When I was in college, one of my Theater teachers told me about The Curse of the Scottish Play. She herself was of Scottish heritage, and refused to say the word “Macbeth” when she was inside a theater. I didn’t look into it then, but I never forgot about it and never said the word when I was inside a theatre myself—just in case.
Much can be Googled about The Curse of the Scottish Play, and it seems to come up in every interview with an actor or actress who plays a part in the stage or movie versions. I wrote a bit about the curse in LADY M . In short: In the theater world there’s a widespread belief that the play Macbeth is cursed because there have been so many accidents and even deaths associated with productions of the play, dating back to the first performance. In one version of the legend, the actor playing Lady Macbeth died either the night before or during the opening night performance. In another version, an actor died because someone accidentally used a real dagger instead of a prop. According to the superstition, one must never say the word “Macbeth” out loud inside a theatre, unless it’s during a performance of the play. If someone does say it, the remedy is to leave the theatre, speak a line from another Shakespeare play (usually Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream), then turn around three times, spit, and swear. Then they have to wait until they’re invited back inside the theatre.
So that is why it is referred to as “The Scottish Play,” because it takes place in Scotland. There are many theories as to why the play may be cursed, one of them being that Shakespeare angered real witches by including genuine incantations in the Weird Sisters scenes. Two more rational explanations are provided: 1) much of the play takes place at night, so the stage is dimly lit, and there are battle and murder scenes. 2) Macbeth is often staged by struggling theater companies last minute in order to make money because the play is usually a box office success—so members of the company are panicked, there’s little time for rehearsal, and many opportunities for accidents.
What’s most interesting to me, in the context of my book, is how people respond to the idea of this curse. One character is dismissive and believes that curses have no power if you don’t believe in them. One character believes it’s the idea of the curse itself that becomes a mental or emotional burden. The protagonist, Mary Ready, is somehow a brilliant actress who is quite unaware of her own true motivations and is unable to admit her own mental or emotional burdens, so she readily latches onto the idea that bad things happen to her or around her because of the curse…Of course, there’s also a ghost, but that’s not the subject of this blog post…
Below is the painting Macbeth and Banquo Meeting the Three Witches on the Heath by Théodore Chassériau, circa 1855.
Thanks for reading!