the soul.
Students will write an argumentative essay responding to the following prompt:
In Act 1, Banquo says: And often times, to win us to our harm, / The instruments of darkness tell us truths[.] (No Fear: 1.3.125–126)
Through the use of the witches’ influence over Macbeth, Shakespeare questions the nature and source of corruption and invites the audience to do so as well. Consider the following questions as you write: Is Macbeth corrupt and inherently evil? Are his decisions his own, or is he manipulated by evil forces? Using at least two vetted sources from a literary journal, write a well-developed argument analyzing the choices Macbeth makes in the play and explaining to what extent he is responsible for his actions.
Remind students to include supporting evidence from the play and the other sources to support their claims.
Rather than writing a complete essay, students can develop a clear claim and one argumentative paragraph, focusing on one key textual detail from the play. Alternatively, students can be asked to develop their arguments without the integration of outside sources.
Schedule time for several rounds of peer review and revision to increase the expectation for the highest level of student writing. In addition, simply instituting a higher page requirement can make this essay more challenging for any student as it encourages them to locate more textual examples and make more arguments.
Final Project 2: Macbeth Playlist
Students will create a playlist for one of the major characters in the play (Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, the witches, Macduff, Malcolm, or Banquo) consisting of fifteen songs. The playlist should capture the character’s personality as well as the corrupting influence that power has over him or her. Students will then write a short explanation explaining each song choice. Each explanation must be accompanied by a properly cited quote from the play that relates to the chosen song.
Allow students to work in small groups to complete the project. Reduce the number of songs on the playlist, or reduce the number of explanations needed while keeping the number of songs the same.
Increase the number of songs needed for the playlist. Require a minimum of two quotes from the text for each song explanation.
Assess the Assignments
Use the Rubric for Student Assessment to evaluate student work on the lesson assignments.
Distribute the Student Reflection Worksheet. Guide students through the self-assessment and reflection questions.