The Curse of Macbeth

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The Curse of Macbeth

Macbeth was written in the early 1600's (most likely sometime between 1604 and 1606) by William Shakespeare. According to legend, it was performed at Hampton Court in 1606 for King James I and his brother-in-law, King Christian of Denmark, and was clearly designed to appeal to King James. Not only was Banquo, who just happens to be a part of the Stuart family tree (as was James), portrayed favorably, but the play itself was fairly short, probably because King James preferred short plays. Most importantly, James himself had previously published a book on witches and how to detect them. Because of this, Shakespeare decided to give his play a supernatural twist in another effort to please the King. For the opening scene of Act IV, he reproduced a sacred black-magic ritual in which a group of witches danced about a black cauldron, shouting out strange phrases and ingredients to be thrown into it. The practitioners of rituals such as this one were not very amused by Shakespeare's public exposure of their witchcraft, and as punishment they decided to cast their own spell on the play Macbeth that still haunts it to this day./

Supposedly, saying the name "Macbeth" inside a theater will bring bad luck to the play and anyone acting in it. The only exception is when the word is spoken as a

line in the play. In order to reverse the bad luck, the person who uttered the word must exit the theater, spin around three times saying a profanity, and then ask for permission to return inside. There are several other variations of this ritual that involve spitting over your shoulders or simply letting out a stream of cuss words. Some say that you must repeat the words "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. Whatever steps that you choose to take, failing to do anything to prevent the curse from taking effect will ensure that you will in for some trouble. To avoid bringing up the curse in the first place, most people refer to Macbeth as one of it's several nicknames, with "the Scottish Play" seeming to be the most popular of them. Go up to any experienced actor and ask him about the Scottish Play, and he or she will almost certainly know exactly what you are talking about.

Even if the name "Macbeth" is not said, there is still something going on. It seems like everyone who has had a part acting in the play Macbeth has some sort of strange story to tell. While doing some research, I've found several interesting tales. During the first performance of Macbeth, William Shakespeare himself was forced to play Lady Macbeth when the boy designated to play her suddenly became overcome with sickness and died. King James was so displeased with the play that it was banned for five years. In Amsterdam in 1672, the actor playing Macbeth substituted the blunt stage dagger with a real one, and with killed his co-actor playing Duncan right in front of the live audience. There was even an incident in 1721 where the army had to be called in. Some hecklers were annoying some of the actors on the stage. The actors responded by attacking the hecklers with their swords. During its 1849 performance at New York's Astor Place, 31 people were trampled to death in a riot that had broken out. In 1934, British actor Malcolm Keen turned mute on stage, and his replacement developed a high fever and had to be hospitalized. In 1937, a 25 pound stage weight crashed within an inch of him Laurence Olivier (who was playing Macbeth). Not only that, but his sword broke on stage flew into the audience, hitting a man who later suffered a heart attack. And if you think that was enough bad luck for one production, think again. Both the director and the actress playing Lady Macduff were involved in a car accident on the way to the theater, and the proprietor of the theater died of a heart attack during the dress rehearsal. In the 1942, three actors in another production of Macbeth died, and the costume and set designer committed suicide. Diana Wynyard sleepwalked off the rostrum in 1948 and feel down 15 feet. In Bermuda, 1953, Charlton Heston suffered severe burns in his groin and leg from tights that were accidentally soaked in kerosene. Rip Torn's seemed to be unable to get away from the curse no matter how many times he tried. An actor's strike struck his 1970 production in New York City, two fires and seven robberies plagued the 1971 version, and finally J. Kenneth Campbell, who played Macduff, was mugged soon after the play's opening in the 1981 production. And finally, it was Macbeth that Abraham Lincoln chose to take with him on board the River Queen on the Potomac River one afternoon. The president was reading to a group of friends passages of the play that happened to follow the scene in which Duncan was assassinated. Within a week, President Lincoln himself was assassinated.

No one has solved the curse of Macbeth yet. However, a group of psychics recently attempted to contact the spirit of King Macbeth. Their attempts, of course, did not turn out so well. From the beginning, there were problems. Several witches had planned on arriving at the old Inverness Castle to reflect positive energy on Macbeth's spirit, but a number of them did not even make it. When the pet dog of one of the witches died, they thought of it as a sign of bad luck and decided not to test fate. Another bad omen, a cat bringing in a black feather, convinced another witch to stay home. In the end, only two witches showed up for the ritual, and even they experienced some difficulties. Witch Kevin Carlyon said "We almost got run off the road coming back from a trip to Skye, and then the three witches who were destined to come up here from other parts of the country all had different individual problems." It was begun when Carlyon summoned the four elements of earth, air, wind and water. But when his colleague Eileen Webster, a medium, tried to contact the spirit, she collapsed and began babbling incoherently. Afterwards she said "I sensed a great power that just drained away all my energy. I remember feeling fear. I sensed a very, very evil spirit. I believe in this curse definitely now." She also mentioned that a black crow had stalked her that morning. Despite the setbacks, the witches were able to perform the ceremony eventually, which Carlyon said he thought was a success. "We have reflected the curse, but it will only be when people start saying "Macbeth", and putting on productions of the play, that we will know we have been successful. We won't know until people tell us" were his exact words.

From its very first performance, several strange events have plagued Shakespeare's famous yet short play Macbeth, a play that was supposedly written to please King James. Is it just a coincidence that so many tragedies, many more than I've mentioned in this paper, have occurred relating to the play? Does referring to Macbeth using one of its many other names really prevent a catastrophe from occurring? Does going outside of a theater, spinning around three times and cussing, spitting, and knocking on a door somehow reverse the bad luck? Did the two witches successfully lift the curse? Does the curse even exist? We may never know, but I certainly don't plan on acting in the Scottish Play anytime soon to find out.

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