Bloody swords, broken corpses, near-mishaps…These are things that MacBeth is made of. Or perhaps, just the things that MacBeth has made up. If you find yourself backstage during a performance of any play and strike up a conversation about the “Scottish Play”, you will find yourself shoved out, turned around, and forced to quote Shakespeare, spit, or swear.(5) It’s a fun experiment if you want the whole cast to hate you forever. Not only is MacBeth one of the most dangerous, exciting, and expensive plays to perform, it has a terrible reputation for causing mayhem, bloodshed and even death.
The curse begins, as some say, during the time of King James the First. As the new king in England after Elizabeth, he had a much different outlook on religion. For example, although he didn’t like Catholics, he wasn’t as into burning them at the stake. This made for a very different theatrical atmosphere. One in a long line of blood-stained successors from Scotland, his fear of violent death might have been very close to paranoia. Surprisingly, he was very frightened of his new subjects wanting to kill him and overthrow his rule.
“Can’t we all just get along?”
He also had a sore spot for witchcraft, and he penned a book razing the black arts called Daemonologie shortly after he became king(1). While some saw this as a veiled attempt to hide his true interest in the subject, many viewed him as a pious king. This concept was supported by his translation of the Bible into common English. He further punctuated this view by updating the old Elizabethan witchcraft law to reflect a more serious perception of the act. This update said that any witchcraft, conjuring, dealing with spirits, love potions, sorcery, etc., was punishable only by death.(1)
He wasn’t kidding around. This law basically killed a lot of lonely old grandmas who didn’t like to comb their hair everyday. And a few witches, presumably.
Shakespeare, the old kidder that he was, wanted to create a play that would really impress old Jamesy. So, he wrote MacBeth. It was to be a fictional interpretation of the historical awesomeness of James’ people, and the evilness of his enemies. A lot of people liked it. Who can really resist watching witches flying through the air and crazy ladies in sheer nightgowns?
Nope. No one is looking at her bloodstained hands, even if she IS trying to kill you.
So, basically, it was a huge success except for one tiny problem: King James HATED IT. Oh, and also it was cursed.
Legend persists that during the very first performance of MacBeth, the body count had already begun to build. The date was August 7th, 1606, a mere 2 years after the harsher witchcraft penalties had been put into place. Hal Berridge, who had been cast in the role of Lady MacBeth, collapsed from fever and died. (Remember, dudes played ladies back then)
It is said that Shakespeare himself had to stand in for the role, the 44 year old playwright taking the part written for a 19 year old(3). This did not bode well for the play, and it is said that King James could hardly remain in his seat during the scene when King Duncan was killed. There were also suspicions that the spells used in the play were actually used by witches. It came to many as no surprise that he ended the run of MacBeth early.
It was probably lucky that he did.
While it is said that the play wasn’t performed on stage again for almost 100 years, it had a resurgence of popularity which continued to reinforce the legendary curse. When it was introduced in London in 1703, one of the worst storms in English history coincided. Londoners vehemently blamed the play and Queen Anne ordered a week of prayer for penitence, and to lift the evil of MacBeth. For extra measure, she closed all theaters in the city until the week was up (3).
“Oh great, Armageddon. It’s probably the actors’ faults.”
There is one important question: Is it possible the play is actually cursed, or are there more realistic reasons for the MacBeth phenomena?
No doubt, MacBethhas always been one of the most difficult and expensive plays to put on. With elaborate writing comes elaborate special effects, and MacBeth’s tragedies are often traced to poor wiring, cheap weapons, and extreme set pieces. When the Royal Court produced the play in 1928, a huge set piece fell and injured several members of the cast(3). In September of 2008, theater-goers were shocked when they arrived at a performance of MacBeth to find that all the actors had disappeared. After investigating the apparent disappearance of the cast, it was traced to a sudden financial argument over a $23,000 debt that the director had not told them about previously(4).
Others still maintain that the cause is supernatural. In 1947, the Oldham Reparatory Theater put on a performance of the play in which the lead actor playing MacBeth (Harold Norman), was stabbed with a retractable sword that failed to retract. While that incident could have been the result of poor funding and improper prop management, it was an eerie coincidence that his daughter suffocated a month later. His widow later went mad from grief(2).
Whatever you believe, it seems interesting that the only reasonable explanation is the one that surrounds the actual play itself. MacBeth is told that he will be King, and so knowing, kills the current king to fulfill his prophecy. Perhaps the “curse” is really just another self-fulfilling prophecy. Seasoned actors and stagehands who have heard the legend all their lives simply believe the idea that they are cursed. Once they believe that, they end up like MacBeth during his final scene. “Accursed be the tongue that tells me so, for it hath cowed my better part of man,” he says weakly, as he rushes to fulfill his final prophetic end. Like MacBeth, actors trip, fumble lines, and lose their confidence, fulfilling the prophecy that theater culture has created for them.
Either way, curse or fairy tale, putting on a production of MacBeth can be scary business. You may find yourself succumbing to the Shakespearean gods and chanting, “Angels and ministers of God defend us!”(5)
1. Akrigg, G.V.P. (ed) “Letters of King James VI & I” (Univ. Calif. Press, 1984)
2. Hasseck, Martin. “Why, Among Actors, Is It Unlucky to Say ‘MacBeth?’” The UK Times. November 15, 2004. p 17.
3. Heydt, Bruce. “Coincidence or Curse?” British Heritage. Jun/July 2000. Vol. 21, Issue 4. p. 55, 3p, 1c. 4.
4. Milvan, Jack. “Toil and Trouble As Actors Leave the Theater in Search of a Play.” The UK Times. September 2, 2006. p 13.
5. Yap, Caroline. “Don’t Say the ‘M’ Word.” The New Straits Times. March 12, 2003. p. 4A.
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