The lore surrounding Macbeth and its supernatural power begins with the play's creation in 1606. According to some, Shakespeare wrote the tragedy to ingratiate himself to King James I, who had succeeded Elizabeth I only a few years before. In addition to setting the play on James' home turf, Scotland, Will chose to give a nod to one of the monarch's pet subjects, demonology (James had written a book on the subject that became a popular tool for identifying witches in the 17th century). Shakespeare incorporated a trio of spell-casting women into the drama and gave them a set of spooky incantations to recite. Alas, the story goes that the spells Will included in Macbeth were lifted from an authentic black-magic ritual and that their public display did not please the folks for whom these incantations were sacred. Therefore, they retaliated with a curse on the show and all its productions.
Those doing the cursing must have gotten an advance copy of the script or caught a rehearsal because legend has it that the play's infamous ill luck set in with its very first performance. John Aubrey, who supposedly knew some of the men who performed with Shakespeare in those days, has left us with the report that a boy named Hal Berridge was to play Lady Macbeth at the play's opening on August 7, 1606. Unfortunately, he was stricken with a sudden fever and died. It fell to the playwright himself to step into the role.
It's been suggested that James was not that thrilled with the play, as it was not performed much in the century after. Whether or not that's the case, when it was performed, the results were often calamitous. In a performance in Amsterdam in 1672, the actor in the title role is said to have used a real dagger for the scene in which he murders Duncan and done the deed for real. The play was revived in London in 1703, and on the day the production opened, England was hit with one of the most violent storms in its history.
As time wore on, the catastrophes associated with the play just kept piling up like Macbeth's victims. At a performance of the play in 1721, a nobleman who was watching the show from the stage decided to get up in the middle of a scene, walk across the stage, and talk to a friend. The actors, upset by this, drew their swords and drove the nobleman and his friends from the theatre. Unfortunately for them, the noblemen returned with the militia and burned the theatre down. In 1775, Sarah Siddons took on the role of Lady Macbeth and was nearly ravaged by a disapproving audience. It was Macbeth that was being performed inside the Astor Place Opera House the night of May 10, 1849, when a crowd of more than 10,000 New Yorkers gathered to protest the appearance of British actor William Charles Macready. (He was engaged in a bitter public feud with an American actor, Edwin Forrest.) The protest escalated into a riot, leading the militia to fire into the crowd. Twenty-three people were killed, 36 were wounded, and hundreds were injured. And it was Macbeth that Abraham Lincoln chose to take with him on board the River Queen on the Potomac River on the afternoon of April 9, 1865. The president was reading passages aloud to a party of friends, passages which happened to follow the scene in which Duncan is assassinated. Within a week, Lincoln himself was dead by a murderer's hand.
In the last 135 years, the curse seems to have confined its mayhem to theatre people engaged in productions of the play.
In 1882, on the closing night of one production, an actor named J. H. Barnes was engaged in a scene of swordplay with an actor named William Rignold when Barnes accidentally thrust his sword directly into Rignold's chest. Fortunately a doctor was in attendance, but the wound was supposedly rather serious.
In 1926, Sybil Thorndike was almost strangled by an actor.
During the first modern-dress production at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1928, a large set fell down, injuring some members of the cast seriously, and a fire broke out in the dress circle.
In the early Thirties, theatrical grande dame Lillian Boylis took on the role of Lady Macbeth but died on the day of final dress rehearsal. Her portrait was hung in the theatre and some time later, when another production of the play was having its opening, the portrait fell from the wall.
In 1934, actor Malcolm Keen turned mute onstage, and his replacement, Alistair Sim, like Hal Berridge before him, developed a high fever and had to be hospitalized.
In 1936, when Orson Welles produced his "voodoo Macbeth," set in 19th-century Haiti, his cast included some African drummers and a genuine witch doctor who were not happy when critic Percy Hammond blasted the show. It is rumored that they placed a curse on him. Hammond died within a couple of weeks.
In 1937, a 30-year-old Laurence Olivier was rehearsing the play at the Old Vic when a 25-pound stage weight crashed down from the flies, missing him by inches. In addition, the director and the actress playing Lady Macduff were involved in a car accident on the way to the theatre, and the proprietor of the theatre died of a heart attack during the dress rehearsal.
