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Lesson Plan

Analyzing Symbolism, Plot, and Theme in Death and the Miser

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Analyzing Symbolism, Plot, and Theme in Death and the Miser

Grades 9 – 12
Lesson Plan Type Standard Lesson
Estimated Time Six 50-minute sessions
Lesson Author

Junius Wright

Junius Wright

Charleston, South Carolina


National Council of Teachers of English


Student Objectives

Session One

Session Two

Session Three

Session Four

Session Five

Session Six


Student Assessment/Reflections



Students will

  • use visual literacy skills to analyze, interpret, and explain how individual elements establish the overall meaning of a work of art.

  • examine the details in a work of art by sketching and labeling its major elements.

  • identify the protagonist, antagonist, and conflict of a work.

  • use an analysis of symbolism and characterization to predict the exposition, rising action, falling action, and resolution of a work.

  • apply an understanding of how a work of art uses diction, subject, symbolism, tone, and characterization to analyze and explain the tone and theme of the work.

  • write an interpretation of a work through an explication of its individual elements.

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Session One

  1. Introduce this lesson by sharing with students the following points:

    • Like a work of literature, a work of art can have more than one interpretation.

    • The ideal interpretation is one that can be supported and explained with specific evidence from within the work itself.

    • The goal of this lesson is to state an original interpretation of a painting and explain how individual elements in the painting work together to support the interpretation.
  2. Use an overhead projector or a LCD projector to show students an image of Death and the Miser. If possible, use a tape measure or yardstick to measure out the size of the actual painting (12" by 36.5") so that students can gauge the true size of the images. Measuring out the size helps students visualize the proportions better than simply telling them the painting’s size.

  3. Read the following description of the painting while pointing to the elements described in the painting:
    Painted in 1485 by Hieronymous Bosch, Death and the Miser is an allegorical work of art that reflects the impact of religion and disease on European society during the Middle Ages. The painting focuses on an old miser dying in his bed and staring at a shrouded skeleton walking through the door. The same miser is depicted again at the bottom of the painting as a younger and healthier man placing coins into a lockbox.
  4. Ask students to sketch and label the major elements in the painting. Remind them to examine the details in the painting more closely, but not to worry about creating a “copy” of the painting.

  5. Encourage students to use stick figures, primitive shapes, and simple symbols to represent the elements of the work that they identify in their sketches.

  6. Ask students to use short, concrete phrases when labeling the individual elements in the work.

  7. Once they have completed their sketches, ask students to write a three to five sentence “Pre-Analysis” paragraph description of what is happening in the painting.

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Session Two

  1. Ask students to use the Death and the Miser interactive to identify the different elements in the painting, and answer all of the questions in the pop-up menus If Internet access is limited use the Death and the Miser Deconstructed handout and the complete list of questions from the tool.

  2. Remind students to print a copy of the responses.

  3. Have students use their responses to the questions to complete the assignment Reading a Work of Art in Eight Steps.

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Session Three

  1. Using the Comic Creator tool, ask students to draw six-panel cartoons depicting what they think happened before and after the events depicted in Bosch’s Death and the Miser. The cartoon panels should correspond to the following areas of plot: exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.

  2. Arrange students in pairs and have them present their cartoons to each other, identifying the following points about their cartoons and the painting:

    • The main conflict of the painting.

    • How each cartoon panel relates to one of the elements of plot.

    • How each cartoon panel connects to the main conflict of the painting.
  3. Ask student to write a six-sentence summary of the plot depicted in their Death and the Miser cartoon panels.

  4. Have students record their conclusions by completing the Identifying Plot handout or using the online Plot Diagram tool.

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Session Four

  1. Pass out copies of the Literary Element of Theme handout or display an overhead transparency of the information.

  2. Go over the literary element, using the theme of a piece of literature that the class is familiar with.

  3. Divide students into small groups, which will analyze the theme of the painting a prepare a related presentation.

  4. Using the notes they completed in the previous activities and the Literary Element of Theme handout, ask groups to answer the following questions:

    • What is the theme of the painting Death and the Miser?

    • What specific elements in the painting establish this theme?
  5. Once students have had a chance to work through the Theme Handout, pass out the Projects for Death and the Miser and the Project Rubric.

  6. Go over the options on the project sheet and the goals outlined in the rubric and explain the amount of time that students will have to compose on their project and to present it to the class.

  7. Point students to the resources available to them (e.g., collected magazines, paper, markers, and so forth).

  8. Give students the rest of the session to explore the project options and decide which project their group will work on.

  9. Explain that students can bring additional resources from home, as needed to work on their projects.

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Session Five

  1. Answer any questions that students have about the projects and the rubric. Be sure to give students details on the time constraints for their presentations.

  2. Remind students of the resources available to them (e.g., collected magazines, paper, markers, and so forth).

  3. Give students the entire session to work on their projects.

  4. If students need more than one session to complete work on their projects, allow additional sessions for their group work.

  5. At the end of the session, ask any questions and ask students to be prepared to present their projects during the next session.

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Session Six

  1. Give students a few minutes at the beginning of the session to make last minute preparations for their presentations.

  2. Have each group share their project with the class, keeping strict watch of time to ensure that all groups have adequate time to share their work.

  3. Between presentations, invite students to discuss what they've seen. This activity should be enjoyable for students; place the emphasis on positive feedback and reinforcement.

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  • Connections to Literary Works

    • Allegory: The simple and straightforward presentation of characters and actions in this painting help students move beyond the literal level to the allegorical level. For example, an analysis of the denotative and connotative meanings of “Death” and “Miser” will quickly reveal the allegorical meaning of the work’s two main characters. Additionally, a comparison of the elements in the painting with the images depicting the past and present state of the miser will help students see both the literal and figurative levels of the miser’s journey through life.

      • The Divine Comedy by Dante: The allegorical presentation of the Miser’s spiritual journey in this work of art is similar to Dante’s journey through The Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Bosch’s painting also contains many comments on the intuitional corruption of the church during the Middle Ages.

      • The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer: The symbolism in this work of art illustrates the impact of disease and religion on Middle Age society in a way similar to that portrayed by the various characters in Chaucer’s work. Compare the miser to the characters in “The Pardoner’s Tale.”

  • Connections to Literary Elements

    • Plot: Like most works of art, this painting presents the viewer with the climax of the story. This work includes images presenting the miser in both the past and present. This depiction demonstrates the importance of identifying the connection between the conflict and climax when analyzing the plot of a work. Students will easily identify and explain how the earlier image of the miser placing a coin in a lockbox illustrates the character’s conflict with greed and how the later image of the miser dying in bed illustrates the miser’s climatic choice that will resolve this conflict.

    • Symbolism: Easily identifiable symbols such as death, represented by a shrouded skeleton, and greed, represented by a demon offering a bag of gold, make this work of art a good tool to help students who are experiencing difficulty interpreting symbols in written text. This work will also help students move to the next step of comprehending the meaning of symbol in relation to other symbols within the same work.

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  • The Rubric for Projects for Death and the Miser provides feedback categories for the presentations. The best feedback on this lesson, however, will come from students themselves. The reaction to projects and accompanying discussion should provide students with information on their success.

  • If desired, ask students to write personal reflective pieces on the project their group created. Encourage students to reflect on the kind of project they chose, the relationship between their project and the painting, their use of available resources to create the project, and the connections between literary analysis and the analysis of other texts.

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