Lesson Plans

Put the VT to work in your classroom

"Fair is Foul, and Foul is Fair": Sound Devices in Shakespeare's "Macbeth"

Lesson Question:

How can students use the Visual Thesaurus to explore the use of sound devices in Macbeth?

Applicable Grades:


Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, students use the Visual Thesaurus to explore the pronunciation and meaning of several key vocabulary words in Macbeth. They then examine how Shakespeare uses these vocabulary words to enhance the text through the sound devices of alliteration and assonance.

Length of Lesson:

One hour to one hour and a half

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:


  • play a Visual Thesaurus spelling bee to become familiar with the pronunciation of key vocabulary words in Macbeth
  • use the Visual Thesaurus to identify the meaning of these vocabulary words in context
  • identify examples of alliteration and assonance involving these vocabulary words
  • evaluate how sound devices are used to enhance the text


  • electronic whiteboard
  • computers or tablets with Internet access
  • "Sound Devices in Macbeth" chart [click here to download]


Analyzing "Fair is foul, and foul is fair"


  • After students have read through at least the first scene of Macbeth, display the following quote on the whiteboard: "Fair is foul, and foul is fair: / Hover through the fog and filthy air" (1.1.10–11). Have a student or the whole class read the lines aloud. Ask the class to identify the speakers of the quote and provide brief context.
  • Use the whiteboard to display the Visual Thesaurus word maps for foul and fair. If possible, place the word maps side-by-side so students can see both at the same time. Ask a student volunteer to choose synonyms from the word webs that could be used to replace foul and fair in the quote; then have the volunteer read the quote aloud, substituting in his or her chosen synonyms. Repeat this process a few times to allow for different variations.
  • Lead the class in a discussion about why Shakespeare might have chosen the words foul and fair rather than the synonyms substituted by students in this exercise.
    • Students may propose several answers, all of which may be appropriate. For example, factors such as rhyme, meter, and connotation all play important roles in Shakespeare's word choice.
    • Explain that one important factor in Shakespeare's word choice – the factor that is the focus of today's lesson – is the repetition of sounds in verse. Point out that in the witches' quote, foul and fair as well as fog and filthy all begin with the same sound, "F."
    • Have the class consider how the repetition of the F-sound in the witches' quote might affect the listener.


Introducing Sound Devices
  • Explain that the witches' quote provides an example of alliteration, one of several poetic devices that involve repetition of sounds.  Define alliteration and another commonly used sound device, assonance. These can be defined as follows:
    • Alliteration: The use of the same consonant sound at the beginning of nearby words. Example: "Fair is foul, and foul is fair."
    • Assonance: The use of the same vowel sound in nearby words. Examples (there are two in the following line): "He's here in double trust" (1.7.12).
    • Explain that repetition of sounds through alliteration and assonance can be pleasing to the ear and can be used to emphasize certain words. Sometimes the repeated sound may help to emphasize the meaning of the text as well. For example, in the witches' quote, the shared F-sound has a direct relationship to the meaning: the words sound similar, just as the witches are saying these concepts are similar or the same ["Fair is foul, and foul is fair"].

 Exploring Vocabulary Words and Sound Devices in Macbeth

  • To introduce students to the vocabulary words in this activity – and specifically to the pronunciations of these words – have students play the Visual Thesaurus spelling bee associated with this activity [click here for the spelling bee]. This can be performed as a whole-class activity, or students can play the bee individually.


  • Once students have completed the spelling bee, organize the class into small groups. Give each group a copy of the "Sound Devices in Macbeth" chart [click here to download], which includes the vocabulary words and quotes in which they appear.
  • Review with students the following procedure for filling out the chart, which they will work on collaboratively in their groups.
  1. For each vocabulary word, read aloud the quote in which it appears.
  2. Use the Visual Thesaurus to determine an appropriate synonym or brief definition for the vocabulary word, as it is used in the context of the quote. Note that there may be several possible correct answers.
  3. Indicate whether the vocabulary word in the quote contributes to assonance or alliteration. Underline any letters or words in the quote to highlight the sound involved. (Note that there may be several possible correct answers.)
  • Give groups ample time to complete the chart. As they are working, circulate among them to provide assistance. If students are having trouble identifying sound devices, you may wish provide the following tips:
  1. Read the quote aloud once, and then repeat it using the synonym or definition in place of the vocabulary word. Think about how replacing the word changes the "sound effect" of the quote.
  2. Look for repeated letters as a clue. However, recall that the same letters do not always have the same sounds, and letters may be silent.


