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 1920s, and the appellation "the Scottish play" only to the 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 a real sword was substituted for a prop, resulting in the actual death of the actor playing Duncan
- 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? 1606–1888
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?
The Buildup: 1888-1925
At some point in the 19th century, a tradition began of considering some music associated with this 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 around the 1850s, so this belief goes back to at least the mid-nineteenth century. 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.
A 1913 story in the Yorkshire Evening Post furnishes more details about the alleged unluckiness of Locke's music:
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 Superstitions: Many Artistes")
I have been unable to find any documentation about why the 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.
A 1925 story in the Diss Express extends the association of misfortune beyond the music to any quotation from Macbeth within another play:
There is an old stage superstition having to do with "Macbeth." This one has it that great misfortune will come to a play in which any quotation from "Macbeth" occurs, or in which any of the music from "Macbeth" is whistled or played on any instrument. ("Stage Superstitions")
Some years earlier, in 1921, Spenser H. Elliot had reported in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph that some actors believed it foolhardy to quote Macbeth under any circumstances, not just in another play:
Entertaining a distinguished actor one day to lunch, I quoted the lines, "May good digestion wait on appetite, and health on both." "Hist!" cried the actor; "touch wood. It's bad luck to quote from 'Macbeth.'"
Elliot attributes the superstition to "the atmosphere of the play", which "abounds in weirdnesses and creepinesses". He also provides a rational reason to avoid quoting Macbeth. The line he (mis)quotes occurs at the feast where Macbeth sees Banquo's ghost. Elliot says:
I am not myself superstitious; but at once I recognized the inappropriateness of my quotation. For I would not have my guest sit down to such an ill-omened feast as that to which Macbeth's guests sat down. Another ill-timed quotation is sometimes used of a departed friend: "After life's fitful fever he sleeps well." But in the mouth of Macbeth these words are used of Duncan, who was murdered.
Those are indeed good reasons to avoid those particular quotations. Perhaps such realizations, taken together with the play's creepy atmosphere, resulted in a superstitious custom of avoiding quoting Macbeth altogether.
Another salient contribution to the aura of superstition gathering around Macbeth came 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:
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 step into the role. Aubrey made no such comment as the one quoted. (p. 150–151).
Another indication of Beerbohm's dishonesty, should one be needed, is that later in the review, he goes on to create from whole cloth an equally synthetic quotation from Pepys. Unfortunately, subsequent writers (such as Berre) have often uncritically accepted Beerbohm's spurious claims.
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." Nor do any of the other beliefs mentioned in newspapers up to this point encompass the play as a whole. Singing or whistling Locke's music, or quoting from Macbeth, were considered to bring ill luck; but there is no suggestion that Macbeth itself is cursed.
Origins of the curse legend: 1926
The idea that a curse attaches to Macbeth does not, then, appear to have been in circulation prior to the 20th century. Maguire and Smith attribute the rise of the legend to Beerbohm's invention:
Aubrey's anecdote about Hal Berridge's illness is the origin of the myth that Macbeth is unlucky in the theatre. ... And so Beerbohm inaugurated a tradition in which it is unlucky to play in, or even be associated with, a production of Macbeth. (pp. 150–151)
Legatt, editor of the Sourcebook, concurs with Maguire and Smith that the legend postdates Beerbohm, but associates it with the rising interest in spiritualism following the Great War:
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.
Soon thereafter, newspapers began reporting stories about the bad luck attaching to Macbeth. For example, the Derby Daily Telegraph carried the following unsigned snippet:
After many adventures, the New Oxford Theatre has become a home of melodrama. Mr. Alfred Denville, who is running the season, told me yesterday that he is prepared to give the audiences there anything they want, from "The Merchant of Venice" to "Sweeney Todd."
