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Superstitions About Macbeth – The Curse of the Scottish play

Shakespearean plays are classics that never get old. As one of the greatest writers in the history of the modern world and literature, William Shakespeare has produced several masterpieces that are not only performed and enjoyed till date but have inspired numerous artists to create masterpieces of their own.

One such work is the Shakespearean tragedy of Macbeth. While you may not have read the play, you are sure to have at least heard of the infamous curse that plagues it.

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What is the curse of the Scottish play?

Across theatrical circles around the world, the curse of the Scottish play is a well-known superstition. They refrain from even saying the word ‘Macbeth’ for the fear of bad luck and tragedy befalling them. It is the ‘you-know-which’ play of the theater world.

The superstition follows that any person who performs in a production of the play or is even remotely associated with it, is cursed by bad luck that leads to accidents, bloodshed or in the worst case, even death.

Origins of the Curse of ‘Macbeth’

James the first
James I of England. Public Domain.

Macbeth was written around 1606 by William Shakespeare in an effort to impress the reigning monarch of the time, King James I of England. It was an era of witch hunts which were encouraged by the King who was ardently against any form of witchcraft, sorcery, and the occult. His obsession with dark magic and witchery was linked to the violent execution of his mother, Mary, the queen of Scots as well as his near-death experience by drowning at the sea.

The plot told the story of the main character Macbeth, a Scottish general, who is given a prophesy by the three witches, known as the Weird Sisters or the Wayward Sisters, that he would become King. What follows was a tale of tragedy which began once General Macbeth assassinates King Duncan to become the king himself, causing several civil wars and much bloodshed ending only with his death.

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It is said that Shakespeare thoroughly researched witches before he wrote about the weird sisters in his play. The spells, incantations, charms, and potion ingredients used in the play were supposedly all real witchcraft.

Even the iconic scene in the play where the three witches are brewing a potion whilst chanting their spell was said to be part of a real ritual of witches. The very first scene at the opening of the play began with the witches’ verse:

“Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,

In the cauldron boil and bake;

Eye of newt and toe of frog,

Wool of bat and tongue of dog,

Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,

Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,

For a charm of powerful trouble,

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Cool it with a baboon’s blood,

Then the charm is firm and good”.

Many believe that exposing the witches’ spell was what led to the play becoming cursed. The curse was seemingly the result of the wrath of a witches’ coven, who were enraged by Shakespeare’s portrayal of witches in the play as well as their spells being used and published to the world. Others propound that the play was cursed because of an incomplete spell within it.

Three Witches (scene_from_Macbeth)
The Three Witches of Macbeth – by William Rimmer. Public Domain.

Just a Case of Unfortunate Events or a Real Curse? – Real-life Incidents

Although just a superstition, eerily there have been a string of unfortunate events and incidents linked to the play that seem to reinforce the existence of the curse. Every theater enthusiast is bound to have a story or experience to share when it comes to the curse of the Scottish Play.

  • From the very first time the play was written and performed; it has been riddled with mishaps. The young actor who was to play Lady Macbeth suddenly passed away and the playwright himself had to perform the role. Not only did it fail to impress James I of England, but it also offended him due to all the violent scenes, which resulted in a ban of the play. Even when the play was rewritten to tone down the violence and performed again, one of the worst storms befell England, causing death and destruction in many places.
  • The curse is even associated with Abraham Lincoln’s assassination as he had allegedly read out the passage of King Duncan’s assassination to his friends just a week before his own assassination.
  • Although not directly linked to the play, a protest, caused by the rivalry between Edwin Forrest, an American actor and William Chares Macready, an English actor, turned into a riot at the Astor Place Opera leading to several injuries and some deaths. Both the actors were portraying Macbeth in opposing productions at the time.
  • The tragedies do not end there, a series of accidents and mishaps occurred to the crew performing at the Old Vic. The director and one of the actors met with a car accident; following with the main lead Laurence Oliver losing his voice the night before opening and having a near death experience when the stage weight fell, missing him by a few inches. Even the founder of Old Vic unexpectedly passing away by a heart attack on the night of the dress rehearsal.
  • There have been several reports of actors stabbing and injuring each other, sets catching fire and even of prop swords being unintentionally switched with real swords leading to death – all while working on productions of Macbeth.

The Mysteries of the Play’s Curse

The number of ominous and uncanny accidents that continues to surround the play is one of the mysteries of the curse. Many also believe that Shakespeare got inspiration from real life encounters, from those who worked with herbal treatment and medicine.

But what has perplexed many Shakespearean enthusiasts is that instead of the pentameter i.e., a verse of five metrical feet that he commonly used for his works, Shakespeare had used tetrameter which uses only four rhythmic feet in each verse, for the witches’ chant.

It not only sounded unusual but almost ‘witchy’. It was almost as if another person had written just the chant, suggesting that it was not authored by the Bard himself.

Can You Escape the Curse?

The best way to counter the curse when you have uttered the unspeakable is to first go outside as soon as possible, spin three times on the spot, spit over your left shoulder, swear or recite a suitable quote from another Shakespearean play and simply knock until you are given permission to enter the theater again. It is akin to the custom of purging evil and to be invited back is an association with a vampiric tradition.

Is the Curse of the Scottish Play Real?

Macbeth poster

In the 17th century, a play showcasing witchcraft and the occult as closely as Shakespeare did in Macbeth was a taboo. The idea of the curse was likely due to the fear and uneasiness caused by the play amongst the public, who were mostly influenced by the church and uneducated.

The very first tragedy to have occurred, i.e., the death of the actor who was to play Lady Macbeth turns out to have been fake news. Max Beerbohm, a cartoonist and critic, had inadvertently spread this as a joke in the 19th century but, when everyone believed him, he went along with it and continued to tell the story as though it was real.

In fact, there are some very logical explanations to the deaths and accidents. Most theater performances have a reasonable number of mishaps as a part of the process. Before coming to conclusions, we need to consider the fact that Macbeth is a play that has been around for over four centuries, which is sufficient time for mishaps to occur even without a curse.

More importantly, the play was an extremely violent one with a combination of several swordfights and dark setting on the stage leading to many accidents happening from carelessness.

Because of the mysterious nature of the play itself, the superstition became a compelling one as the accidents and deaths started compounding over time. The fear of the curse is so deeply rooted in the culture of the theater industry that the British Sign Language doesn’t even have a word for ‘Macbeth’.

More often than not, due to how expensive the play is for it to be run in a theater, the theaters usually face financial difficulties, confirming the curse in the minds of the doubtful.

The curse of the Macbeth has also seen its fair share of fame in pop culture, whether as an episode in shows such as The Simpsons and Doctor Who or simply as inspiration for movies.

Wrapping Up

So, beware the next time you find yourself playing a part in the tragedy of Macbeth or simply going to enjoy the performance. Having an insight into the full picture of the curse, it is up to you whether you want to believe it to be just a superstition or a real accursed play.

If you were to ever say the forbidden ‘M-word’ unknowingly at the theater, you now also know what needs to be done! After all, even the theater folks know not to mess with fate by taking the curse for granted.

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Athira is a lawyer by day and a content writer by night. With her background in law, she has a keen interest in researching and writing about everything under the sun. The topics that interest her the most include mythology from around the world and conspiracy theories. When not lawyering or writing, you can find her learning a new language or trying out an anime theme song on her violin.