The world of theatre is full of superstitions and lore, but there is none as famous as the Curse of Macbeth. Actors won’t mention the name of the play inside a theatre, lest they summon the curse, so titles such as “The Scottish Play,” “The Scottish Tragedy,” or simply “That Play” are used instead. Why all the fuss? The so-called “curse” has been around since the play’s creation about 400 years ago and shows no sign of slowing down. In an effort to make the play as appealing to King James I as possible, Shakespeare set Macbeth in James’s homeland of Scotland and involved the king’s area of expertise: witchcraft and demonology. Some say that the curse began because the witches’ incantations and spells were too authentic. Others believe that area witches were offended by their representation in public. Regardless of the reason, the curse appeared right from the beginning. Hall Berridge, who was to play Lady Macbeth in its
first performance in 1606, caught a fever and died on opening night. Rumor has it that the playwright himself had to step in to cover the role.
Still not buying it? There are numerous disastrous incidents associated with the play over the next few centuries, but here’s just a sample of some of the more famous manifestations of the Curse of the Scottish Play:
- In 1672, an actor playing Macbeth in a performance in Amsterdam is said to have actually murdered the actor playing Duncan with his stage dagger.
- On the day the production opened in London in 1703, England was hit with one of the most violent storms in its history.
- During a performance in New York City in 1849, a feud between the actors William Charles Macready (starring in the title role) and Edwin Forrest prompted a riot outside the Astor Theatre where 23 people died and hundreds were injured.
- In 1937, Laurence Olivier, playing the title role, narrowly escaped death when a sandbag fell from the flies, missing him by inches. In the same production, the director and the actress playing Lady Macduff were in a car accident on the way to the theater and the theatre’s proprietor suddenly died of a heart attack during dress rehearsal.
- John Gielgud directed a production of the play in 1942 where one of the witches died of a heart attack, Duncan died of angina pectoris, another witch died on stage while dancing around the cauldron, and the set designer committed suicide in his studio that was filled with designs for the set.
- Not even Charlton Heston is immune to the Curse. During opening night of an open-air production in Bermuda, Heston sustained severe burns to his groin and legs when a fire on stage got out of control. His tights had been accidentally soaked in kerosene.
While there are several more strange occurrences that have been attributed to the curse, the consensus among most of those working with the play is, “Better safe than sorry.” If the name of the play does get mentioned inside the theatre walls, the offender must leave the room or theatre, turn around three times to the right, spit on the ground and either say the filthiest word that comes to mind or say “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” Then, they must knock on the door and wait for permission to re-enter.
Whether the curse is for real or merely just a coincidence associated with Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy is up for debate, but for the sake of the actors and superstitious folk, watch what you say once you enter the theatre.