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The Curse of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play Macbeth

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 again!

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…

Maybe you can keep this in mind while you listen to the Witches Song from “that Scottish Play”, Double Double Toile and Trouble, Fire Burn and Cauldron Bubble. And rembember… Quoting from “The Unmentionable” is absolutely not done, but music from it is similarly avoided at all costs by actors, who fear it will have devastating consequences!

More Historical Mysteries here!

More SuperNatural ParaNormalities here!

More Ghost Stories here!

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38 Responses to “The Curse of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play Macbeth”
  • lindalulu
    November 14th, 2008 at 1:21 pm

    Wonderful absolutely wonderful….

  • Lauren Axelrod
    November 14th, 2008 at 8:54 pm

    I love stories like this. What a wonderful historical piece.

  • george
    June 15th, 2009 at 9:25 am

    this is kinda weird that all these people died but it makes you want to say the words of the song

  • brenden
    June 15th, 2009 at 9:28 am

    this is kick ass i said the words and nothin happened. isaid macbeth and the words of the song and nothing happened and its been like two years since i last said it so its cool

  • kwmcd
    August 23rd, 2009 at 10:54 am

    My daughter–who is only 12–was in a performance of Annie Jr. and began talking about the next play her school was going to perform. Knowing the director was considering Shakespeare, my daughter said, “I hope they do Macbeth next–I’d love to be Lady Macbeth!” This was said backstage about a half hour before the curtain went up for Annie Jr.
    Well that night my daughter tripped and fell on stage in her high heels and missed her curtain call! She was fine–thank goodness, and nothing more than a bruised ego ensued! But I can guarantee you she will never say the M word in a theater again!

  • Patrick Bernauw
    August 23rd, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    This really is a great M story, kwmcd! Thanks for sharing it!

  • ijjijij
    February 26th, 2011 at 11:36 pm

    Is there a book about the curse of macbeth online or in libraries??

  • Patrick Bernauw
    February 27th, 2011 at 6:59 am

    @ ijjijij: Don’t know about a book, but there is a chapter concerning the Curse of Macbeth in “The Book of Curses” by Stuart Gordon.

  • Swak
    April 29th, 2012 at 11:13 am

    Awesome history and I wish I could read some more about it

  • victoria
    June 23rd, 2012 at 1:05 pm

    wow, ive read it but i couldnt belive that!!!!

  • Jesse Houle Le Bretton
    November 28th, 2012 at 1:42 pm

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    in the pants :D

  • Jesse Houle LeBreton
    November 28th, 2012 at 1:46 pm

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    November 28th, 2012 at 1:49 pm

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    in my mouth and in my ass :D

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    November 29th, 2012 at 10:36 am

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    November 29th, 2012 at 10:38 am

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    November 29th, 2012 at 10:41 am

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    November 29th, 2012 at 11:38 am

    Hi there! My name is Jesse Houle LeBreton. I’m looking for a man who is just like me! My characteristics: I’m fat as all hell, I smell like shit that has been eaten and re-excreted 10 time mixed with all the sewage in the world, my hair is comprised of grease, dandruff, and fat, I have a miniscule chode that is hiding in the abyss of my millions of rolls, and I think that I’m the smartest thing in the universe. If you have any of these amazing qualities, call me at 1-807-228-faty

  • shayne O'Haleoran
    November 29th, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    Hi Jesse
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    - sex is necessary on a day by day basis
    - i have to suck your dick every day
    - you have to give me a blowjob every day as i like blowjobs from men :D
    - he have to nutbrown each other on a day by day basis

    Sincerly,
    Shayne

  • John Lutwick
    November 29th, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    You guys are seriously so immature, you can tell its not them just by the way you talk. You guys should just stop this nonsense and show some respect to these people. I can already tell that you people are like 10 years old. Posting stuff liek this and think its funny? Grow up.

  • brandon melville
    November 29th, 2012 at 3:11 pm

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  • Your Mom, yeah that's right bitch
    November 29th, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    Yeah john shut the fuck up. You think their 10? Learn how to spell ‘like’ before you call someone 10 dumbass.

  • Your Mom, yeah that\'s right bitch
    November 29th, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    Yeah john shut the fuck up. You think their 10? Learn how to spell ‘like’ before you call someone 10 dumbass.

  • Jimmy Edwards
    November 29th, 2012 at 7:35 pm

    LOLZ

  • Shayne O'Halloran
    November 29th, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    Johny boy! You seem like a perfect match for me as well! ;) Call me at: 1-807-229-dick. Me, you, N Jesse can get together for some great fun! :D Me>8~~ O::D

  • Shayne O'Halloran
    November 29th, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    Me> 8~~ O: :D

  • Shayne O'Halloran
    November 29th, 2012 at 7:54 pm

    O: is you John ;)

  • Jake Albert
    November 29th, 2012 at 7:56 pm

    LOL :D

  • brandon melville
    December 3rd, 2012 at 10:49 am

    I;m gay homo suck my dick everyone yummy

  • Brandon Melville
    December 3rd, 2012 at 10:54 am

    Please give me dick in my mouth. I want all u fattys i love men with some extra weight on them put my face in there rolls it is soo hot pleasecome on jesse and shayne call me i want too meet you u sound like alot of fun we can have sex all day long

  • Justin Skinner
    December 3rd, 2012 at 10:55 am

    Me want foursome with Jesse, Shane, and John! :D Me love PENIS :D

  • Justin Skinner
    December 3rd, 2012 at 10:58 am

    I like guys with 1 mm Pener Weiners :D That means You Jesse and Shane! :D Me> 8~ O: -Shane :D – Jesse

  • Bishoy Sefin
    December 3rd, 2012 at 11:02 am

    hi i am a new guy i like guys now i want to hookup with someone can we try B=====D~~~() i want to try that with shayne and jessi and john we can have a 4some i want to have one all night long

  • Bishoy Sefin
    December 3rd, 2012 at 11:05 am

    I jizzed my pants thinking of Shayne and Jesse’s comments :D

  • asshole
    December 3rd, 2012 at 11:05 am

    hi

  • Justin Skinner
    December 13th, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    Hi Jesse
    I am interested in having a gay relationship with you. you meet the standards for my boyfriend. I will agree to have a gay relationship with you as long as you accept my relationship terms and conditions. i will include the terms and conditions underneath. Please read

    - sex is necessary on a day by day basis
    - i have to suck your dick every day
    - you have to give me a blowjob every day as i like blowjobs from men
    - he have to nutbrown each other on a day by day basis

    Sincerly,
    Justin gay ass skinner
    Penis is cute :D

  • Justin Skinner
    December 13th, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    I lick the dry blood of my mommy’s vage and eat the hair on it and I do that every night because i enjoy however i have never tried that with guys and i am interested so please call at 807-229-vage if you are interested

  • gracie
    February 3rd, 2013 at 5:35 pm

    I love the parts of the 3 witches

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