When I mentioned "Macbeth," I heard for the first time of a curious superstition about that play. Mr. Denville, who knows the theatrical business inside-out, cannot bear to hear even a line quoted from "Macbeth," and he gave me the names of three provincial theatres that had been burned down within twelve months of producing the play! ("Macbeth Superstition")
It is noteworthy that the correspondent says he is hearing for the first time that Macbeth is an unlucky play. The next year, a similar story turns up in The Era:
Another superstition amongst those who dwell in theatrical circles, is the foredoomed failure, and ill-luck, that is predicted for any production of "Macbeth." The implicit faith that actors and managers have in this superstition is truly uncanny and amazing. Whether it is the gloomy atmosphere of the sublime tragedy that accounts for its unpopularity is a debatable point, but it is certainly argued (even by lovers of Shakespeare) that to produce "Macbeth" is to court disaster. ("Menace")
So in the 1920s, the superstitious aura around certain aspects of Macbeth coalesced into a sense that the play itself was cursed. Despite the newspaper stories, however, there is no evidence that this belief was pervasive enough to keep the play from being performed. Nor is there any indication that the very name of the play was taboo: the locution "Scottish play" is not mentioned in any of the newspaper stories.
The case of the missing "Scottish play", 1926–1973
Evidence of Macbeth's persistence on the stage past the 1920s 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 conversations. However, none of the players so much as mention the curse.
Bartholomeusz himself briskly dismisses the idea that belief in the curse was sincerely held, pointing out its relatively recent origins:
A curiously widespread superstition, and half-believed in, the idea does not seem to have occurred to Irving, Macready, Kemble, or Garrick, in centuries that one might have thought were less knowledgeable about such matters. (p. 245)
Bartholomeusz gives no indication that this superstition involved avoiding calling Macbeth by its name. The phrase "Scottish play" does not appear anywhere in his book. So when did the belief arise that merely saying Macbeth, as opposed to quoting it or whistling its music, was courting disaster? Published in 1969, Macbeth and the Players provides a terminus post quem for the origin of this belief. And a search through the Google Books corpora causes one to question whether Macbeth was 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:
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 nominal 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.
Even accounting for a lag between its origin in theatre lore and its being reflected in print sources, it seems unlikely that belief in the unluckiness of Macbeth itself dates any farther back than the 1920s. As for the use of the Scottish play in lieu of its name, this ancillary superstition appears to have taken hold no earlier than the 1970s.
There remains the question of why these superstitions should have attached to this particular 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."
Comments upon prior versions of this answer spurred an extensive revision. Thanks to Gareth Rees, ShadowRanger, IMSoP, and particularly Andrew is gone for their feedback, and for providing additional information and resources to help improve this answer.
References (other than Wikipedia links)
- "Account of the Terrific and Fatal Riot at the New-York Astor Place Opera House on the Night of May 10th, 1849." New York: H. M. Ranney, 1849. Archive.org. Accessed February 23, 2021.
- Addison, John. Locke's Macbeth [and other pieces]. London: Goulding and D'Almaine, n.d. Archive.org. Accessed March 1, 2021.
- Authorized King James Version. BibleGateway. Accessed March 1, 2021.
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- Elliot, Spenser H. "Books of the Day: Macbeth: The Tragedy and a Stage Superstition." Sheffield Daily Telegraph 2 June 1921.
- Fiske, Roger. “The 'Macbeth' Music.” Music & Letters vol. 45, no. 2 (1964), pp. 114–125. JSTOR. Accessed March 1, 2021.
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- "A Macbeth Superstition." Derby Daily Telegraph 20 April 1926.
- Maguire, Laurie, and Emma Smith. "Myth 23: Macbeth is Jinxed in the Theater." 30 Great Myths about Shakespeare. Pp. 150–155. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.
- "The Menace of Macbeth." The Era 5 October 1927.
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- "Stage Superstitions: Many Artistes Dread the Present Year. Strange 'Thirteen' Stories." Yorkshire Evening Post 30 January 1913. Accessed March 1, 2021.
- "Tosti: Good-bye." Jose Carreras - Topic. YouTube. November 30, 2018.
- Underwood, Peter. Deeper into the Occult. London: Harrap, 1975.