Pride is Self-Destructive: Imagery in Macbeth

Modern culture is dominated by the belief that having pride in one’s self is one of the great sources of strength and comfort in the face of adversity. Conversely, pride in the Christian worldview is the great sin that “leads to every other vice” [1] and “goeth before destruction.”[2] It is for this reason that apologetically addressing pride as sin in modern culture is both tricky and of the utmost importance. In modern culture, if an apologist attempts to convey the sinfulness and destructiveness of pride with propositional language, the apologist will be branded as an adversary of progress. It takes a certain amount of finesse to oppose and, hopefully, uproot such a deep-seated belief; therefore, to be effective, a figurative route that works on the intuition[3] of its readers must be taken. By imagery—metaphor, simile, motifs, etc.—an apologist can, as Shakespeare does in Macbeth, convey the self-destructive nature of pride without triggering resistance in the modern mind.

The first step in apologetically using imagery to address any topic without giving rise to intellectual opposition is understanding that imagery, unlike propositional language, works hand-in-hand with intuition. Intuition is the individual’s ability to grasp a situation or make a conclusion in regards to a subject without conscious reasoning: it is based on sensory data that has developed via experience. Likewise, imagery is the literary technique that draws on the imagination, “the human faculty that assimilates sensory data into images.”[4] Thus, human imagination and intuition have the same source—the senses—and, via this source, imagery naturally puts forth a message with intuitively accepted ideas. By imagery, the apologist can cause their audience to intuitively be in agreement with the point they are conveying before they have a chance to resist.

Unlike imagery, propositional language cannot present an idea to its reader without triggering resistance. There are two reasons for this. One, by definition, propositional language is antithetical to intuition: while propositional language deals directly with conscious reasoning, intuition foregoes and, therefore, undermines the process of conscious reasoning. Two, the very purpose of propositional language is to call on its reader to consciously deliberate a proposition and give their conclusion.

Now that the connection between intuition and imagery and the disconnection between intuition and propositional language is understood, the apologist can clearly evaluate the power of the next step: using imagery as a tool to apologetically convey an idea without triggering resistance. This will be done by examining how Shakespeare’s imagery in Macbeth addresses the self-destructive nature of pride via the rise and fall of Macbeth and how Shakespeare’s imagery, unlike propositional language, is fashioned to avoid intellectual opposition by his audience.

In Act I: Scene II, Macbeth’s rise to prominence is initiated with the vivid praise of his fellow brothers in arms. Shakespeare’s underlying idea concerning pride starts, as pride usually does, with too much praise. Throughout Act I: Scene II, Shakespeare applies a constant stream of praise that draws his audience’s senses to create an image in their mind of Macbeth’s character as valorous and noble. Against the backdrop of battle, Shakespeare paints a colorful, linguistic masterpiece to display Macbeth as Scotland’s greatest hero.

Shakespeare overleaps any propositional language by using simile and metaphor to cause his audience to recognize, without question, Macbeth is a great hero. The Sergeant, in giving report of Macbeth’s character in battle to Duncan, says, “But all’s too weak; / For brave Macbeth—well he deserves that name— / Disdaining Fortune, with his brandish’d steel… Like valour’s minion, carv’d out his passage.”[5] The Sergeant continues with simile in recounting the immediate resurgence of the enemy against Macbeth, to which Macbeth, along with Banquo, become “As cannons overcharg’d with double cracks; / So they doubly redoubled strokes upon the foe.”[6] Once Ross enters the Scene, he recounts to Duncan that the King of Norway, aided by the Thane of Cawdor, had staked a claim on Fife until Macbeth, “Bellona’s bridegroom[7]… Confronted him with self-comparisons.”[8] Via the Sergeant and Ross’s tales of spirited victory, Act I: Scene II convinces the audience that Macbeth’s faithful heroism is unquestionable.

