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The curse of Macbeth

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Image credit: T. Chassériau
Patrick Bernauw: Don't mention the name of "that play"! The Unmentionable is considered to bring bad luck to its cast... Apparently, the story that Macbeth was cursed sprang up on its opening night in 1606. The actor who was playing Lady Macbeth became mysteriously ill and Shakespeare himself had to step into his shoes. Macbeth was commissioned by king James I, who attended the opening night. It was a right royal disaster. Fifty years had to pass before Macbeth was performed.

Macbeth tells of the dangers of the lust for power and the betrayal of friends. Amidst thunder and lightning, three witches greet the Scottish general Macbeth and his friend Banquo with prophecies. They proclaim that he shall be "King hereafter" and that Banquo shall father a new line of kings. Immediately, Macbeth begins to harbour ambitions of becoming the king of Scotland. He writes to his wife about the prophecy and when King Duncan decides to stay at Macbeths' castle at Inverness, Lady Macbeth makes a plan to murder him. Macbeth kills his king, but it leaves him totally shaken. Lady Macbeth has to take charge now. In order to secure their throne, they will have to kill and murder again and again and again...

Since 1606, there have been a string of deaths and misfortunes associated with "Macbeth". In 1667, the dark and gruesome tragedy was rewritten as a frivolous light-hearted musical, complete with dancing and a flying ballet. This version, with three singing witches, was revived in 1703 during a puritan backlash against the theatre. During its run the worst storm in England's history occured: a half thousand seamen died, Bristol was destroyed and London severely damaged. The hurricane expressed God's wrath, the puritans said.

The original text was restored by Kemble at Drury Lane in 1794. At one performance, an actor playing the role of Macbeth sustained a near-fatal stab wound. Passionate fights were enacted with real weapons, and it is known that an actor playing the role of Macduff came away without thumbs, hacked off by the fiery Macbeth. In 1849, there was a riot in which more than 30 people died at the Astor Place Opera House, where "The Unmentionable" was playing.

In the 1937 production at the Old Vic in London, the director got nearly killed in a car crash. Vera Lindsay, playing Lady Macbeth, was also badly bruised. The star of the production, the famous actor Laurence Olivier, lost his voice and almost died when a weight from the stage lights came tumbling down. After this incident, the the founder of the theatre, Lilian Bayliss, had a heart attack and died on the opening night. Later a member of the audience was hit by a fragment of Olivier's sword, and died also of a heart attack.

A wartime production with John Gielgud as Macbeth may hold the record. The Third Witch fell ill and died of a heart attack during the final rehearsal and the actor playing King Duncan died of angina. A witch was dancing round the cauldron, but could not maintain the tempo of the music. She collapsed and died on stage. And the set designer committed suicide.

In 1947, the promising young actor Harold Norman played Macbeth. In the final scene, Norman feel - but instead of dying on stage as rehearsed, he crawled into the wings. 'I've been stabbed,' he whispered to the stage director. He was taken to a hospital and died a month later. Later it emerged that, in the dressing-room he shared with another actor, Norman had begun quoting from "The Unmentionable", refusing to stop even when warned.

Charlton Heston has played Macbeth several times. In 1953 he took the role in an open-air production at Fort St Catherine, Bermuda. During rehearsals he had a motorbike crash, during the first performance he had to ride a horse bareback in the first scene. Heston suddenly rushed off stage, pointing at his thights, writhing in pain and yelling: "Get them off me!" - Whoever had laundered the thights had dipped them in kerosene and the sweat of the horses and the heat caused serious burns on Heston's legs and groin. Later, Macbeth's castle came down burning as planned, but the wind blew flames and smoke into the audience, causing a stampede. Fortunately, nobody died in or during this production.

In 1954, the Old Vic went on the road again with "that Scottish play". The company manager broke both legs in a car accident, an electrician sustained severe burns, there was an attempted suicide and two of the actresses had abortions. A year later, Olivier played Macbeth again, with Vivien Leigh as his Lady. A film version was prepared, but the producers got cold feet, deciding that stars like Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh could not guarantee a good box-office... after Vivien Leigh had been in Gone With the Wind and Olivier's film versions of Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III all had been hits.