In 1942, a production headed by John Gielgud suffered three deaths in the cast -- the actor playing Duncan and two of the actresses playing the Weird Sisters -- and the suicide of the costume and set designer.
In 1947, actor Harold Norman was stabbed in the swordfight that ends the play and died as a result of his wounds. His ghost is said to haunt the Colliseum Theatre in Oldham, where the fatal blow was struck. Supposedly, his spirit appears on Thursdays, the day he was killed.
In 1948, Diana Wynard was playing Lady Macbeth at Stratford and decided to play the sleepwalking scene with her eyes closed; on opening night, before a full audience, she walked right off the stage, falling 15 feet. Amazingly, she picked herself up and finished the show.
In 1953, Charlton Heston starred in an open-air production in Bermuda. On opening night, when the soldiers storming Macbeth's castle were to burn it to the ground onstage, the wind blew the smoke and flames into the audience, which ran away. Heston himself suffered severe burns in his groin and leg area from tights that were accidentally soaked in kerosene.
In 1955, Olivier was starring in the title role in a pioneering production at Stratford and during the big fight with Macduff almost blinded fellow actor Keith Michell.
In a production in St. Paul, Minnesota, the actor playing Macbeth dropped dead of heart failure during the first scene of Act III.
In 1988, the Broadway production starring Glenda Jackson and Christoper Plummer is supposed to have gone through three directors, five Macduffs, six cast changes, six stage managers, two set designers, two lighting designers, 26 bouts of flu, torn ligaments, and groin injuries. (The numbers vary in some reports.)
In 1998, in the Off-Broadway production starring Alec Baldwin and Angela Bassett, Baldwin somehow sliced open the hand of his Macduff.
Add to these the long list of actors, from Lionel Barrymore in the 1920s to Kelsey Grammer just this year, who have attempted the play only to be savaged by critics as merciless as the Scottish lord himself.
To many theatre people, the curse extends beyond productions of the play itself. Simply saying the name of the play in a theatre invites disaster. (You're free to say it all you want outside theatres; the curse doesn't apply.) The traditional way around this is to refer to the play by one of its many nicknames: "the Scottish Play," "the Scottish Tragedy," "the Scottish Business," "the Comedy of Glamis," "the Unmentionable," or just "That Play." If you do happen to speak the unspeakable title while in a theatre, you are supposed to take immediate action to dispel the curse lest it bring ruin on whatever production is up or about to go up. The most familiar way, as seen in the Ronald Harwood play and film The Dresser, is for the person who spoke the offending word to leave the room, turn around three times to the right, spit on the ground or over each shoulder, then knock on the door of the room and ask for permission to re-enter it. Variations involve leaving the theatre completely to perform the ritual and saying the foulest word you can think of before knocking and asking for permission to re-enter. Some say you can also banish the evils brought on by the curse simply by yelling a stream of obscenities or mumbling the phrase "Thrice around the circle bound, Evil sink into the ground." Or you can turn to Will himself for assistance and cleanse the air with a quotation from Hamlet:
"Angels and Ministers of Grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn'd,
Being with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape that I will speak to thee."
Neither director of the current Austin productions has encountered the Macbeth curse personally, although Guy Roberts says that he did "produce a very bad version of the play when I was the artistic director of the Mermaid Theatre Company in New York. But in that case I think we were only cursed by our own inability." Marshall Maresca says that when he was in the 1998 production of Julius Caesar at the Vortex, "Mick D'arcy and I would taunt the curse, call it on. Before the show, everyone would shake hands, say, 'Good show' or 'Break a leg' or the like. Mick and I would look right at each other and just say, 'Macbeth.'"
For additional reference on the Macbeth curse, see Richard Huggett's Supernatural on Stage: Ghosts and Superstitions in the Theatre (NY, Taplinger, 1975).