If Shakespeare were to neglect the imagery of the Sergeant and Ross’s language and, instead, have the Sergeant or Ross propose an unsubstantiated claim to Duncan, such as, “Macbeth is Scotland’s greatest hero,” Duncan and Shakespeare’s audience would be left to logically consider what they are too ignorant to consider. There would be no precedent and, therefore, this claim would invite opposition that would draw from the very purpose of setting Macbeth as Scotland’s greatest hero. Also, such a claim might be seen as a challenge to Duncan of his own nobility. Without the linguistic brushwork of Shakespeare’s imagery, Duncan and the audience’s senses and experiences would be void in confirming Macbeth’s heroic character; Macbeth would be presented as a possible rival to the King instead of his savior.[9]

On the other hand, the motif of thunder and lightning in Act I: Scene I has already set the audience’s intuition in the opposite direction of Scene II’s optimistic praise. While the audience does not doubt that Macbeth is, at the moment, Scotland and its King’s savior, the thunder and lightning motif speaks loud and clear: bad weather means bad things will happen. Macbeth reads like a Greek tragedy. Macbeth’s hubris—displayed in Act I: Scene II as “Disdaining Fortune”[10]—has caused him to be a great hero; but, the fact that the main subject of Act I: Scene II is praise for Macbeth’s prideful conquering of Fortune and the scene before it sets the motif of thunder and lightning into play lets the audience know that this pride that has caused such tremendous praise will not result in anything good.

As the play moves forward, the audience’s intuition is confirmed. The praise in Act I: Scene II is counteracted by Macbeth’s faltering to the temptation of the witches’ prophecy. The pride of serving king and country, the pride that was stronger than Fortune, and the pride in victory that won Macbeth “Gilded opinions from all sorts of people”[11] has, through his lust for power enacted by the witches’ tempting prophecy, now led Macbeth to begin a plot to kill Duncan. Shakespeare highlights the self-destructive nature of this prideful plot by displaying Macbeth’s internal struggle with the plot over the next three scenes.

In Act I: Scene V, Shakespeare masterfully crafts Lady Macbeth’s passion as a milieu by which the audience can grasp that Macbeth is past toying with temptation and is, in his heart, being beaten down by the heavy weight of his lust. After Lady Macbeth gives a hopeful and delirious rant about the letter Macbeth has sent her, Macbeth arrives at the castle. What can be deduced from Lady Macbeth’s charges to Macbeth at his appearance is Macbeth is almost speechless in despair: “Your face, my thane, is as a book where men / May read strange matters.”[12] With this simile, Shakespeare displays Macbeth’s reticence to uncover his internal struggle and the beginning of his pride’s fall.

Where in Act I: Scene V, it is Macbeth’s lack of speech that lends an image of internal despair to the audience, it is the lack of Macbeth’s presence in Act I: Scene VI that speaks volumes to the idea Shakespeare wishes to convey. As Holly Ordway notes, “At the most basic level, the imagination is what allows us to conceive in our minds the image of something that is not present.”[13] Macbeth’s lack of physical presence allows the audience to conceive the image of Macbeth’s altered “favour”[14]—they can begin to see, in their imagination, Macbeth’s internal struggle. The absence of Macbeth at Duncan’s arrival to Macbeth’s castle shows that the once great war hero is, by the same pride that won him praise, becoming a coward and waning in valor.

Act I: Scene VII provides further evidence of the destructive nature of pride in the vocalization of Macbeth’s internal struggle. While hiding in his castle, Macbeth gives a monologue debating his murderous plans. His pride is completely dipped in conflict. While Macbeth’s pride in honor contends “He’s here in double trust”[15] and “He hath honour’d me of late,”[16] his prideful assertions against Lady Macbeth’s scorn, “I dare do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more is none,”[17] rebut his own contentions. Shakespeare is using the vocalization of the internal conflict that has been brooding over the last two scenes to make the internal turmoil caused by Macbeth’s pride a tangible image for the audience.

Although Macbeth has proven himself a great hero and will, if the prophecy is right, be King without his own “stir,”[18] Macbeth’s desire to be more of a man than any other is tearing him apart. As Lewis notes, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.”[19] And when Macbeth becomes King, even kingship will not satiate his pride.

Through the course of these three scenes, the audience’s intuition is saying over and over again, “He’s going to do it. He’ll kill the King.” Even when Macbeth is not present, the audience can imagine that he is continually debating how the deed can be done. Shakespeare has intermingled imagination and intuition perfectly here. The foul weather motif, Lady Macbeth’s rants and challenges of Macbeth’s manhood, and Macbeth’s fickleness all speak to the audience’s intuition and create, in the audience’s imagination, a vision of the destructive path that Macbeth’s pride has carved into his own soul.

