The Scottish Play. The Bard’s Play. Macbeth is surrounded by superstition and fear of the ‘curse’ – uttering the play’s name aloud in a theatre causes bad luck. But where did this superstition come from?

Macbeth, Act 4 Scene 1

‘Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn, and cauldron bubble…’

Sixteenth century Scotland was notorious for its witch-hunts, mainly due to King James VI of Scotland’s obsession with witchcraft. The violent death of his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots by execution in 1587 was said to have inspired James’ dark fascination with magic.

Later, in 1589 when James was sailing back to Scotland from Denmark with his new wife, Anne, their ship encountered violent storms at sea, and they were nearly drowned. The Scottish King blamed the evil spells of witches for conjuring the storm, and following his return to Scotland ordered a witch-hunt in the coastal town of North Berwick. He later wrote Daemonologie, a treatise on witchcraft to further inspire persecution against witches.

Witchcraft to please the king

James became King James I of England in 1603, and his new subjects were keen to appease him and his views on the demonic. Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus was published in 1604, and its shocking portrayal of witchcraft and association with the devil intensified England’s fear of sorcery.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth followed in 1606 with direct references to James’ earlier misfortune at sea: ‘Though his bark cannot be lost, Yet is shall be tempest-tost’. Shakespeare was also said to have researched the weird sisters in depth; their chants in Macbeth, and ingredients of fenny snake, eye of newt and toe of frog, are supposedly real spells.

Black and white image of three hagged and ugly witches, surrounded by smoke.
Ken Wynne, Joan MacArthur and Edward Atienza as the three witches in Macbeth (1952), directed by John Gielgud.
Photo by Angus McBean © RSC Browse and license our images

Accidents, injuries and deaths - the curse of Macbeth

According to folklore, Macbeth was cursed from the beginning. A coven of witches objected to Shakespeare using real incantations, so they put a curse on the play.

Legend has it the play’s first performance (around 1606) was riddled with disaster. The actor playing Lady Macbeth died suddenly, so Shakespeare himself had to take on the part. Other rumoured mishaps include real daggers being used in place of stage props for the murder of King Duncan (resulting in the actor’s death).

The play hasn’t had much luck since. The famous Astor Place Riot in New York in 1849, caused by rivalry between American actor Edwin Forrest and English actor William Charles Macready, resulted in at least 20 deaths and over 100 injuries. Both Forrest and Macready were playing Macbeth in opposing productions at the time.

Other productions have been plagued with accidents, including actors falling off the stage, mysterious deaths, and even narrow misses by falling stage weights, as happened to Laurence Olivier at the Old Vic in 1937.

The cause of the curse

Macbeth was also seen as unlucky by theatre companies as it usually meant that the theatre was in financial trouble. Macbeth was (and still is) a popular play that was guaranteed an income so if it was suddenly announced it could mean that the theatre was struggling. Equally, the high production costs to stage the play could also bankrupt a theatre - referenced in Martin Harrison’s 1998 book, The Language of Theatre.

Breaking the curse

So how can you avoid catastrophe if you utter the play that shall not be named? Exit the theatre, spin around three times, spit, curse and then knock on the theatre door to be allowed back in…

The curse at the RSC

The actor Diana Wynyard (pictured) fell off the stage in Stratford’s 1948 production during the sleep walking scene as she decided to do it with her eyes closed. Apparently, the night before she had told a reporter that she thought the curse was ridiculous.

A few sources reference that she ended up "plunging 15 feet into the pit when she walked off the stage in the sleepwalking scene." She was unhurt. 

Dian Wynyard
Diana Wynyard as Lady Macbeth for the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre
Photo by Angus McBean © RSC Browse and license our images


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