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In theatrical superstition, Shakespeare's play Macbeth is considered to be unlucky, to the extent that even saying its name more than necessary may bring bad luck: hence the tradition of actors referring to it as "the Scottish play". According to Wikipedia:

One hypothesis for the origin of this superstition is that Macbeth, being a popular play, was commonly put on by theatres in financial trouble, or that the high production costs of Macbeth put theatres in financial trouble, and hence an association was made between a production of Macbeth and theatres going out of business.

How far back does this idea go? I'd guess it doesn't go anywhere near as far back as Shakespeare's lifetime, but what is the first recorded instance of the idea of this particular play or its name being considered unlucky?

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tl;dr

The superstition that Macbeth is unlucky and must not be named is often supposed to date from the very first performance, or very shortly thereafter. However, a documented belief in this alleged curse can be traced back only as far as the early 1970s.

Background: What is the alleged curse on Macbeth?

The Royal Shakespeare Company provides some background on the attributed origins of the superstition:

According to folklore, Macbeth was cursed from the beginning. A coven of witches objected to Shakespeare using real incantations, so they put a curse on the play.

Legend has it the play’s first performance (around 1606) was riddled with disaster. The actor playing Lady Macbeth died suddenly, so Shakespeare himself had to take on the part. Other rumoured mishaps include real daggers being used in place of stage props for the murder of King Duncan (resulting in the actor’s death).    ("Curse of the Scottish")

Sometimes this fable is embellished with the claim that Macbeth was first performed before King James, who was so displeased by its presenting witchcraft on stage that he banned the play for five years. For example, a 1998 Washington Post story by David Berre says:

At the first performance in 1606, before King James I, the boy actor who was to play Lady Macbeth came down with a fever, and the author himself had to take the part at the last minute.

And Shakespeare's attempt to please the king, who was both a Scot and a published expert on witchcraft, sorely misfired. The play was immediately banned for five years.

There is no historical or scholarly evidence whatsoever for any of these claims:

  • that the play uses real spells
  • that the actor cast as Lady Macbeth fell ill or died during the first performance
  • that Shakespeare ever played Lady Macbeth
  • that the play was first staged before James I
  • that the play displeased the monarch, or
  • that he banned the play.

Nor is there any evidence that in the play's long performance history from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, actors thought of the play as unlucky or cursed in any way.

Curse? What curse? 1606–1898

From Shakespeare's time until the turn of the 20th century, performers and audiences do not appear to have regarded Macbeth as a cursed play. Any mention of this alleged curse is conspicuously absent even where one would expect it to take center stage: in accounts of disasters that accompanied performances of the play. Recent retellings of such events, however, put the curse trappings on full display, misleading readers into believing that the disasters were attributed to the curse when they occurred.

For example, in 1849, supporters of two rival actors playing Macbeth, the American Edwin Forrest and the English William Charles Macready, famously clashed to the point of causing riots in New York City. Yet a contemporary pamphlet describing the event has not even a whisper suggesting that the play itself is considered unlucky ("Account"). Nigel Cliff's 2007 book on the Astor Place Riots, however, milks the legendary curse for all its worth:

Given the curse that had long ago attached itself to Shakespeare's story of ambition prompted by darkness to ruin, it was an intrepid choice at the least. Macbeth was known as the Scottish play, because even to speak its name was enough to invoke the black magic of the weird sisters and and compel all sorts of long-winded recantations. Leaving the theatre, swearing, and spinning around three times was the favored purgative; variations included spitting over your shoulder, petitioning Shakespeare while quoting Hamlet, or just cursing like crazy. As superstitions went, this one had an impressive track record. The first Lady Macbeth, the leading boy actor of Shakespeare's company in 1606, supposedly died on the opening night, leaving Shakespeare to don drag and finish the part. James I, whom the play was designed to flatter, hated it and banned it for several years. In Amsterdam, one Macbeth switched a stage dagger for a real one and killed not just King Duncan but the actor playing him Troops were called in one night in 1721 when the actors started attacking the audience with their swords. Just the year before, Covent Garden had opened its season with the black natured thing, and seven nights later the theatre went up in smoke.    (p. 36)

Cliff's breathless litany of disaster is farrago served up as fact. His assertion that actors and producers universally considered Macbeth unlucky even before 1849 is not tethered to reality by so much as a footnote. By contrast, Alexander Leggatt, in William Shakespeare's Macbeth: A Sourcebook soberly notes:

So far as we can tell earlier actors—David Garrick, W. C. Macready, Henry Irving—produced the play with no sense that they were courting any special danger.    (p. 2)

Leggatt's inclusion of Macready among the actors mentioned is noteworthy in this context, since he was one of the principals of the Astor Street Riots. So where did the notion that the play itself was unlucky come from?

