The curse, legend, and superstitions of Shakespeare's Macbeth
Macbeth tickets

When Broadway's Macbeth opened on Sunday, guests were asked to do something a little out of the ordinary: refrain from speaking the play’s name while inside the venue.

Signs were posted on all of Ethel Barrymore Theatre's doors, requesting that audience members adhere to the rule. Written in capital letters, each sign read, "Warning! You are about to enter the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. The producers ask that you please refrain from speaking the name of the play you are about to see while inside these walls."

If it sounds weird, that's only because it is, but with good reason. The play is cursed. Or at least it’s believed to be, despite the fact that this version of Macbeth is a one-man show, performed by Alan Cumming, with modern twists that move it away from its traditional Shakespearean roots.

According to the legend, mentioning the title of a Shakespeare while in a theater evokes some type of disaster — but it’s worst for Macbeth, so actors often call it "The Scottish Play" or "The Bard's Play" instead. If an actor accidentally mentions the name of the play (in the theater, prior to a performance), then he or she must leave the building, spin around three times, spit, curse, and then knock in order to be let back in. (There are a few variations, but the gist is always the same.) Other precautions include actors refraining from quoting any of the lines from Macbeth prior to a performance (must make rehearsal a bit challenging?), especially the Witches’ incantations. This is serious stuff, guys!

There’s no one incident that’s caused the theater world to believe Macbeth is a cursed play, but rather a culmination of different legends and superstitions. Some believe:

  • The song by the Three Witches (you know, the one that brought the lines "Double, double toil and trouble/Fire burn and cauldron bubble" to pop culture) is literally a spell that can conjure evil spirits.
  • In 1606, the first time the play was ever performed, the actor playing Lady Macbeth died from fever. Shakespeare had to replace him. Now the play is cursed.
  • The original production of the play used actual witches and witchcraft, so the play is forever cursed.
  • When the original prop master couldn't find a cauldron, he stole one from a coven, who then cursed the play in revenge.
  • Because there is more sword fighting in this play than in other traditional Shakespeare plays, there’s a bigger chance someone will get hurt. (Get out of here with that logic!)
  • Shakespeare cursed the play because he didn't want anyone else to ever be able to direct it. (Really, Shakespeare? How dare you.)
  • It’s a total hoax and theaters use the alleged curse as a way to increase sales.

Obviously there are lots of opinions out there. However, there is some evidence of things gone wrong when Macbeth has been performed. In 1849, two theater companies put on Macbeth, causing a feud that led to a riot where more than 20 people were killed. In 1937, Laurence Olivier (while playing Macbeth) was nearly killed during the play when a 25-pound stage weight fell in the same spot he’d been sitting in a few minutes earlier. Three cast members died during a 1942 production. At a performance in Bermuda, 1953, the star, Charlton Heston, was accidentally burned on his legs and in the groin area when his tights caught on fire. (OMG.) Apparently the tights had somehow been dipped in kerosene, so they lit up during the castle-burning scene.

This whole thing doesn't take into account that Macbeth is one of the most popular plays of all time, and for the majority of its productions, went off without a hitch. So you could probably violate the "rule" at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and be totally fine. But don't come crying to me when your tights catch on fire.

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