Teaching Macbeth through Set Design

My mantra when I teach Shakespeare is, “It’s up to the director.”

I cannot teach Shakespeare without focusing on the texts’ inherent theatricality.  Where ambiguity in a novel creates an interesting level of unknowability, ambiguity in drama, especially Shakespeare, creates opportunity for creativity.

"Fair is foul and foul is fair" (I.i)

“Fair is foul and foul is fair” (I.i)

Shakespeare’s plays live uncomfortably between the covers of a book.  They are only half a work of art; the other half is completed every time a group of people comes together to perform the play.  When we watch Shakespeare on film, it is five minutes at a time, in five different versions of the play.

For this reason I chafe at making students read Shakespeare quietly to themselves at home.  We read the entire play aloud in class (which I suppose is “flipping the classroom”… but I have other thoughts on that). It seems natural to end with a theatrical project.

Emphasizing the theme of ambition and the pettiness of the motivations.

Emphasizing the theme of ambition and the pettiness of the motivations.

"I am in blood/Stepped in so far, were I to wade no more/returning were as tedious as go o'er."

“I am in blood/Stepped in so far, were I to wade no more/returning were as tedious as go o’er.” (III.iv)

For the past three years, I have finished the 10th-grade English unit on Macbeth with a set design project.  I have some experience in technical theatre, and set design seemed to present a perfect opportunity: accessible, tactile, and analytic.

Wait.  Analytic?

The best sets not only look gorgeous, but they reinforce the director’s vision of the play.  They embody the play’s major themes and help create the total work of art.  That is analysis.

For the project, students dispense with the director, actors, and lighting designer.  They focus exclusively on creating a design that:

  1. Embodies a major theme in the text
  2. Represents that theme symbolically
  3. Fits in of our two performance spaces at school
  4. Could have the entire play performed on it

We begin by looking at images of professional set designs for the play.  Students discuss the thematic aspects of each design–they range from abstract to representational–and we, as a class, talk about the strengths and challenges of each design.  Mostly, we focus on how the designer conveys his or her message.  Students write a comparison of any two sets they like.

When it comes time for them to begin work on their own designs, they begin with a written proposal and a sketch, which allows me to check their progress.

The final result has three prongs: a scale model, a written presentation of the design, and an oral presentation.  I put the models on display in the gallery of our school’s arts wing.

The project works because it:

  1. Requires students to analyze the text and identify a major theme
  2. Requires students to think symbolically and abstractly
  3. Plays to the varied strengths of different groups of students
  4. Encourages good time management (it’s a lot of balls in the air for a fifteen-year-old)
  5. Makes the result of their efforts visible to the community

It is, I suppose, an “authentic assessment,” but I like to think of it simply as an effective way to engage students in the theatricality of a dramatic text.  What we used to call “good teaching.”


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