In 1961, during the Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Connecticut, an actor on a bike was knocked over by a car. Het was joined in hospital by one of the witches, who fell from a stage lift. In the last month of the season, Franklin Clover was playing Macbeth in the White House before JFK. He got injured and developed a cyst under his arm, was operated but continued playing. A young colleague was found dying of stab wounds, the murderer was never found. The company manager got himself murdered too, in his Boston apartment.

In 1970, an actor of the Liverpool Repertory Theatre playing Macbeth was hit in the eye by a sword, his Lady caught flu, wich spread, so five understudies were needed... Etcetera, etcetera...

"If you take any play as popular as Macbeth, you'll find a catalogue of disasters attached to its history," Michael Bogdanov of the English Shakespeare Company stated. He had been on the road six months with a production of Macbeth without any calamities. Sceptics have pointed out that a play involving so many battles, duels and murders, taking place mostly at night (meaning dim lighting), is bound to cause accidents. Playing "that Play" is emotionally and physically exhausting, and you have to get up and down steps and rostrums, and even with blunted swords, cuts and bruises are only to be expected...

The believers, on the other hand, have proved that Shakespeare went too far in his desire for authenticity, by using genuine black magic recipes. The foul ingredients of the witches' brew in Act I, Scene 3 - scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,... - were not solely the product of Shakespeare's imagination. In his book Supernatural on Stage, actor-director Richard Huggett claims that there is overwhelming evidence that the three witches in Macbeth do use genuine black magic incantations, whereby Shakespeare invoked a fatal and irrevocable curse on the play.

King James himself had previously published a book on witches and how to detect them. In an effort to please the King, for the opening scene of Act IV, Shakespeare reproduced a sacred black-magic ritual. A group of witches danced around a black cauldron, throwing ingredients into it and shouting out strange phrases. Some say that it is also possible the practitioners of this sort of rituals were not very amused by Shakespeare's public exposure of their witchcraft, and so they decided to cast their own spell on the play...

More Pictures, Macbeth Performances on YouTube and the Witches Song ‘Double Double Toile & Trouble’ in the original article:

The Curse of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play Macbeth

Copyright by Patrick Bernauw & The Lost Dutchman’s Historical Mysteries

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Posted (edited)

As an Actor I find this very interesting. There have alway been stories of "Cursed" Plays. Along with "The Scottish Play" ,Jesus Christ Superstar and Ubu Rex are rumered to have unfortunate events connected to thier productions.

I have acted in two different productions of the "Scottish Play" and will attest to some very strange goings-on. I have alway played Hecate and that character seems to be immune from any bad luck but not so for others involved.

I will share the true story of what happened to my teenage son who played the role of Fleance. About ten years ago we were in a production at a very well know historic theater in New York.My son just had braces put on his teeth and had some cancer sores from it but was in good spirits about the show.

It was one of the last shows and the cast will play tricks on each other just to have some fun. This cast had quite a few teenagers including my 14 year old son. During rehersal the teenage boys started playing with the stage blood (Red Dye and Corn Syrup) ,the classic horseing around kids do. Jumping with fake swords and fake blood,you get the picture.

Everyone had fun ,just being silly. Well it was coming up to showtime so people started waiting in the wings for thier cue.

Just before my son when on stage ,there was a fight scene with an unexperenced unknown male actor in his forties. My sons stage prop ( a lantern)was on stage during the fight. The stage fight ended and the actors left the stage but the one man ran the new actor into the men room. My sons scene was up and he ran onto the stage and grabbed his prop and at the time he thought his buddies were playing a practical joke on him by covering his prop in stage blood. My son played his part and while on stage whiped his mouth with what he thought was corn syrup.

He stumble offstage tward me and was compleatly white,he said, "it was real ,Mom,real blood in my mouth...right in my cancer sore...MOM what do I do?"

