My cat is named Hamlet, but had I gone with Macbeth instead, he may have quickly used his nine lives. At least if a longstanding theater legend is to be believed.
The euphemistic “Scottish Play” is said to be associated with onstage deaths, riots, and lesser misfortunes.
Supposedly, performing Macbeth or even uttering the name in a theater, potentially unleashes the curse. The cause is said to be the play’s references to witches, ghosts, and regicide. But those elements are in other Bard productions, so why does only Macbeth carry a curse? That stems from the assertion that for this play, William Shakespeare employed genuine witch incantations, specifically, “Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”
The story holds that practicing witches saw the play and took great offense at this misuse of their sacred craft, and so placed a curse upon any who might perform the play thereafter.
Supposed manifestations are: Actors being killed or injured during the stage fights when real weapons were used by mistake; natural disasters happening during performances; and accidents and illnesses striking the crew before, during, and after shows.
While there is ample room for selective memory with such claims, there is one documented tragedy associated with a Macbeth production. It took place in 1849 at New York’s Astor Place Theater.
At least 25 persons were killed and 120 were injured, many of them by National Guard soldiers who had been proactively summoned to quell the expected riots. The melee stemmed from two actors playing Macbeth on the same night at two different New York theaters, each representing a different social class. That last part is the key. Economic and cultural turmoil caused the riot, with Macbeth being a bit player.
Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning explained, “The Astor Place Theater had been built as a way for the well-heeled to have somewhere to go other than the Bowery Theater, which catered to all classes. That the rising American star with a blue collar image, Edwin Forrest, planned his opening on the same night as the upper class’s favorite British actor, William Macready, was largely seen as a slap in the face.”
This caused a long-simmering feud to boil over.
“Unrest had been growing for years between the working class, which included many Irish immigrants, and the Anglophile upper class,” Dunning wrote. “Irish and American workers planned to express themselves by crashing the opening night of Macready.” They did so violently and the heartbreaking results included a dead child.
While this is one instance of real-life tragedy associated with Macbeth, the play in question could have been Othello, West Side Story, Annie, or a musical based on the Bad News Bears. The competing performances that night in New York were merely what finally lit the powder keg.
In other less-known instances, blaming misfortunes on a curse requires extreme cherry picking. And when it comes to thinking what might cause the curse, let’s not yield to Tooth Fairy Science. Before trying to explain why something happens, we need first to ascertain that it does.
We are talking about one of the most performed plays in history, a production that has been shown non-stop for close to half a millennium. With so many chances for something to go wrong, it would be more remarkable if nothing ever did.
There is no reason to suspect that Macbeth has a higher percentage of mishaps than any other theater offering. And even if there did prove to be a little more tragedy associated with it, the production usually involves dim lighting, trap doors, flying harnesses, trick scenery, and stage weapons, all of which could explain harmful results without needing to invoke vengeful witchcraft.
Rather than a curse, we have a time-honored legend, which has been told and retold, embellished, grown tangentially, and become part of folklore and fun.
It also represents a chance for veteran actors to spook newbies with stories about when they’ve seen the curse manifest itself. In these cases, it’s not unlike my basic training first sergeant who, during our bivouac, warned us that an escaped murderer was on post.
There was, of course, no such killer, and any deaths associated with first sergeant’s putative murderer were as fabricated as those in the Scottish Play. And it seems that just as made up are real-life deaths associated with one of Shakespeare’s most beloved works.