Macbeth The Cursed Play Essay, Research Paper
“The Comedy of Glamis”, “The Scottish Business” or simply “That Play” are
just a few of the euphemisms actors use to avoid mentioning the title of
William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, one of the most ill-starred plays in
Indeed, many professionals believe that “The Unmentionable” [another of its
nicknames]-with its bloodshed, ghosts, and witchcraft–is one of the
darkest dramas ever written.
If an actor does happen to mention the name, or quotes from the play while
he is backstage, tradition requires him to leave the dressing room, turn
around three times, spit, and then knock for reentry. Theatrical history is
littered with the many misfortunes of those who have chosen to ignore these
rites of exorcism.
Macbeth seemed doomed from the beginning. It was first performed before
James I, a descendant of both the historical Duncan and Banquo, who are
killed in the play. The curse apparently struck during that original
performance on August 7, 1606, when Hal Berridge, the boy actor cast as
Lady Macbeth, collapsed from a fever and later died. Shakespeare himself
had to step in and play the role on short notice.
The play was rarely performed again for nearly a century. The day of its
London revival in 1703 was noteworthy for one of the most severe storms in
English history. Because of its blasphemous content, the play was blamed
for the storm’s calamities, and Queen Anne ordered a week of prayer during
which all theaters were closed.
A catalogue of disasters
Over the next two centuries the disasters continued, the curse taking its
greatest toll after the Astor Place riots in New York City in 1849. During
a performance of Macbeth by British actor William Charles Macreadyk,
supporters of his American rival, Edwin Forrest, clashed with police.
Twenty-two people were killed and some 36 more injured.
Probably the most famous person to suffer the Macbeth curse was not an
actor but a U.S. President. Macbeth was Abraham Lincoln’s favorite play,
and he spent the afternoon of April 9, 1865, reading passages aloud to a
party of friends on board the River Queen on the Potomac River. The
passages Lincoln chose happened to follow the scene in which Duncan is
assassinated. Five days later Lincoln was shot.
In the 20th century numerous other calamities associated with the fatal
play have been recorded. In the early 1920’s Lionel Barrymore’s portrayal
of Macbeth received such harsh reviews that Barrymore never performed on
During the first modern-dress production at the Royal Court Theatre in
London in 1928, a large set fell down, causing serious injury to members of
the company, and a fire broke out in the dress circle.
In 1937 the career of 30-year-old Laurence Olivier almost came to an abrupt
end when a heavy weight crashed down from the flies while he was rehearsing
at the Old Vic. The weight missed him by inches. Later rehearsals were
interrupted when the director and the actress playing Lady Macduff were
involved in a car accident on the way to the theater. Worse, the theater’s
proprietor died of a heart attack during the dress rehearsal.
Out in the open
In a 1953 open-air production in Bermuda, starring Charlton Heston, the
soldiers storming Macbeth’s castle were to burn it to the ground onstage.
On opening night the wind blew smoke and flames into the audience, which
fled in terror.
And in 1980 Peter O’Toole, playing Macbeth for the first time at the Old
Vic, was careful never to refer to the play by name. His precautions were
in vain. Beset by numerous problems and accidents during rehearsals, when
the play opened the critics called his work an artistic disaster.