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The Curse Behind Shakespeare’s MACBETH aka THE SCOTTISH PLAY

In my college theatre department, I had a stickler professor who was obsessed with the MACBETH curse. Most of the class had heard the play was supposedly cursed, and we shouldn’t say the name out loud, but to us it was just an amusing back story. Yet to my professor, this was theatre law, and he would chastise any student who dared speak the name or even quote the play. Instead, we had to use nicknames like “The Scottish Play”, “The Bard’s Play”, “The Play That Should Not Be Named”, or just “MacB”. What on earth did he think would happen if we said the name out loud? A freak lightening storm would burn the building to the ground or Shakespeare’s ghost would return and go all Cenobite ripping flesh from our bones? Some performance professionals firmly believe in the curse, even going as far as to post signs at their theaters requesting folks not say the cursed title.

 

MACBETH is about murder and witches, so the spooky subject matter set a sinister tone long before the ample bad mojo began happening. In 1606, King James commissioned Shakespeare to write the play. James had already had an incredibly tragic life having been taken from his parents at a young age. His Dad was later murder, and his Mom was beheaded by her cousin in order to get the throne. James became the King of England at 19.

James was a bit of an eccentric himself being obsessed with witches and demonology. He even wrote a book on demons and claimed to be the leading expert of the time. So it made sense that James would want a play with some dark, supernatural themes. And Shakespeare heavily researched the witches’ roles and lines to make sure they were accurate with real witchcraft accounts of the time.

It has been said that Shakespeare did his research “too well”, and the spells and incantations used in the play are actually real, thus cursing the play forever. It was also thought that some witches in England cursed the play on opening night, and it has stuck for the past 400 years.

In the original production, one of the lead actors came down with a fever (or some reports say he was stabbed) a few days prior to the play’s opening and died. This death started the curse in motion. But the show must go on, and King James saw the play on opening night. He was so repulsed by the excessive amount of gore and guts (courtesy of a local butcher shop), that he banned the play for several years.

Finally, the ban was lifted, and once again Shakespeare’s troupe could preform MACBETH. But a few days later, the theater burned to the ground taking all the sets, props, and costumes with it.

And the curse kept going for 400 years. Here are other examples of cursed productions:

  • In 1721, a disgruntled audience member burned a theater down during a production.
  • An 1849 production in New York ended in a riot which left several audience members dead.
  • In 1882, an actor accidentally stabbed another actor on stage during one of the fight scenes.
  • In 1900, a production in Moscow was doing a dress rehearsal. An actor called forgot his line and called for a prompt, but the prompter did not respond. The prompter then slumped over and died. The company was so shaken that they canceled the production.
  • In 1928, the entire set collapsed on stage during a production in England injuring several cast members.
  • During a 1934 production, an actor suddenly became mute on stage. He soon developed a high fever and was hospitalized.
  • In 1936, Orson Welles staged his Haitian “voodoo MACBETH” using real witch doctors. Theatre critic Percy Hammond gave the production incredibly negative reviews and then died several days later.
  • During a 1937 production in England, the theater’s director died of a heart attack and Lawrence Olivier, who was playing MACBETH, was almost killed by a falling sandbag.
  • Supposedly also during the Lawrence Olivier run, a sword flew off the stage and stabbed one of the audience members.
  • In a 1940s US production, one of the actresses thought it was silly that Lady Macbeth did the sleepwalking scene with her eyes open. She closed her eyes during the scene and fell 15 feet off the front of the stage.
  • In a 1942 production, 3 actors died during the production’s run and the set designer committed suicide.
  • In 1954, Charton Heston suffered burns during a production from his tights being mysteriously covered in kerosene
  • And a Russian film version was canceled when several crew members died of food poisoning

And one theory for how the legend began:

  • Some folks believe that the earlier tragedies surrounding the play may have been staged by Shakespeare himself to drive ticket sales and notoriety.

 

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