Shakespeare’s imagery makes a point in these three scenes that, if it was made with propositional language, the modern mind cannot come to grips with: pride leads to internal struggle not internal strength. By the imagery of Macbeth’s gradual slip into and through internal struggle (which eventually results in regicide), Shakespeare has pulled his audience along with his exposé of pride’s internal consequences without their noticing. In these scenes, Shakespeare’s imagery is clear: pride is not one of the great sources of strength and comfort in the face of adversity. In point of fact, as in Macbeth’s case, when pride in yourself becomes your only source of strength and comfort it will only make you an adversary of yourself. If not for gradual imagery, the modern audience would not even give this idea a second thought. If propositional language were used to convey this idea, it would be immediately rejected without proper, logical deliberation.

After murdering Duncan and ascending the throne, Macbeth’s pride will not allow him to relinquish his quest for more. As noted above, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man.”[20] Although he has become King as the witches prophesied, Macbeth cannot shake the prophecy given to Banquo: “Thou shalt get kings.”[21] Because of his pride, Macbeth has convinced himself that being King is not enough, for in this prophecy Banquo is as “equally rich”[22] as Macbeth. If Banquo and his lineage live, Macbeth’s pride will have nothing to rejoice in.[23] Macbeth must cutoff Banquo’s lineage or else Macbeth will have murdered for a “fruitless crown” and “barren sceptre.”[24]

The imagery of Macbeth’s synecdoche above are built on his pride’s ever-reaching hand and gives more than a hint that his pride will inevitably be the downfall of itself. Though Macbeth once sought the crown because it would, in the words of Lady Macbeth, “Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom,”[25] this crown is no longer enough, for it is ‘fruitless’. Macbeth’s lineage is not better than Banquo’s; therefore, Macbeth turns from wanting to be crowned over all to wanting no other man’s lineage to ever be crowned, even after he is gone, for it will make his current rule naught. This megalomania eventually leads him to take the life of Macduff’s family, which is his downfall.

Shakespeare uses this point to convey to the audience that pride is a force that cannot be satisfied or reasoned with. Pride only gets pleasure out of having more “than the next man”[26] and there is always another man that has more. Though Lewis says, “Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone,”[27] there is always another element of competition for the prideful man—pride is an unceasing force that can only be stopped by being utterly defeated. It would be improbable to try to convey this idea to a modern audience with propositional language because, in the modern mind, pride is not something that needs to be satisfied, it is something that satisfies.

The self-destructive nature of Macbeth’s pride begins to come to a head in Act IV, Scene I. Here, because Macbeth has been told to “Beware Macduff,”[28] Macbeth commands the murder of Macduff’s household while Macduff is away: “Seize upon Fife, give to the edge o’ th’ sword  / His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls / That trace him in his line.”[29] Macbeth’s hubris has convinced him that he must again ‘stir’ against Fortune, but this time he will not disdain Fortune; Macbeth’s pride has now led him to seal his own fate in trying to avoid it. In calling for the murder of innocent blood, Macbeth’s pride has brought about the utter destruction of all that made him man, internally and, when Macduff meets him face to face, externally. Shakespeare uses this disgusting display of power to convey the lengths to which a person’s pride will go to strengthen them against and at the cost of another—unlike what modern culture promotes and wholeheartedly believes, this is how pride actually strengthens the individual.

By “a deep-seated sense of what the right state of affairs is,” Shakespeare’s audience knows that there is “something fundamentally wrong about”[30] the murder of innocent women and children and desire justice. The audience longs for justice—an act that will counterweigh the wrong deed—because intuition has drawn the audience to a truth that is beyond the text, their intellect, and their preferences. Namely, as Ordway notes when writing on the problem of evil and good, that there is such a thing as goodness and goodness has “ultimate priority”[31] in the minds of people. By this intuitive standard of goodness, there are those who people consider innocent and, because they are defined by their close relationship to goodness, to move against them (murder them) is wrong (evil). Thus, in order to finally satisfy his audience’s longing, in the closing scene, Shakespeare has Macduff bring Malcolm the head of Macbeth.[32] 

Shakespeare exploits mankind’s natural inclination for justice against child killers to convey the idea that pride will, when left unchecked, bring destruction and not comfort. Even though the modern mind seeks to be strengthened via pride, as in Macbeth, both the prideful man and the one who the prideful man is strengthening himself against are destroyed by pride. Still, it is the prideful man that has a worse destruction because he has a stain, stench, and weight of guilt on his conscience that cannot, by his own efforts, be removed—like the bloodguilt images of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.[33] His, like Macbeth’s, strengthening against other individuals will lead to his own, greater destruction. Shakespeare reveals this principle in Lady Macbeth’s words before the plot against Banquo is carried out: “’Tis safer to be that which we destroy / Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.”[34]

