The Curse!

Ian Byrne as the young soldier initially has the better of Macbeth, played by Richard Haines. This is their first fight rehearsal with shields and batons. Later swords will replace the batons.

You may have heard that this play is cursed. It is an old stage tradition that one does not say the word “Macbeth” unless one is speaking it during the play; actors will instead call it “Mackers” or “The Scottish Play.” The tradition suggests that it is particularly bad luck to speak that name in the theatre, though some especially superstitious souls will refuse to say it no matter where they are. If one does accidentally say “Macbeth,” there are various ways to counteract the curse, a favourite of which is to leave the theatre, recite any line from a Shakespeare Comedy (Midsummer Night’s Dream, another drama with supernatural elements, is a favorite choice) and then return.

But how did this idea of a curse come about? The origins are unclear: there are stories of injuries and deaths associated with the play – after all, there are a lot of murders – though it is by no means clear that mayhem follows this play more than any other. One suggestion is that since evil spirits are actually invoked in the play, perhaps they are interfering in the affairs of the actors, as the weird sisters do in the Macbeths’. (Our publicist loves that probably apocryphal story that, in one early performance of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, the actors were surprised to find one too many devils on the stage!) Another is that some injuries might be the result of particularly strenuous swordplay at the end of the play, or that since much of the play is to take place in the dark or in fog, accidents could follow from poor visibility.

Our own belief is that the accumulation of anecdotes surrounding this curse is merely the result of awareness. Because actors are conscious of the curse, they will look for, remember and pass on any unlucky incidents that happen through a run of Macbeth, whereas they may ignore a stubbed toe or broken nose during Hamlet rehearsals.

Whatever the case, do remember that actors can be very superstitious creatures, (though not ours!) and if you do speak the name of the Scottish play, you may make someone unhappy. So, like Edmund Blackadder, it’s best not to say “Macbeth”  – a least more than once.

Rowan Atkiinson as Black Adder

Here’s a link to the YouTube comedy routine by Rowan Atkinson:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h–HR7PWfp0

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One comment on “The Curse!

  1. David Bulger says:

    A possible explanation of the “Horrible Scottish Tragedy Curse.” I have been told that it was the role to which great actors “went to die,” as it were. That if one looks at the history of productions of the play, brilliant British actor after brilliant British actor ended up being panned by both critics and public. Thus, while no one would want to turn down the role–I guess, by the same token, the fear is that even mentioning the name of the play would extend that curse of failure to whatever work an actor is currently engaged in.
    This explanation is entirely anecdotal–I’ve never bothered to see if it is borne out by the history–but I encountered it more than once in the theatre, mainly hearing it from older and British actors.

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