by Rachel Ramirez
There is a reason that you will frequently hear William Shakespeare’s Macbeth referred to as “The Scottish Play.” One of the most popular theatrical superstitions states that this Shakespearean tragedy can bring about bad luck—even by simply stating the name of the title character. These claims are not entirely unfounded as many well-known actors (including Laurence Olivier and Charlton Heston) have all suffered some disaster either during or just after a production. While not all theatre artists and audience members agree that there is truth in this curse, there is always a respect for those that believe in that superstition. Even those believe any theatrical misfortunes to be mere coincidence will refer to the main characters indirectly as The Scottish King and Lady M.
The superstition surrounding Macbeth is a twofold. Firstly, according to theatrical superstition, speaking the name Macbeth aloud in a theater will invariably bring disaster upon the production. The second is that the entire production, as a whole, is cursed. There are some opinions as to the origin of this curse. If legends are to be believed, Shakespeare stole witches chants from an actual coven to be used in the play and, as retribution, the witches cursed the play, condemning it for all eternity.
Fear of the Macbeth curse is alive and thriving even today. One of the more recent productions of this play was Alan Cumming’s one-man Macbeth, which ran on Broadway in the spring of 2013. Its star announced his dismissal of any superstition, stating, “I am going to say Macbeth everywhere, even in the theatre. None of this Scottish Play stuff for me.” However, the show’s producers had other ideas and placed signs about the Ethel Barrymore Theater, asking patrons to refrain from mentioning the title while within the venue. That being said, despite Alan Cummings’ flouting of the curse, he appears to be doing just fine today.
Those who follow theatrical superstition are not completely unarmed against this curse. There are certain cleansing rituals said to ward off the evil spirits brought on by speaking the name aloud. The rituals include turning three times, swearing, spitting over one’s left shoulder, or reciting a line from a different Shakespeare play (such as “If we shadows have offended” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream). The offender may also be asked to leave the theater and not be able to reenter until he is invited to do so.
Of course, there are certainly rational explanations for the troubles that frequently seem to haunt productions. Although Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, it is also one of the most violent. There are many fight scenes throughout the play. Most of those scenes take place at night or in dim lighting, thus increasing the chances for accidents.
Another arguably accurate cause of the Macbeth curse is self-fulfilling prophecy. Misfortunes plague nearly every single production that is put on a stage—that is just the nature of show business. Live theatre is unpredictable and accidents happen. But when a cast and crew are watching carefully for any signs of misfortune, any and all mishaps are sure to be remembered. And so the curse lives on from generation to generation, essentially feeding upon itself.
When we questioned Polarity Artistic Director Richard Engling, who is directing the production, he said: “I don’t believe saying the name Macbeth anywhere does anything. I do believe, however, that there can be power in prayers and incantations, and the script has some dangerous ones. Probably most dangerous of all is the speech in which Lady Macbeth calls down the demons upon herself.”
Come you spirits,
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty: make thick my blood,
Stop up the access, and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
Th’ effect and hit. Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever, in your sightless substances,
You wait on nature’s mischief. Come thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry, Hold, hold.
Perhaps an actual Macbeth curse can never be proven, but we have now reached the point where it is so ingrained in our theatrical culture that the myth will never entirely be dispelled. What we can be certain of is that Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most intriguing tragedies with compelling characters, surrounded by supernatural elements—and the idea of a curse is merely another layer to that mystery and intrigue.
Please join Polarity Ensemble Theatre for William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, running January 30-March 2 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago. (Free parking one block north). Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased at petheatre.com or by calling 773-404-7336. Or click here for more information on the show. And to read about our new residency at the Greenhouse Theater Center, click here. Macbeth as part of Chicago Theatre Week, February 13 – 16.
Pictured above: Jovan King and Lana Smithner; Emily Nichelson, Krystal Mosley and Kate Smith; Emily Nichelson and Jovan King; Lana Smithner. Photos by Richard Engling