Origins of the curse legend: 1898–1926

The story that the boy actor playing Lady Macbeth died unexpectedly just before (or partway through) the first performance is believed to have originated from the fertile imagination of novelist and theatre critic Max Beerbohm. In the Saturday Review for October 1, 1898, he wrote:

According to Aubrey the play was first acted in 1606, at Hampton Court, in the presence of King James. It is stated that Hal Berridge, the youth who was to have acted, the part of Lady Macbeth, "fell sudden sicke of a pleurisie, wherefor Master Shakespere himself did enacte in his stead."    (p. 434)

"Aubrey" is John Aubrey, the 17th C. biographer who wrote Brief Lives. However, the quotation Beerbohm supplies is found nowhere in Aubrey's work, and is the former's own invention. In 30 Great Myths about Shakespeare, Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith note:

Aubrey's anecdote about Hal Berridge's illness is the origin of the myth that Macbeth is unlucky in the theatre. The boy-actor's name has a nicely Shakespearean flavor, sharing its first part with Henry IV's wayward son. The actor, however, is entirely fictional. So too is the incident—no actor was taken ill, and Shakespeare was never forced to setp into the role. Aubrey made no such comment as the one quoted.    (p. 150–151).

Later in the review, Beerbohm makes up from whole cloth an equally synthetic quotation from Pepys. Beerbohm's deplorable inventiveness aside, it is worth noting that he makes no mention of any curse around Macbeth. On the contrary, he points out that "Of all Shakespeare's plays, 'Macbeth' is, perhaps, the most often enacted." The idea that a curse attaches itself to Macbeth does not, then, appear to have been in circulation even as late as 1898. There is no record of this notion prior to the 20th century.

Maguire and Smith go on to claim:

And so Beerbohm inaugurated a tradition in which it is unlucky to play in, or even be associated with, a production of Macbeth. Actors consider it bad luck even to refer to the play by name, preferring instead the descriptive euphemism "The Scottish Play".    (p. 151)

Legatt, editor of the Sourcebook, concurs with Maguire and Smith that the legend postdates Beerbohm:

Though there are unsupported legends of the curse at work even in the play's first production, including a story that at the first performance the boy actor playing Lady Macbeth fell ill and Shakespeare himself took over, the verifiable stories of misfortune, and the superstition itself, cannot confidently be traced before the 1920s. The sense that evil forces are at work in Macbeth may be a product of the aftermath of the First World War, whose horrific death toll produced a new interest in the spirit world, as those who had lost loved ones tried to contact them through ouija boards and table-tapping. Those beliefs have faded (though not vanished); the belief in the Macbeth curse remains.    (p. 1–2)

Legatt illustrates this belief by quoting an anecdote about a 1926 production of the play starring the real-life married couple Ian Casson and Sibyl Thorndike. The production was plagued with mishaps, and at one point Casson told Thorndike:

"Sybil, the Devil does work in this play—there is horror behind it—we must do something positive against it."    (p. 1)

The couple then proceeded to read the 91st Psalm, which invokes God's protection:

I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.

Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.

This one anecdote is hardly dispositive, since it could show only that Casson thought this particular production marked by misfortune. Curiously, Leggatt does not provide any other sources from the 1920s or thereafter that show the growth of this curse myth, simply saying in a footnote, "I owe this observation to Russell Jackson." No further information is provided.