Sharing Responses and Analysis
  • Review the chart as a whole class by having members of each group volunteer to share their responses.
  • As students share their responses, discuss some of the effects of the sound devices in these examples. What significant words are emphasized? Are there any cases in which the repeated sound seems particularly appropriate for the meaning? (For example, consider the whisper-like S-sound in quotes that involve secrecy and plotting.)

Extending the Lesson:

  • Show a video or play an audio recording of an excerpt from Macbeth. Students could listen and read along with a copy of the text, underlining the examples of alliteration and assonance that they notice. Macbeth's "Is this a dagger" soliloquy (2.1.33–64) works well for this activity. (A recording by Wired for Books is available here. The soliloquy begins at 1:42 in Act 2.) At the conclusion of the activity, have students share examples they found and reflect on how those examples enhance the drama.
  • Instruct students to write skits using alliteration and assonance and incorporating the vocabulary from this lesson. Students perform their skits for the class, and their classmates try to identify examples of each sound device used.


Groups' completed "Sound Devices in Macbeth" charts should be assessed for appropriate synonyms and accurate identification of sound devices used.

Educational Standards:

Common Core State Standards for ELA and Literacy:

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use

  • Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words or phrases based on grades 6-12 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.
  • Use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence or paragraph; a word's position or function in a sentence) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.
  • Consult general and specialized reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or determine or clarify its precise meaning or its part of speech.
  • Verify the preliminary determination of the meaning of a word or phrase (e.g., by checking the inferred meaning in context or in a dictionary).
  • Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

Interpret figures of speech (e.g. verbal irony, puns) in context.

  • Use the relationship between particular words to better understand each of the words.
  • Distinguish among the connotations (associations) of words with similar denotations (definitions) (e.g., bullheaded, willful, firm, persistent, resolute).
  • Acquire and use accurately grade-appropriate general academic and domain-specific words and phrases; gather vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression.

Reading: Literature (Craft and Structure)

  • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful. (Include Shakespeare as well as other authors.)

Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) Standards:

Standard 5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process

Level IV (Grades 6-12)

  • Uses context to understand figurative, idiomatic, and technical meanings of terms
  • Extends general and specialized reading vocabulary (e.g., interprets the meaning of codes, symbols, abbreviations, and acronyms; uses Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon roots and affixes to infer meaning; understands subject-area terminology; understands word relationships, such as analogies or synonyms and antonyms; uses cognates; understands allusions to mythology and other literature; understands connotative and denotative meanings)

Standard 6. Uses skills and strategies to read a variety of literary texts

Level III (Grade 6-8)

1. Reads a variety of literary passages and texts (e.g., fiction, nonfiction, myths, poems, fantasies, biographies, autobiographies, science fiction, historical fiction, drama)
6. Understands the use of language in literary works to convey mood, images, and meaning (e.g., dialect; dialogue; symbolism; irony; rhyme; voice; tone; sound; alliteration; assonance; consonance; onomatopoeia; figurative language such as similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole, allusion; sentence structure; punctuation) 
7. Understands the effects of an author's style (e.g., word choice, speaker, imagery, genre, perspective) on the reader
Level IV (Grade 9-12)

1. Reads a variety of literary texts (e.g., fiction, nonfiction, myths, poems, biographies, autobiographies, science fiction, supernatural tales, satires, parodies, plays, American literature, British literature, world and ancient literature)
7. Understands the effects of author's style and complex literary devices and techniques on the overall quality of a work (e.g., tone; irony; mood; figurative language; allusion; diction; dialogue; symbolism; point of view; voice; understatement and overstatement; time and sequence; narrator; poetic elements, such as sound, imagery, personification)


Click here to read more articles from Lesson Plans.