As theatre was my minor in my undergraduate program, I often studied Shakespeare’s play “Macbeth,” and I have taught it many times. However, I have never performed in or directed the play. Even so, I know something of the “Curse of Macbeth.”
As the story goes, looking for authenticity for his play, William Shakespeare researched witches’ spells and curses. They “upset” the “community,” and so a curse was placed on every performance of the play. In fact, many in the theatre community do not even speak the name of the play. Instead, it is referred to as the Scottish play (as the setting is in Scotland) or the Bard’s play (referring to Shakespeare’s nickname). Using the word “Macbeth,” other than when it called for in the script is forbidden in many production houses. Superstition says doing so will create some sort of havoc or even a disaster.
Because of this superstition, the lead character is often referred to as the Scottish King or Scottish Lord. Lady Macbeth is often referred to as the Scottish Lady. Sometimes Mackers or MacB is used to avoid saying the name.
In truth, most theatre history buffs place the superstition’s source on the shoulders of what was going on during Shakespeare’s days. It was not uncommon to discover a theatre company to experience financial woes. Cut backs often meant either the stage was in poor condition or production costs outweighed the theatre’s ability to stage Macbeth, or any play for that matter, properly.
Equally as compelling, but not so practical, is the idea that Macbeth’s and Lady Macbeth’s characters are of the worst sort and should be cursed. After all, they kill their king for their own good. They break the vows of allegiance they owe to any guest in their home, but, most assuredly, to their ruler and king. Being cursed or double-crossed in the end appears only right, does it not?
According to Garber, Marjorie B. (1997). Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality. Methuen. p. 88: “When the name of the play is spoken in a theatre, tradition requires the person who spoke it to leave, perform traditional cleansing rituals and be invited back in. The rituals are supposed to ward off the evil that uttering the play’s name is feared to bring on.
“The rituals include turning three times, spitting over one’s left shoulder, swearing, or reciting a line from another of Shakespeare’s plays. Popular lines for this purpose include, “Angels and ministers of grace defend us” (Hamlet,1.IV), “If we shadows have offended” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream 5.ii), and “Fair thoughts and happy hours attend on you” (The Merchant of Venice, 3.IV). A more elaborate cleansing ritual involves leaving the theatre, spinning around and brushing oneself off, and saying “Macbeth” three times before entering again. Some production groups insist that the offender may not re-enter the theatre until invited to do so, therefore making it easy to punish frequent offenders by leaving them outside.
“A realistic portrayal of a ritual occurs in the 1983 film The Dresser, in which Sir is the offender, and Norman, his dresser, officiates over the propitiation.”
Wikipedia and other sources (my theatre history books) list a number of such “accidents” regarding the curse of Macbeth:
The male actor who was to play Lady Macbeth in the very first performance of Macbeth took ill with a fever before ever walking on stage and supposedly died.
The Astor Place Riot in 1849, injuries sustained by actors at a 1937 performance at The Old Vic that starred Laurence Olivier, Diana Wynyard’s 1948 accidental fall, and burns suffered by Charlton Heston in 1954. ( Hurwitt, Robert (19 August 2010). “Cal Shakes risks curse of ‘the Scottish play'”. San Francisco Chronicle.)
On 2 December 1964 a fire burned down the D. Maria II National Theater in Lisbon, Portugal. At the time, the play being shown was Macbeth. (“O incêndio no Teatro Nacional D. Maria II | DN 150 Anos”. Archived from the original on 11 October 2016.)
According to records of the 1948 regional theatre production, actress Diana Winyard accidentally walked off the edge of the stage during her sleepwalking scene as Lady Macbeth. Shortly before the accident, she was heard complaining about the need to play the scene with her eyes open. Not a bit of revenge, you may declare, but she was also heard saying that the curse was “ridiculous.”
In 1980, a production of Macbeth at The Old Vic starring Peter O’Toole, often referred to as Macdeath, was performed. It was reviewed so badly that the theatre company disbanded shortly after the play. (The Old Vic) In a 1937 production at the same theatre, Laurence Olivier was nearly killed by a sandbag which fell from the rafters to land only inches from where he stood. Meanwhile, the theatre’s founder, Lilian Baylis, was struck dead by a sudden heart attack.
Mishaps on the set of his film Opera led director Dario Argento to believe that the film had been affected by the Macbeth curse; the opera being performed within the film is Verdi’s Macbeth.
In 1942 production a series of unexplained mishaps occurred. Beatrice Fielden-Kaye, who was playing one of the witches died of an unexpected heart attack. Then, the man playing Duncan, one Marcus Barron, died of an angina. Another of the three witches, actress Annie Edsmond died on stage while she danced around the cauldron with pure abandon. To top off this madness, the set designer committed suicide in his office. He was reportedly surrounded by his set and costume designs. (bbashakespeare) (Theatricalial)
In 1988, Bulgarian singer, coach and translator Bantcho Bantchevsky committed suicide during a nationally broadcast matinee of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. He propelled himself backwards from a balcony railing at the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Square. (“Opera Patron Dies … at the Met”, The New York Times”. 24 January 1988.) (The Washington Post)
Ari Aster, writer and director of Hereditary, said that during filming, “Alex Wolff told me not to say the name of William Shakespeare’s Scottish play out loud because of some superstitious theater legend. I smugly announced the name, and then one of our lights burst during the shooting of the following scene.” (“Ari Aster comments on Shakespeare’s Scottish Play curse”. 15 June 2018.)
Reportedly nine members of a Russian film crew died of food poisoning on set of a production of Macbeth. The film was quickly canceled. Also, in Russia, when Constantin Stanislavski of the Moscow Arts Company forgot his lines in the midst of the murder scene in an early 1900 production of the play, he whispered to the prompter for a line, but none was forthcoming. Angry, Stanislavski called repeatedly for the line, only to discover moments later that the prompter was slumped over dead holding the script. That production never saw light of day.
And for those of you who have been watching the CNN series on Abraham Lincoln, supposed “Honest Abe” was reciting lines from Macbeth over dinner with friends the evening before he was assassinated. Coincidence? I am not one to buck traditions or curses. What of you? Do you believe?
Other Sources of Interest: