The Scottish Play

Saying Macbeth in a theatre will at worst cause a catastrophe, but will more likely upset actors. Even to this day some actors are very superstitious about William Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Macbeth.  The superstition goes that one should never speak the name Macbeth while in a theatre, or speak any lines from the play, except in rehearsals. Instead, The Scottish Play is used as an acceptable alternative.  

It is believed that the play is cursed and uttering the name in a theatre will bring bad luck and disaster to any production.  One suggestion as to why the play is cursed is that Shakespeare used genuine spells in the witches coven scenes, so whenever these scenes are performed the actors invoke the ghosts of dead witches and evil spirits.

A number of accidents and deaths have been blamed on the Scottish curse, starting with the very first production in 1606, when Hal Berridge, the boy actor playing Lady Macbeth, died very suddenly during the play’s run. William Shakespeare himself was forced to step in and take the part.

(c) Photowitch |

There have been numerous other incidents of death and injury during productions including actors being stabbed by real daggers by mistake, set pieces and stage weights falling on actors, fires, riots, strikes and even one actress falling 15 feet into the orchestra pit.  Although that might have had less to do with the curse and more to do with the actress insisting  on playing the sleep walking scene with her eyes shut!

There are a number of arguments for why the superstition may have arisen. Macbeth was and is a very popular play. Over the years, struggling theatre companies have staged productions in the hope that a popular play would save them financially.  Not all of them were successful, so a trend formed for productions closing in bankruptcy.  This may have led to the connection with bad luck. Also, theatres were, and to some extent still are, dangerous places.  Accidents would happen regularly and because Macbeth was produced so often the probability of something bad happening during a production of Macbeth was high.  

The other explanation is that once the curse was out, people became very paranoid about it. Actors might actually be put off by hearing the word and make mistakes or have accidents simply because they are distracted.  For this reason, most actors will respect the superstition even if they do not believe in it themselves. If you ever do find yourself having uttered the dreaded words there are rituals you can do to appease either the spirits or the actor who took offence.  

These “cleansing” rituals consist of various things including spinning round, spitting, swearing and brushing oneself down. Often these are performed 3 times and in some cases the offenders are forced to leave the room or even the theatre to perform the ritual and stay outside until invited back in.  Some actors will recite lines from other Shakespeare plays to counteract the curse, such as these from Hamlet:

"Angels and ministers of grace defend us."

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