Ferdinand Fleck as Macbeth by Johann Christoph Kimpfel

Since it was written in 1603, Macbeth has become one of Shakespeare's most performed plays, yet many actors fear to speak its name.  Instead, they refer to it as The Scottish Play, making reference to its setting in the Scottish Highlands, or as The Bard's Play in reference to its playwright.  They may also refer to its central characters as Mr and Mrs M, rather than Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.  But where does such superstition stem from, and what are the remedies for the unfortunate actor who lets slip the name Macbeth?

Origins of the superstition

According to one legend, during the premiere of the play, an actor was killed when he was stabbed with a real knife rather than a prop.  Another suggests that the actor playing Macbeth died shortly after the his first performance of the play.  There's little evidence to substantiate these claims, but then again, when did a good superstition require proof? 

What has been documented is the incidence of accidents during productions of the play.  Often real swords were used in early productions and one unfortunate actor playing Macduff is believed to have lost both his thumbs when the fight scenes became too vigorous.  Other cases of actors being involved in accidents or becoming mysteriously ill abound, but it's hard to say whether the curse is the cause of this or if it's the effect of worrying about the curse which makes people susceptible to misfortune.

The worst disaster in theatre history is also attributed to the curse of Macbeth.  In 1849, competing productions were staged on the same night by Englishman William Macready at the upscale Astor Opera House and by American Edwin Forrest at the Broadway Theatre in New York.  Violence broke out when a mob of Forrest's fans marched on the Astor and were met by the militia.  Twenty-two people were killed, including innocent passers-by.  Historical experts suggest that social tensions at the time would have led to violence anyway, but that doesn't detract from the association with the Scottish play.

One of the most likely explanations for the idea that the play is cursed is the fact that it was often staged by theatres which were on the verge of going bankrupt as a last ditch attempt to save themselves.  Macbeth has always been a popular draw for audiences and a good bet for bringing in some cash.  The result of this is that the play has become associated with failing business and when notices for Macbeth went up outside a theatre, the actors and stage hands often worried that it was a sign they would soon be out of a job.


But why is the play cursed?

Those who believe in the curse attribute it to the inclusion of real witches' spells in the text.  It is believed that William Shakespeare was trying to win favour with King James I (known for his interest in witchcraft) and consulted a real life coven about what incantations to include.  It is said that the character Hecate intensifies the curse and this is the reason why her part is often cut from productions of the play.  A more likely explanation for the removal of Hecate's part is that her speech patterns are suspect and this has raised questions about authorship. Many of Shakespeare's works were altered at the point of inclusion in the First Folio, the earliest collection of his plays.

Legend abounds that the witches whose words Shakespeare included in the play cursed it because they were offended by his portrayal of them.  He does, after all, have Banquo say to the three witches, 'you should be women / and yet your beards forbid me to interpret / that you are so' which is not particularly flattering. 

How to break the curse.

Well, the curse is only supposed to apply when the name of the play is uttered in a theatre, so for most of the time, we can happily go around saying 'Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth' as often as we like.  However, if it is said within a theatre, there are rituals which can be followed.  One is to turn around three times, spit over your left shoulder and curse.  Another suggests that if you say the name within a theatre, you must immediately leave the building, spin around, brush yourself off and say 'Macbeth' three times before going back inside.  Another ritual is to spin around, spit over your shoulder and recite a line from another Shakespearean play.  Something along the lines of 'Angels and ministers of grace defend us' (Hamlet, Act I, Scene IV) is considered effective.