The Curse of Macbeth
A potted history of why The Scottish Play is so feared by performers

Shakespeare’s Macbeth has frequently proved tragic in more ways than one.

It is the most accursed play in history, with a catalogue of documented disasters following in the wake of its premiere in front of King James at Hampton Court in 1606.

He took an immediate dislike to the witchy subject matter and promptly banned the play for five years.

Since then things have gone from bad to worse to the extent that actors are now so superstitious about the play many will not even speak its name. They refer to it simply as The Scottish Play and have to go through a bizarre ritual to exorcise the curse when anyone accidentally mentions the title inside a theatre.

There are variations on the theme, but the main gist seems to be getting the offender to leave the building, turn three times, spit over his left shoulder and swear before being allowed back in or alternatively to quote “Angels and ministers of grace defend us,” from Hamlet.

So, what are some of the supposed disasters which have haunted Macbeth?

Tradition – or should that be superstition? – has it that the play was cursed from its first opening night, when the boy playing Lady Macbeth was suddenly taken ill (some sources insist he actually died) and Shakespeare himself had to step in to take the role.

In a 1672 production in Amsterdam the audience was treated to the sight of the actor playing Macbeth really killing the actor playing Duncan as the stage dagger had been substituted for a real one.

In an incident in 1849 at New York’s Astor Palace Opera House there was a riot in which more than 20 people died and around 30 were wounded – caused by rivalry between two local productions of Macbeth.

During a production at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1928 some of the set collapsed and seriously injured cast members and in 1937 a heavy counterweight crashed to the stage missing Laurence Olivier’s Macbeth by inches.

Three actors died during a run of the play in which John Gielgud was starring in 1942 and in 1947 actor Harold Norman was stabbed in the final sword fight and died of his wounds. His ghost is said to haunt the Oldham Coliseum where the tragedy took place.

And so the catalogue of mishap and mayhem rolls on…

In 1953 Charlton Heston suffered severe burns because his tights had somehow got soaked in kerosene; Rip Torn’s 1970 production in New York was halted by an actors’ strike; another run in 1971 was plagued by two fires and seven robberies and in 2001 the Cambridge Shakespeare Company’s production limped on after Macduff injured his back, Lady Macbeth bumped her head, Ross broke a toe and two of Birnham Wood’s trees fell over and destroyed the set.

Perhaps the most catastrophic Macbeth of recent times was Peter O’Toole’s at the Old Vic in 1980. It was SO terrible that it sent audiences home in fits of laughter, word got out it was the funniest comedy in London and consequently it was a sell-out.

Shakespeare 4 Kidz has not escaped the curse. S4K’s writer/director Julian Chenery reveals: “In the autumn of 2000 we had incessant rain for three months which affected all of our get-ins and get-outs; a national fuel strike which made it nigh impossible to move the production around the UK; the actor playing Banquo hit his head on the windscreen of the cast coach; the actor playing King Duncan went down with Bell’s Palsy making half his face freeze and one of the stage crew walked into a door and fractured her skull. Apart from that the show was a huge hit and has remained immensely popular ever since!”

People who poo-poo the curse dismiss it with logic, saying that many of the accidents happen because much of the action of Macbeth takes place on a dark or dimly lit stage and it features lots of sword fights.

Whatever your views, Macbeth remains one of theatre’s most popular and exciting plays. Gory murders, bloody battles, weird witches, spooky spells: it’s got the lot – with a forest that moves and a funny porter thrown in too.

Don’t miss it when Shakespeare 4 Kidz bring their song and dance version to a theatre near you this autumn. A full list of dates and venues is available on this website.

But please keep your fingers crossed and the company will be touching wood that it’ll be alright on the night.

What they say about us:

S4K TWELFTH NIGHT: "As a home teaching parent, I wondered if the play would be above my 5 year old daughter's head. How wrong I was!! She now knows more about Twelfth Night than I did before the show began!!"