In Macbeth, Shakespeare’s imagery has—as imagery inherently does—drawn on something deeper than and foundational to the intellect of the audience. Shakespeare’s imagery has called on the imagination: “the human faculty that assimilates sensory data into images, upon which the intellect can then act.”[35] As Macduff appears with Macbeth’s head and the audience realizes that the perfidious tyrant is dead and justice has been served, the audience breathes a sigh of relief and gives a nod of approval. Without realizing it or intellectually debating it, the audience has sided with the Christian notion that pride is, at least in this case, the great sin that “leads to every other vice”[36] and “goeth before destruction.”[37] Because of imagery, the audience has unresistingly acknowledged and accepted that pride, when left unchecked, can destroy—it is at this point that propositional language can be effective.

Because the modern mind is convinced that pride in one’s self is one of the great sources of strength and comfort, using strictly propositional language to convey Shakespeare’s overall image of pride’s self-destructive nature would prove fruitless and barren. The reaction of many to such an idea would be hostility and not a willingness to consider its truth. Only in the intuitive process of the audience’s mind, before the intellect can consciously react against the author’s intent, can the apologist use imagery to exploit their audience’s natural inclinations, as Shakespeare does in Macbeth.

However, when imagery is left to stand on its own in apologetics, more difficult concepts remain unclear and certain terms (possibly unfamiliar to the audience) remain undefined. At this point, intuition remains nothing more, or at least not much more, than a hunch that is not developed into full recognition of truth. Shakespeare, in Macbeth, masterfully crafts imagery to convey the destructive pattern of Macbeth’s hubris as the undergirding message of the play to his audience via his audience’s intuition and imagination; but without propositionally discussing this once the play is over and done, the reader may not move forward with the idea that has been initially accepted. The images have been ingrained into the mind, but until the apologist comes along with certain propositional language to clarify the ideas, the seed remains un-watered.

Although, singularly, imagery is more effective in conveying the reasonableness of an idea without opposition than propositional language, an integration of the two is more effective than either on their own. While imagery employs intuitive processes to cause natural reactions to and conclusions about certain images, propositional language defines, clarifies, and opens intellectual discussions about the reactions and conclusions concerning said images. Imagery and propositional language are “twin faculties”[38] that interactively[39] work in cooperation[40] with one another to most effectively convey the reasonableness of an idea.  The meaning behind language is rooted in imagination and the reason behind truth is conceived via language. This is why propositional language works best when enacted by imagery and imagery is best understood when explained with propositional language. The most effective tactic for an apologist to convey an idea, especially a countercultural idea, like the self-destructive nature of pride is via integration of imagery and propositional language, for “the fullest engagement with truth comes from an integrated experience of truth in both modes.”[41]


[1] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 121.

[2] Prov. 16:18.

[3] Holly Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith, (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017), 47.

[4] Ibid., 16.

[5] William Shakespeare, Macbeth: With Contemporary Criticism, ed. Joseph Pearce, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 1.2.16-17, 19.

[6] Ibid., 1.2.37-38

[7] Ibid., 7n47.

[8] Ibid., 1.2.55-56.

[9] Ibid., 1.2.41.

[10] Ibid., 1.2.17.

[11] Ibid., 1.7.33.

[12] Ibid., 1.5. 59-60.

[13] Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, 15.

[14] Shakespeare, Macbeth, 1.5.69.

[15] Ibid., 1.7.12.

[16] Ibid., 1.7.32.

[17] Ibid., 1.7.46-47.

[18] Ibid., 1.3.144.

[19] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 122.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Shakespeare, Macbeth, 1.3.67.

[22] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 122.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Shakespeare, Macbeth, 3.1.60-61.

[25] Ibid., 1.5.67.

[26] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 122.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Shakespeare, Macbeth, 4.1.71.

[29] Ibid., 4.1.151-153.

[30] Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, 113.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Shakespeare, Macbeth, 5.8.54-55.

[33] Ibid., 2.2.60-63, 5.1.48-50, and 5.8.5-6. 

[34] Ibid., 3.2.6-7.

[35] Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, 16.

[36] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 121.

[37] Prov. 16:18.

[38] Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, 10-11.

[39] Ibid., 164.

[40] Ibid., 15.

[41] Ibid.

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