Saturday, 22 September 2012

Superstition and The Scottish Play

Did Shakespeare have to play the
first Lady Macbeth?

Despite Macbeth's popularity, it has been dogged by superstition and rumours of curses from its very first production. The well-worn tradition of actors not saying “Macbeth” is all too familiar. But, from where did the notion of a cursed play arise?

Coincidentally, one of the very aspects of the play that proved its popularity is thought to be the origin of a dreadful curse. In the words of Rolf Harris, "can you guess what it is, yet?"

Why is Macbeth Considered an Unlucky Play?

Rumour has it that Shakespeare used genuine rituals to create the first scene of act IV, in which the audience observes the weird sisters dancing, chanting and mixing a peculiar concoction in their cauldron.

Some people believe that the real witches of Shakespeare’s time were displeased with the theatrical representation of their rituals and, subsequently, placed a curse on the play.

Another theory asserts that the notion of bad luck developed in theatre companies, because it would often be nominated as a fallback play. In other words, if injury or illness prevented a company from performing their scheduled play, Macbeth would be performed instead. Largely, this was because Macbeth requires a smallish cast and, being a short play, there were fewer lines for the actors to memorise.

Additionally, due to its popularity, Macbeth would often be the play performed by struggling theatre companies. Unfortunately, reversing the fortunes of a failing company is a lot to expect from one play, even one as good as the Scottish Play, so, inevitably, Macbeth was often the last play performed by many theatre companies.

The First Performance of Macbeth

Shakespeare may have used real incantations and
'black magic' to create the witches' scenes
Over the years, a catalogue of accidents, fatalities and bizarre incidents have been ascribed to the curse of Macbeth.

In fact, it is rumoured to have struck the premiere performance of the play. It is believed, by some, that Shakespeare had to take to the stage as Lady Macbeth, because the young man who had been cast in the role suddenly became very ill and, subsequently, died.

Of course, this tragedy can be attributed to the curse, but it is worth bearing in mind that due to the lack of sanitation in the 17th century and the rampant way diseases could spread, numerous people were killed by mysterious illnesses. And, although the thought of Shakespeare playing Lady Macbeth is a wonderful one, to me at least, there is no evidence to support it. So it is generally believed to be nothing more than a myth. Shame!

Real Life Instances of Bad Luck and Macbeth

Laurence Olivier experienced some bad luck
with Macbeth
One of these most famous cases of real life tragedy striking a production of Macbeth occurred at New York's Astor Place, in 1849, when 31 people were killed after a full-scale riot broke out in the theatre.

Additionally, the curse of the play is said to have struck the legendary Laurence Olivier, when he was nearly hit by a stage weight, in 1937.

The director and an actress, of that same production, were involved in a car accident on their way to the theatre.

And if that weren't enough, the 1937 production was hit with further bad luck when the theatre manager was killed by a heart attack during the dress rehearsal. Then, yes there's more, Olivier’s sword broke during one of the fight scenes and ended up flying into the audience, hitting a man who later also had a heart attack.

How to Avoid the Curse of Macbeth 

The majority of preventative methods are still followed by today’s actors. For example, the first cardinal rule is that the word ‘Macbeth’ should never be spoken, except when part of the dialogue. Speaking the name of the play in a theatre is believed to cause intense bad luck. Therefore, the phrase ‘the Scottish play’ is used as a substitute.

Why do actors say call Macbeth the
Scottish Play?
However, in the event that somebody mistakenly says ‘Macbeth’ there are various rituals that are said to reverse the bad luck. One of the most common is that the person who has spoken the forbidden word must exit the theatre, spin around three times, utter a profanity and then ask permission to reenter.

There are many, equally peculiar, variants of this ritual, which include spitting over the shoulder and letting out a tirade of profanities.

Some performers believe that an unfortunate individual who has spoken the name ‘Macbeth’ can be absolved by repeating the following mantra: “Thrice around the circle bound, Evil sink into the ground.” Alternatively, some actors believe that the best option is to turn to another of Shakespeare’s plays and quote any line from Hamlet.

Any one of these actions is believed to rectify the damage caused by uttering the name of the Scottish Play.

However, some performers find that with or without saying ‘Macbeth’, unexplainable incidents of bad luck occur during productions of the play.

To find out more about Macbeth, take a look at What's it All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth

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