For years I have only warned my students against saying the Scottish Play’s name within the confines of the Black Box theatre or the Auditorium, but I never truly knew the cruse. One thing I do know, is that I am a believer. Before we opened A Midsummer Night’s Dream, my Acting 1 class thought is would be funny to shout the name of the Scottish Play all over the theatre. That evening Oberon walked into the set during a blackout and broke his foot. Last year the mistake was mine. I was chatting with William Toney, who was playing the role of Koko in The Mikado, during rehearsal. We were running a scene where Koko was mentioning lines from Romeo and Juliet and for some reason we mentioned the Scottish play by name multiple times before realizing our error. That next day, Will broke is foot in Team Sports and had to wheel around on a scooter for the show. The Curse of Macbeth” is very real.
What is the “Curse of Macbeth,” you ask?
The “Curse of Macbeth” is the misfortune that happens during the production of the play.
One theory goes that Shakespeare included actual black magic spells in the incantations of the weird sisters. Those who appear in the play or those who mention the play’s name within the confines of a theatre risk having these evils brought down on their heads. Another tradition tells that the original propmaster could not find a suitable pot for a cauldron and stole one from a coven, who then cursed the play in revenge for the theft. It is believed that breaking the taboo calls the ghosts of the three witches to the show and it is they who cause all the mishaps. The last, and probably most spectacular view of the curse is that Shakespeare used the curse in the play to actually curse the play himself, guaranteeing that no one other than himself would be able to direct the play
The tragedy of Macbeth is considered so unlucky that it is hardly ever called by name inside the profession. People refer to the play as “that play”, “the unmentionable” or “the Scottish play.” It is supposed to be bad luck to quote from the play or to use any sets, costumes, or props from a production.
The play partly acquired its evil reputation because of the weird sisters and partly because tradition traces a long line of disasters back to its premier on August 7, 1606.
The boy actor playing Lady Macbeth died back stage on opening night. In 1934, four actors played Macbeth in a single week. In 1937, Macbeth had to be postponed for three days after a change in directors and because of the death of Lilian Boylis. In 1954, the portrait of Lilian Boylis crashed down on the bar on opening night.
The superstition is not so much about doing the play as about naming it. You are not supposed to mention the title in a theatre. The most interesting theory is that the play contains the devil in the form of the porter.
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 most common remedy to get rid of the curse is that the offender must step outside, turn around three times, spit, and recite a line from another of Shakespeare’s plays and wait for permission to re-enter the theatre. 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) Another version is to step outside the theatre, turn around three times, spit, say the foulest word he/she can think of, and wait for permission to re-enter the theatre.
Crazy isn’t it?