The Malleus Maleficarum (Latin for "The Hammer of Witches", or "Hexenhammer" in German) is one of the most famous medieval treatises on witches. It was written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, and was first published in Germany in 1487. Its main purpose was to challenge all arguments against the existence of witchcraft and to instruct magistrates on how to identify, interrogate and convict witches…
The Catholic Church banned the book in 1490, placing it on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Despite this, the Malleus Maleficarum became the de-facto handbook for witch-hunters and Inquisitors throughout Late Medieval Europe. Between the years 1487 and 1520, it was published thirteen times, and between 1574 to 1669 it was again published sixteen times…
The Malleus Maleficarum perhaps owes most of its popularity to Johannes Gutenberg. It was the invention of the printing press in the middle of the fifteenth century that allowed the work to spread so rapidly throughout Europe. (http://www.malleusmaleficarum.org)
PART I. QUESTION VI.Why Superstition is chiefly found in Women.
Now the wickedness of women is spoken of in Ecclesiasticus xxv: There is no head above the head of a serpent: and there is no wrath above the wrath of a woman. I had rather dwell with a lion and a dragon than to keep house with a wicked woman. And among much which in that place precedes and follows about a wicked woman, he concludes: All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman. Wherefore S. John Chrysostom says on the text, It is not good to marry (S. Matthew xix): What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours! Therefore if it be a sin to divorce her when she ought to be kept, it is indeed a necessary torture; for either we commit adultery by divorcing her, or we must endure daily strife…When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.
PART II., QUESTION I. CHAPTER XVHow they Raise and Stir up Hailstorms and Tempests, and Cause Lightning to Blast both Men and Beasts.
THAT devils and their disciples can by witchcraft cause lightnings and hailstorms and tempests, and that the devils have power from God to do this, and their disciples do so with God's permission, is proved by Holy Scripture in Job i and ii. For the devil received power from God, and immediately caused it to happen that the Sabeans took away from Job fifty yoke of oxen and five hundred asses, and then fire came from heaven and consumed seven thousand camels, and a great wind came and smote down this house, killing his seven sons and his three daughters, and all the young men, that is to say, the servants, except him who brought the news, were killed; and finally the devil smote the body of the holy man with the most terrible sores, and caused his wife and his three friends to vex him grievously.
James I of England from the period 1603–1613, by Paul van Somer I (1576–1621)
King James I
The excerpt presented here, written by James I of England (who was king when Shakespeare wrote The Scottish Play), is from a wide-ranging discussion of witchcraft, necromancy, possession, demons, werewolves, fairies and ghosts, in the form of a Socratic dialogue between two fictional characters, Philomathes and Epistemon. These transcribed historical documents are letter for letter, without any attempt at correction or modernization of spelling.
Philomathes. Who then may be free from these Devilish practises?
Epistemon. No man ought to presume so far as to promise anie impunitie to himselfe: for God hath before all beginninges preordinated as well the particular sortes of Plagues as of benefites for every man, which in the owne time he ordaines them to be visited with, & yet ought we not to be the more affrayde for that, of any thing that the Devill and his wicked instrumentes can do against us: For we dailie fight against the Devill in a hundreth other waies: And therefore as a valiant Captaine, affraies no more being at the combat, nor stayes from his purpose for the rummishing shot of a Cannon, nor the small clack of a pistolet: suppose he be not certaine what may light upon him; Even so ought we boldlie to goe forwarde in fighting against the Devill without anie greater terrour, for these his rarest weapons, nor for the ordinarie whereof wee have daily the proofe.
Philomathes. Is it not lawfull then by the helpe of some other Witche to cure the disease that is casten on by that craft?
Epistemon. No waies lawfull: For I gave you the reason thereof in that axiome of Theologie, which was the last wordes I spake of Magie.
Philomathes. How then may these diseases be lawfullie cured?
Epistemon. Onelie by earnest prayer to G O D, by amendment of their lives, and by sharp persewing everie one, according to his calling of these instrumentes of Sathan, whose punishment to the death will be a salutarie sacrifice for the patient. And this is not onely the lawfull way, but likewise the most sure: For by the Devils meanes, can never the Devill be casten out, as Christ sayeth [Mark. 3]. And when such a cure is used, it may wel serve for a shorte time, but at the last, it will doubtlesslie tend to the utter perdition of the patient, both in bodie and soule.
Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (1577)
Raphael Holinshed …A peace was also concluded at the same time betwixt the Danes and Scotishmen, ratified (as some haue written) in this wise: That from thencefoorth the Danes should neuer come into Scotland to make anie warres against the Scots by anie maner of meanes. And these were the warres that Duncane had with forren enimies, in the seuenth yéere of his reigne. Shortlie after happened a strange and vncouth woonder, which afterward was the cause of much trouble in the realme of Scotland, as ye shall after heare. It fortuned as Makbeth and Banquho iournied towards Fores, where the king then laie, they went sporting by the waie togither without other companie, saue onelie themselues, passing thorough the woods and fields, when suddenlie in the middest of a laund,* there met them thrée women in strange and wild apparell, resembling creatures of elder world, whome when they attentiuelie beheld, woondering much at the sight, the first of them spake and said; "All haile Makbeth, thane of Glammis" (for he had latelie entered into that dignitie and office by the death of his father Sinell.) The second of them said; "Haile Makbeth thane of Cawder." But the third said; "All haile Makbeth that héerafter shalt be king of Scotland."
Then Banquho; "What manner of women (saith he) are you, that séeme so little fauourable vnto me, whereas to my fellow heere, besides high offices, ye assigne also the kingdome, appointing foorth nothing for me at all?" "Yes (saith the first of them) we promise greater benefits vnto thée, than vnto him, for he shall reigne in déed, but with an vnluckie end: neither shall he leaue anie issue behind him to succéed in his place, where contrarilie thou in déed shalt not reigne at all, but of thée those shall be borne which shall gouerne the Scotish kingdome by long order of continuall descent." Herewith the foresaid women vanished immediatlie out of their sight. This was reputed at the first but some vaine fantasticall illusion by Mackbeth* and Banquho, insomuch that Banquho would call Mackbeth in iest, king of Scotland; and Mackbeth againe would call him in sport likewise, the father of manie kings. But afterwards the common opinion was, that these women were either the weird sisters, that is (as ye would say) the goddesses of destinie, or else some nymphs or feiries, indued with knowledge of prophesie by their necromanticall science, bicause euerie thing came to passe as they had spoken. For shortlie after, the thane of Cawder being condemned at Fores of treason against the king committed; his lands, liuings, and offices were giuen of the kings liberalitie to Mackbeth.
The same night after, at supper, Banquho iested with him and said; "Now Mackbeth thou hast obteined those things which the two former sisters prophesied, there remaineth onelie for thée to purchase that which the third said should come to passe. Wherevpon Mackbeth reuoluing the thing in his mind, began euen then to deuise how he might atteine to the kingdome: but yet he thought with himselfe that he must tarie a time, which should aduance him thereto (by the diuine prouidence) as it had come to passe in his former preferment. But shortlie after it chanced that king Duncane, hauing two sonnes by his wife which was the daughter of Siward earle of Northumberland, he made the elder of them called Malcolme prince of Cumberland, as it were thereby to appoint him his successor in the kingdome, immediatlie after his deceasse. Mackbeth sore troubled herewith, for that he saw by this means his hope sore hindered (where, by the old lawes of the realme, the ordinance was, that if he that should succéed were not of able age to take the charge vpon himselfe, he that was next of bloud vunto him should be admitted) he began to take counsell how he might vsurpe the kingdome by force, hauing a iust quarell so to doo (as he tooke the matter) for that Duncane did what in him lay to defraud him of all maner of title and claime, which he might in time to come, pretend vnto the crowne.
The woords of the thrée weird sisters also (of whome before ye haue heard) greatlie incouraged him herevunto, but speciallie his wife lay sore vpon him to attempt the thing, as she that was verie ambitious, burning in vnquenchable desire to beare the name of a quéene…
The Scottish Play
Homework Questions/Study Guide
Use these questions to guide your note-taking as we read and watch The Scottish Play. These notes will help you prepare for your quizzes and assist you with writing your blog entries and short essays. In addition, they will help you stay aware as to what is going on in this somewhat difficult work.
Before we begin:
What are your hopes, fears, expectations, etc as we begin to read a Shakespeare play?
What does it mean to “read Shakespeare”?
A storm rages as the Weird Sisters (aka the witches) plan to meet with Macbeth.
How many witches are there?
What feeling do you get from this first scene?
A battlefield. King Duncan interviews a wounded Scottish soldier about what happened during the battle. Ross reports on the treachery of the Thane of Cawdor.
How did Macbeth and Banquo behave during the battle?
What is the fate of the Thane of Cawdor?
What is Duncan’s reward to Macbeth for his bravery?
From the information given in this scene, pick one adjective each to describe Duncan and Macbeth.
How does the setting of this scene parallel that of I.i?
The Weird Sisters discuss the mischief they’ve been up to. Macbeth and Banquo arrive, and the witches give them a prophesy. Macbeth receives news from Ross and Angus.
Do the witches behave the way you would expect them to? Explain.
What do they promise for Macbeth?
What do they promise for Banquo?
Do Macbeth and Banquo initially believe what they are told? How would you stage the scene differently depending on the answer?
If you were playing Macbeth, how would you react to the news from the two thanes? How about if you were playing Banquo?
The former Thane of Cawdor is executed. Duncan warmly greets Macbeth and Banquo. Macbeth begins to think more about what the witches told him.
Who is the new Thane of Cawdor?
How does Macbeth behave around Duncan?
Who does Macbeth say this to?
Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires
How would Banquo react if he overheard him?
Make a prediction: what’s next for Macbeth?
Lady Macbeth reads a letter from her husband about the prophesy. A messenger announces that King Duncan and his retinue are going to stay at Macbeth’s castle that very night.
How does Lady Macbeth take the news in the letter?
What is her main concern about her husband?
What is your overall first impression of Lady Macbeth?
What is the one line from this scene that sums everything up?
Duncan and the thanes arrive at Macbeth’s castle. Duncan comments on what a nice place it is. Lady Macbeth welcomes them with elaborate courtesy.
How do Duncan and Banquo’s observations of the castle contrast with Lady Macbeth’s instructions at the end of I.v?
What is Lady Macbeth hiding?
The scene ends with everyone leaving (exeunt). Imagine, though, that everyone except for Lady Macbeth has left the stage. What would she say at this point if she were alone on the stage?
Macbeth has a crisis of conscience about the plot to kill Duncan. Lady Macbeth insults him, then elaborates on the plan. Macbeth applauds the plan and advises his wife to hide their evil designs with pleasant looks.
Why does Macbeth want to kill Duncan, anyway?
What arguments does he give against the killing?
What is Lady Macbeth’s new plan to carry out the murder?
Why is Lady Macbeth so excited about killing the king?
Banquo is sleepless, thinking about the prophesy of the Weird Sisters. He talks to Macbeth briefly about his allegiance to King Duncan, then goes off to sleep. Once Banquo leaves, Macbeth has a supernatural vision.
How does Banquo react when he hears someone (Macbeth) coming?
What does Macbeth see after Banquo leaves?
Is the dagger mentioned in Macbeth’s soliloquy (lines 32-65) real, supernaturally conjured, or just a figment of Macbeth’s imagination?
How might you stage this scene?
Macbeth has the stage direction “Exit” at the very end of the scene. Where is he going?
Lady Macbeth meets up with Macbeth after the murder of King Duncan. Unfortunately, not everything has gone according to plan, as Macbeth did not leave a couple of important items at the scene of the crime. Lady Macbeth, predictably, is not happy and goes off to take care of the problem.
What keeps scaring Lady Macbeth? What does this say about her mental state at the start of II.ii?
Why didn’t Lady Macbeth kill Duncan herself, rather than counting on her husband to do it?
Explain Macbeth’s fear in lines 20-41.
What do you think Macbeth means by his last line (72)?
Wake Duncan with thy knocking. I would thou couldst. II.iii
It is very early in the morning. A Porter, still drunk from the night before, complains that his job is worse than being the porter at the gates of Hell. He tells some dirty jokes and lets Macduff and Lennox in to Duncan’s living area so they can wake him up to get ready to leave. Macbeth, one of the few others awake at this hour, guides the thanes to Duncan’s chambers himself, where they all discover what has happened. Panic ensues.
Why did Shakespeare include the long episode with the Porter before the chaos of the rest of the scene?
What signs of unrest are mentioned by Lennox (lines 50-57)?
What do you make of Macbeth’s response?
What does Macbeth admit to doing?
Who are the two most likely suspects in the murder of Duncan? What makes them the most likely?
What do they decide to do?
An old man tells Ross about all the terrible things he saw that night. Macduff and Ross talk for a while about the most recent developments in the case.
What signs of unrest did the old man see?
Who is being crowned as King in Scone (the ancient capital of Scotland)?
Where does Macduff go?
Banquo questions how Macbeth’s power has increased, and wonders whether the Weird Sisters were right. Macbeth invites him to a feast later that afternoon, then has a meeting with a pair of murderers.
What are Banquo’s feelings about Macbeth being King of Scotland?
Where does Banquo go to pass the time before the banquet?
Why does Macbeth hire the murderers?
How has Macbeth changed since the start of the play?
Macbeth explains his plan to Lady Macbeth, who tells him to forget about it and just enjoy the banquet.
What is Macbeth’s new plan?
What is Lady Macbeth’s objection to it?
Why do you think Macbeth tells his wife to “[b]e innocent of the knowledge”?
You are Lady Macbeth. Write a diary entry explaining the situation at the end of III.ii from your point of view.
A third murderer joins the first two. They ambush their quarry.
How do the first two murderers react to the arrival of the third?
Who do they kill?
Why is that a problem for Macbeth?
The banquet begins. The murderers report back to Macbeth, who entertains his guests. The festivities, however, are interrupted by the appearance (to Macbeth) of a very scary ghost.
What do the murderers tell Macbeth?
How does he react?
Whose ghost appears?
How does Macbeth react to this ghost?
How does Lady Macbeth try to fix the situation?
The witches reconvene, with Hecate (another witch). Don’t bother reading this scene unless you really want to. Most scholars believe that Shakespeare didn’t write it (the style is totally wrong) and nothing much happens. III.vi
Scottish politics in a time of crisis: Lennox meets with an insurgent lord and explains his suspicion of Macbeth in Duncan’s death.
What reasons are given by Lennox to explain his mistrust of Macbeth?
What is Macduff doing in England?
Why does Malcolm say he (Malcolm) shouldn’t be king? Give specific examples from the text.
The witches prepare a potion. Macbeth comes to meet with them, and they show him visions of the future.
How do you think a 17th century English audience might have reacted to the witches’ spell? Keep in mind the documents we read before starting the play.
What is the first apparition the witches show to Macbeth? What does it tell him?
What is the second? What does it tell him?
What is the third thing they show him? What does it tell him?
Which thane enters at the end of the scene? What does he tell Macbeth?
What does Macbeth decide to do about Macduff?
Lady Macduff and her children are at home in Macduff’s castle, at Fife. Ross tries to explain why Macduff has fled the country. A messenger arrives to deliver a warning, but it is too late.
What happens to Lady Macduff and her children?
In some productions of The Scottish Play, the messenger is just Lady Macbeth in a fairly obvious (to the audience, at least) disguise. What effect might this have on the meaning of this scene?
Who else might be interesting characters to use as the messenger?
Malcolm and Macduff are in England. They talk for a while about what is happening in Scotland, and about whether or not Malcolm would make a good King of Scotland. Ross brings Macduff some bad news.
Why does Malcolm try to convince Macduff that he wouldn’t be a good king? What are some of his specific reasons?
How does Macduff react to the news about his family?
This is the longest scene in the play, and it consists of pretty much nothing but Scottish noblemen talking about politics. Why might Shakespeare have interrupted the bloody and scary action of his play for this?
Lady Macbeth demonstrates some odd behavior as a doctor and a female servant observe.
What does Lady Macbeth do?
What has caused this behavior?
Battle is joined as Malcolm and Macduff’s forces, augmented by the English army, besiege Macbeth’s castle.
In V.iii, what is Macbeth’s attitude about his chances against the enemy force?
In V.iii, what is the Doctor’s attitude about his employment at Dunsinane?
What is our first hint that Macbeth’s fate is not as positive as he thinks it is?
What happens to Lady Macbeth? How does Macbeth react to the news?
Who is the last man to fight Macbeth? What is the result of the fight?