The bloody Macbeth’s curse

22 Apr

“Call me superstitious or cowardly or weak,
but I’ll never play a character whose name one dare not speak.
I’ll play Hamlet in doublet and hose or either of the Dromios but, sorry,
I won’t play Mackers.
I’ll play Richard the Third with a hump and wig,
or Henry the Eighth (that selfish pig) but, sorry,
I don’t do Mackers.
Every soul who plays this role risks injury or death,
I’d rather sweep the bloody stage than ever do Mac-you-know-who.
So gimme King Lear, Cleopatra, Romeo, Juliet, doesn’t mattra
– I’ll play them all for free. But I’d be crackers to take on Mackers.
You see, I’m skittish about the Scottish tragedy.”

Have you ever heard about the curse of Macbeth? If you’ve ever seen “Slings and arrows”, you surely have. We can laugh at the silly superstitions, but who would ignore such a curse as that of Macbeth?

Throughout the years, actors (who believed “Macbeth” to be a cursed play) have been too scared to use the taboo word: MACBETH. They weren’t allowed to mention the play’s title inside the theatre, so instead they called it ‘the Scottish play’, the lead characters became ‘Mackers’, lady Macbeth was called ‘lady M.’. The whole thing may seem ridiculous to some people, but, even now, actors prefer not to use the damned name.

The superstition is not new, it’s not just a crazy idea of some star, it has quite a long (and sometimes terrifying) history. How did it all start? It started with Shakespeare himself, of course. He is said to have used the spells of real witches in his text, reproducing a 17th century black-magic rituals. Using, as he always did, just the right words, he provided his audience with ‘instructions’ in art of spell casting:
“Round around the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venum sleeping got.
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot”

Those who were actual practitioners of the ritual were not at all amused by Will’s detailed description of their witchcraft, and, as a punishment, they cursed the play.

What was the result of this? Too much fear, that for sure. And maybe it was that fear, or just mere coincidence, that caused all the accidents. Here are some examples:

1607 – William Shakespeare was made to play lady Macbeth because Hal Berridge, the boy who was supposed to play the role, became feverish and died; the play displeased King James I to such an extent that he banned it for 5 years

1672 – Amsterdam: the actor playing Macbeth substituted a real dagger for the stage one, and used it to kill Duncan

1721 – army had to be called in when some hecklers were annoying the actors on the stage; in response the actors attacked the hecklers with their swords

1775 – Sarah Siddons, an actress playing lady Macbeth, was nearly ravaged by disapproving audience

1849 – New York’s Astor Place: during the performance riots broke out; at least 25 people were trampled to death

1926 – Sybil Thorndike, playing lady Macbeth, was almost strangled by a burly actor

1934 – Malcolm Keen turned mute onstage; his replacement had a high fever and had to be hospitalised

1937 – one of most tragic events; when Laurence Olivier took the role of Macbeth, a 25-pound stage weight crashed just near him, his sword broke on stage, flew into the audience and hit a man who later suffered a heart attack; that’s not all: the director and the actress playing lady Macduff were involved in a car accident when they were on their way to the theatre and, during the dress rehearsal, the proprietor of the theatre died of a heart attack

1942 – the production headed by john Gielgud: three actors (Duncan and 2 witches) died, and the costume and set designer committed suicide

1948 – Diana Wynyard, who played the role of lady Macbeth, sleepwalked down the rostrum and fell down 15 feet

1953 – an outdoor production in Bermuda:Charlton Heston suffered severe burns after a sudden gust of wind blew flames onto him; as it later turned out, someone had accidentally soaked his tights in kerosene

1970 – 1981- Rip Torn just couldn’t escape the bad luck: in 1970 a strike hit his production in New York City, in 1971 two fires and seven robberies plagued the version starring David Leary; and in 1981, in the production at Lincoln Center, J. Kenneth Campbell, who played Macduff, was mugged after the play’s opening

I think there are just too many examples of bad luck brought to us by the curse of Macbeth. The scary stories about the consequences of ignoring the curse are told in many theatres, so there are really few who dare mention the Scottish King’s name. But what if someone just mentions the name by accident? Does that mean the wicked spirits will throw stones at them? Or is there still hope? Actually, there are quite a few methods to dispel the curse. One of those, attributed to Michael York, is to leave the theatre, walk around it three times, spit over the left shoulder, swear, and wait for permission to return to the theatre. Another practice is to spin around three times as fast as possible on the spot, sometimes accompanied by spitting over the shoulder and swearing. A different ritual is to leave the room, knock three times, wait to be invited in, and then quote a line from “Hamlet” or, sometimes, recite lines from “The Merchant of Venice” which is thought to be a lucky play.

Even if you’re not an actor and you hardly ever go to the theatre – be careful! If you don’t want the bad spirits to be after you, just don’t EVER mention the name of Macbeth in the theatre. It’s better not to play with fate. Or witchcraft.


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