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Shakespeare & Beyond

How to counteract the curse of Macbeth (er, The Scottish Play)

Macbeth dagger
Macbeth dagger

Don’t say “Macbeth” in a theater, or you’ll be cursed. Or at least that’s how the old superstition goes. That’s why you’ll often hear actors refer to it as “The Scottish Play.”

It’s one of many stories connected with the performance history of Shakespeare plays through the years. These kind of theatrical anecdotes are the focus of a recent Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episode with Paul Menzer, a professor and the director of the Shakespeare and Performance graduate program at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia.

We asked three actors to share any violations of this superstition, how they’ve tried to counteract the curse, and how they deal with it when they’re acting in that play.

michael-glennMichael Glenn

I’ve said “Macbeth” in theaters a few times by accident.  The first time I absentmindedly said it, I was sent out of the building.  I had to run around the theater and knock to be invited back in.  The director who made me do it (the late, great John MacDonald) had once been stabbed through the leg after letting it slip, so he wasn’t taking any chances.

I’ve never had anything abnormally bad happen because of it.  But I abide by it for others who do.  I performed Macbeth over 100 times on tour with Shenandoah Shakespeare Express (several of those at the Folger!), and survived!  So I’m not really worried about it.

laura-rocklynLaura Rocklyn

I was doing an outdoor production of As You Like It a few summers ago, and there was an actor backstage who kept saying the name of The Scottish Play because he knew that it annoyed me and found my reaction funny.  He learned his lesson about taking that name in vain because, during tech week for that show, the actor playing Silvius badly injured his knee playing basketball and had to be replaced; then I fell down the stairs during a tornado warning, fractured my ankle and had to do the preview performances on crutches (by the time to show opened, the brilliant costume designer had made in Wellington boots part of my Celia’s disguise in the forest, so I had footwear large enough to fit my wrapped ankle in!)

If someone says the name of The Scottish Play in a theater I have, and WILL, make them go outside, turn around three times, spit, and knock to be let back in.  If you’re working on the play, it’s technically alright to use the name, but I always tend to avoid saying it out of habit!

cate-brewerCate Brewer

Hah! This is a funny one. Well, we all know that you are supposed to run around the theater three times, and throw salt over your shoulder, or some such. I can’t honestly say that I have never done that. I am a big one for knocking on wood when this happens though. When this has happened during Macbeth, we generally made an exception to the rule. As in, if it was in the context of the show, it was ok. Perhaps that wasn’t wise, and we were tempting fate!

All three actors are involved in the Folger Theatre production of Sense & Sensibility. Michael Glenn plays Sir John Middleton, Laura Rocklyn is the understudy for Elinor, and Cate Brewer is the understudy for Mrs. Jennings.