Angels and Ministers of Grace Defend Us!

by Katy McGlaughlin
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When shall we three meet again? And what will we have to do in order to be allowed back in the theatre then? ​The world is rife with superstitions and the theatre has its fair share; never wish an actor good luck, don’t whistle backstage, never use real money or jewelry onstage, peacock feathers are bad luck, etc. One of the most famous or rather infamous involves the play Macbeth

Most every theatre person knows that it is taboo to speak the name Macbeth, or even lines from the show, inside a theatre. Many productions go so far as to avoid the name even in rehearsals – subbing in “the Scottish lord” each time “Macbeth” is scripted.  Some people refuse to say it even outside the theatre. If “Macbeth” is said, either intentionally or inadvertently, it is purported to bring tremendous bad luck. The only way to remove the curse is to leave the theatre, spin around three times (some accounts insist that one spin counterclockwise), spit (some get specific enough to direct the spitting over the left shoulder), curse (or in some variations speak a line from a different Shakespeare play) and knock to be readmitted to the theatre. There is no general consensus about whether the curse only holds true in the environs of the theatre proper or whether the entire grounds of a theatre building are susceptible.

Theories about the curse are nearly as prolific as the people who believe in it.

One of the most common theories postulates that Shakespeare used real spells and curses when he was writing for the witches in the play, which enraged real witches living in England at the time – so they cursed the play.  Another theory states that Shakespeare himself cursed the play so that no one else could ever direct it well.  A very logical explanation makes Macbeth less of a curse and more a bad omen – Macbeth was often said to herald the end of a theatre company because producers of old, when reaching the end of a failing season would add a popular but short (possibly cheaper to produce?) play, Macbeth. If this crowd favorite failed to bring the theatre into the black the company was likely to close- making Macbeth the herald of a theatre company’s death.

Belief in the curse has been reinforced by many fatal accidents surrounding productions – Starting with the first, either the actor playing Macbeth or Lady Macbeth (accounts vary) died suddenly and Shakespeare had to play the role himself. In another early production the actor playing King Duncan was killed in front of a live audience when a real dagger was used instead of the prop.  In a 1947 production another actor (Harold Norman) died during a too realistic fight scene. Multiple productions have incited audience riots – the Astor place riot left 22 dead and over 100 injured.

I avoid saying the name and I know people on both ends of the spectrum. But whatever your belief after over 400 years it is safe to say that this superstition isn’t going anywhere!