The mystery of the missing curse, 1926–1973

Leggatt's claim notwithstanding, documentary records attesting to the superstition during the period 1930–1970 are hard to come by. A search through the Google Books corpora causes one to question whether Macbeth was regarded as unlucky and fearfully called "the Scottish play" prior to the 1970s. The Google Ngram for "Scottish Play" shows that the phrase was barely used prior to the late seventies, and has seen a spike in usage since then:

Google Ngram for "Scottish Play", case-insensitive, showing low usage of the phrase until a sharp spike

The usage of "Scottish play" prior to the 1970s appears to be merely descriptive, referring indifferently to Macbeth or any other play set in Scotland. Beginning around 1973, however, references crop up that mention the superstition. An issue from that year of Broadside, the newsletter of the Theatre Library Association, includes the following:

Because of the number of mishaps and tragedies connected with it over the four hundred years of its existence, actors never refer to it by name or even quote it offstage. It is usually referred to as "that play," or "the Scottish play."

And paranormal researcher Peter Underwood writes in 1975:

The curse of bad luck is firmly believed by many actors, and no play is considered to be more unlucky than Macbeth, a play that seems always to have had a curse on it. More than one actor has thrown things at a visitor who quoted from the play, especially in a dressing room of a theatre where the play is being performed. So powerful is the apparent curse (the origin of which I have not discovered) that many actors maintain that bad luck will follow if the play is even mentioned by name and old actors usually refer to Macbeth as "the Scottish play".    (p. 65–66)

Subsequent references to the superstition and the alleged curse lie thick and fast in the literature.

Conclusion

Even accounting for a lag between its origin in theatre lore and its being reflected in print sources, it seems unlikely that the superstition regarding Macbeth dates back to the 1920s, with a fifty-year gap before it is documented. It is far more plausible that the superstition itself arose some time in the late 1960s or early 1970s. At any rate, there is no solid evidence of this superstition's being widely held prior to then.

A negative piece of evidence can be found in Dennis Bartholomeusz's excellent study of performances of the play down the ages, Macbeth and the Players. Bartholomeusz analyzes the documentary record of the play onstage from Shakespeare's time down to his day. He interviews many performers about their experiences and their interpretations of the play. One assumes that if the play were considered notoriously unlucky, this would have come up in the performers' conversations with Bartholomeusz. However, none of the players so much as mention the curse. Published in 1969, Macbeth and the Players provides a terminus post quem of sorts for the origin of this belief.

There remains the question of why this superstition should have attached to this play. Macbeth lends itself to a curse legend for many readily understandable reasons. The play itself is a powerful representation of supernatural forces and their ability to let evil loose upon the world. Legatt writes:

And yet the superstition about Macbeth, even if it is more recent than legend would have it, embodies a truth about the play. There is no work of Shakespeare's, and arguably no work of Western art, that evokes such a powerful sense of evil. The dialogue is full of invocations of the powers of darkness ... and one can sympathize with the belief current among actors that those invocations are genuine, and actually work.    (p. 2)

Besides, since Macbeth is among the most performed plays of the most performed playwright in the world, the law of numbers ensures that instances of performances running into bad luck abound. A feature in Penguin UK's October 2018 newsletter quotes Anjna Chouhan of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust:

"It tends to run for longer than, say, Cymbeline. When you have more performances, it's statistically more likely that things will go wrong."    ("Curse of Macbeth")

And the spooky nature of Macbeth allows those mishaps to be attributed to the play itself. Contrast this with Henry VIII. Andrew Dickson narrates how a stage cannon set off during the third or fourth performance of the play's initial run at the Globe in 1613 set fire to the roof and caused the theatre to burn down to the ground. Yet nobody refers to it as "the Tudor play."

Coda: "Music, and a song" (III.v.sd)

While the "Scottish play" superstition is not well attested before the 1970s, user Andrew pointed out in the comments to this answer that there is a tradition of considering some music associated with the play unlucky. An 1888 issue of the Pall Mall Gazette carried a feature asking actors about superstitions. Edward Terry replied:

Old stagers used to consider the whistling or singing of Locke's music in "Macbeth" unlucky.    ("Signs" p. 1)

Terry began his career in 1863. "Old stagers" for him would have been those performing in the 1850s or earlier, so this belief goes back to at least the mid-nineteenth century. More details concerning this belief are provided in a 1913 story in the Yorkshire Evening Post:

Dread of Macbeth Music. Another superstition of the old days which still survives in a measure was the actors' dread of Locke's music for "Macbeth," and anyone caught humming, whistling, or singing any of it was immediately threatened. Indeed, very few actors dared to transgress, fearing the consequences, not so much of their colleagues' wrath, but rather of the certain disaster that would follow.

