By Brittany Ann Meister
Anyone with even a passing relation to theatre, has heard that you don’t say “Macbeth” in a theatre,unless, of course, you’re performing it. Some go so far as to avoid discussing it or using particular lines from it as well. But why is this?
Well, to start off with, the Scottish Play has its own fair share of bad luck urban legends. Starting off with the play’s first performance, the young actor originally cast to play Lady Macbeth allegedly died, forcing Shakespeare himself to take the role. However, since we’re not even sure exactly when the play was written or performed for the first time, this is hard to confirm with records. Around a century later, an actor playing Duncan was supposedly killed in front of his audience when the prop dagger was replaced with a real dagger. In 1947, Harold Norman, who purportedly did not believe in superstition, died when his stage battle became a bit too realistic during his run at the titular Thane. Add in some riots, one in 1721 and one in 1772, and a third one caused by the fans of two rival actors at one’s production in New York in 1849 (with 22 dead and over 100 wounded), with the countless other stories of accidents over the years, and you have quite a bit of bad luck attaching itself to one little play.
How did Macbeth bring such bad luck on itself though? There are a few theories. To start with the most supernatural ideas: some think that the devil himself is present in the play. As who, you might ask? Why, as the porter. Some believe that Shakespeare brought the curse upon it himself, by using authentic spells in the witches’ dialogue, with King James I going so far as to have the play banned for over five years because of its incantations. However, witches were a popular component of drama in the 1600s and Shakespeare was hardly the only writer to implement them. In fact, Thomas Middleton’s The Witch was written around the same time, and used direct passages from The Discovery of Witchcraft, a book which, purportedly, contains real spells. Yet we never hear about any curses on his work. And to top it off, Shakespeare’s witches bear no solid correlation to other literature from that time period.
This leaves us with more realistic explanations. Most people will say that any play that has been put onstage for 400 hundred years, particularly one as bloody as Macbeth, will have its fair share of accidents. Many actors have stories about someone they knew who nearly fell off the stage. Rather than blame it on being clumsy or losing their footing, it is, of course, easier to blame it on someone saying the dreaded name. There is another idea though, that states that actors have grown to fear the name in the theatre due to it potentially signalling their unemployment. Theatre owners would often replace struggling productions with Macbeth-a real crowd pleaser. Therefore, hearing it the theatre outside of an actual production usually meant the owners were considering cutting your run short, or someone was rehearsaing to replace your show.
If you dig further still, you can find that a lot of the urban legends and stories surrounding Macbeth actually originated with Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, a play about the titular doctor making a pact with the devil and playing some practical jokes, before ultimately being dismembered and dragged to hell. Stories of accidents and even deaths plagued Dr. Faustus and eventually, the same stories were being told again, except with the name Macbeth.
With all of this in mind, it’s easy to let go of superstition and live life free of the cursed play. But, as it is, most thespians won’t take the chance. Even in rehearsals for VFR’s production of Macbeth, it was agreed upon that outside of performance, a nickname should be used, with a favorite being Mackers. Superstitious or not, if you find yourself uttering the name on accident, be sure to follow this remedy: exit the space, spin around three times, spit over your left shoulder, and either speak a line of Shakespeare or yell a profanity. No matter what you believe, at least you'll have your bases covered.
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