I quickly got him some mouth wash and called his Doctor. The Doctor said to find out who was bleeding and to see if they would take a blood test for HIV & Hep. We learned that the blood was this unexperenced actor who cut himself before he got to the theater and did not inform the stage manage of his injury.His wound open on stage and he bleed all over the

satge and my sons prop. When we told him what happened he became irrate and refused to get tested. It was the most horrible experence, this man keep us hostage to this big unknown question "Is he Positve ? "

For one year my son has to undergo many blood tests and we lived in fear of what could happen to his health.This is not to mention all the related medical expense related to this.

Thank God after months of waiting all the tests were negative.

Yet , I will never forget the Curse of the Scottish Play and how it came all too close to home.

Edited by Cosette

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It's like the parts of James Dean's car... apparently where ever they go, people get hurt or die.

I've never heard of Jesus Christ Superstar being cursed, though.

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It's like the parts of James Dean's car... apparently where ever they go, people get hurt or die.

I've never heard of Jesus Christ Superstar being cursed, though.

I dont know if it is an urban myth that JC Superstar is cursed but thats the scoop from many of my friends in the theater.

As far as MacBeth goes there is so much speculation about why it has the reputation it dose. My personal favorite spin is that King James ,who assended to the Throne of England after the death of Queen Elizabeth wanted to establish his ruling power by casting doubt on the memory of the beloved Queen. (There could not have been much love between the two rulers since Queen Liz had King James Mother; Mary Queen of Scots ,Beheaded .

Rumores soon cropped up after her death ,that Queen Liz had six fingers ,a sure sign that she was a witch !

King James (while King of Scotland)made Witch Hunts his royal pass time and wrote his book James VI's Demonology ,A discourse on witchcraft and devils and what to do about them.

It is thought that when Shakepeare began writting "THAT PLAY" King James allowed him to read real books of Witch Spells and that the entire Witch chants are real incantions resulting in very bad MoJo for all involved !

"By the pricking of my thumbs...something wicked this way comes"

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There are plenty of stories and reports about the play being cursed and people being injured over the years. But we get the same thing these days when blockbuster supernatural horror films are made, I'm sure that there was a lot of problems when the Exorcist was being made in the early 70's and thre was supposed to be cursed. Also non-horror such as Superman (the original blockbuster with Christopher Reeve) there were no end of accidents and problems.

I would have put down to hype with 'That Play!' as I'm sure that they had publicity people back then.

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Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in bad times - in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, and Shakespeare wrote the play in honour of King James I who was king at the time and the target of the Gunpowder Plot. The character of Macbeth is a parallel to the Gunpowder Plotters - such as Guy Fawkes - who ultimately gets the fate of traitors, beheading with the head on public display. The witches being equivocators are like the Jesuits, particularly Henry Garnet accused and convicted - in a kangaroo court - of complicity. As Cosette notes, King James I wrote a great deal about witchcraft, and there was a real fear of witches in Shakespeare's time, so the witches are not quite as subconscious as 20th Century and 21st Century interpretations of Macbeth the play conclude.

Shakespeare brings out King James I's wily qualities by emphasizing King Duncan's naivety. King Duncan is the opposite of King James I, even though both King James I was a Scottish king - King James VI of Scotland before becoming King James I of England. While Duncan was 'good' and kindhearted, he was too trusting and could not read people as well as an effective king needs to be able to do - unlike the real King James I who was said to be able to read a person quickly and be able to tell whether or not they were lying.

King James I watched the trial of the Gunpowder Plotters in the wings, invisible to the court, and formed opinions of witnesses and the accused which he later shared with legal counsel such as Edward Coke who tried Henry Garnet for treason for Garnet's putative involvement in the Gunpowder Plot.

The key point is that the witches equivocated with Macbeth. They told him something that appeared to be true on the surface - in fact, technically it was true - that Macbeth would be king until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane and could not be killed by one of woman born. Superficially these were both true and indeed seemed like impossibilities giving Macbeth great confidence in himself and his future as king. However, there was a second meaning to both 'prophecies' which Macbeth in his enthusiasm failed to grasp. The witches equivocated with Macbeth to his doom. Shakespeare in effect has placed Henry Garnet the Gunpowder Plot accused who wrote 'Treatise on Equivocation' on the same level as the witches, thus affirming the belief of Shakespeare's time - and of King James I himself - that Jesuits are involved in witchcraft.

I have written more about this at  and 

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