An exception was young Amery Sullivan, son of the famous Barry Sullivan, who deliberately whistled the music whenever he chanced to be in the presence of an abnormally superstitious old member of his fathers' stock company. But Amery at times deemed it safer to keep out of the old man's way.    ("Stage" p. 5)

The Locke with the unfortunate music is Matthew Locke (1621–1677). He is known to have composed the music for William Davenant's Restoration era rewrite, along operatic lines, of Macbeth. Roger Fiske notes that while some of Locke's music for the play has indeed come down to us, the complete score formerly attributed to him is now accepted as being by Richard Leveridge. Aside from the two references provided by Andrew, I have been unable to find any documentation about why this music for Macbeth was considered unlucky, or what the dire consequences of singing, humming, or whistling it were. Of course, as Marc Bonanni explains, whistling is itself another theatrical superstition, only with a rather more plausible backstory.

It bears mention, however, that the stories about the music's being unlucky do not encompass the play as a whole. The 1913 Yorkshire Evening Post article mentions several other stage superstitions, including not singing Francesco Paolo Tosti's "Good-bye" onstage, not signing contracts on a Friday, etc. But when it specifically cites Macbeth, it does so only in the context of the music. There is no suggestion that the play itself is cursed.

Acknowledgments

Comments upon a prior version of this answer spurred an extensive revision. Thanks to Gareth Rees, Andrew, ShadowRanger, and IMSoP for their feedback, and for providing additional information and resources to help improve this answer.

References (other than Wikipedia links)

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    "Sadly Leggatt does not provide any specific sources" ⟵ based on this I would be cautious about dating the supposed curse to the 1920s. I did some research in the archive.org and Google corpora and couldn't find anything about it prior to the early 1970s. – Gareth Rees Feb 23 at 14:20
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    @GarethRees that's actually worth documenting. Care to provide an answer? Leggatt does provide a story of Sybil Thorndike in 1926 praying because a production she was in met a run of bad luck, but as far as I could tell, the sentiment was "this production is cursed", not "this play is cursed." I just took Leggatt's (or rather, his source Jackson's) word for it that the idea of the curséd play dates back to around then too. – verbose Feb 23 at 14:25
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    The Yorkshire Evening Post (of all publications) ran an article in January 1913 looking at acting superstions - a bit of a column-filler but interesting nonetheless. Two things: a) it did not mention the "Scottish Play" supersition; but b) it did mention a supersition connected with Locke's music for the play being unlucky, and that humming or whistling it was considered bad luck. (p 5, 30/1/13 if you wish to trace it) – Andrew Feb 23 at 19:06
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    Digging back, that particular superstition was quoted by Edward Terry in the Pall Mall Gazette, 14/1/1888, and attributed as an old superstion ("old stagers used to..."), which probably pushes it back to the mid-century; he began his career in 1863. – Andrew Feb 23 at 19:11
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    Let us continue this discussion in chat. – Andrew Mar 1 at 22:12
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The Royal Shakespeare Company themselves anecdotally refer to legends regarding the first showing of the play, where Shakespeare had to take the part of Lady Macbeth, and the actor playing Duncan was stabbed, and killed, by a real dagger instead of a prop one.

The site also refers to a riot in 1839 where 10 people died following animosity between two rival productions playing Macbeth at the same time.

Also mentioned are other accidents or near accidents including one where Laurence Olivier narrowly escaped injury in the 1930's.

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    While your answer points out the unlucky events connected with the play as given by the RSC, it doesn't seem to adress when the specific superstition actually started. – Cahir Mawr Dyffryn æp Ceallach Feb 23 at 17:33
  • @Cahir: It shows that the superstition dates back at least as far as 2018 (when the linked page was written). – Gareth Rees Feb 23 at 18:04
  • @GarethRees Well I think we knew that. It is mentioned in Ronald Harwood's play The Dresser, 1980, but I've known about it all my life, aetat 69. – user207421 Feb 24 at 2:53

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