The Curse of Macbeth: “The Scottish Play”

Some people believe the play Macbeth is “cursed,” and that has created a theatrical tradition: any mention of the play’s name, or quoting the play in a theater requires the offender to leave the room (or building), turn around three times, spit, curse, quote Hamlet (“Angels and Ministers of grace defend us!”), knock, and humbly ask to be let back in. This will remove the curse.

The play is frequently called “The Scottish Play” instead of Macbeth. Some literary historians will argue that Shakespeare wrote “actual” witches’ spells into the text of Macbeth. Whether due to the curse, the low lighting of the productions, or actor superstition, there are abounding stories of accident-prone productions, some that ended in death.

Even if an actor isn’t superstitious, it is best to keep mum with the “M” word so as not to stir up the fear of the curse among the company.

Here’s a sample of horror stories from the past:
• Critic Percy Hammond gave a bad review of Orson Welles’ “Voodoo Macbeth” and died within a couple of weeks
• Laurence Olivier was rehearsing when a 25-pound stage weight crashed down, missing him by inches
• John Gielgud’s production suffered three deaths in the cast and the suicide of the costume and set designer
• Harold Norman was stabbed in the swordfight that ends the play and died as a result of his wounds
• Lady Macbeth at Stratford played the sleepwalking scene with her eyes closed and walked right off the stage falling 15 feet
• Charlton Heston suffered severe burns in his groin and leg area from tights that were accidentally soaked in kerosene
• In St. Paul, Minnesota, Macbeth dropped dead of heart failure during the first scene of Act III
• The 1988 Broadway production went through 3 directors, 5 Macduffs, 6 cast changes, 6 stage managers, 2 set designers, 2 lighting designers, 26 bouts of flu, torn ligaments and groin injuries.

…Better just say “the Scottish Play!”

Thomson Jaffe
Education Program Assistant