The Scottish Play

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The Scottish Play and The Bard's Play are euphemisms for William Shakespeare's Macbeth. The first is a reference to the play's Scottish setting, the second a reference to Shakespeare's popular nickname. According to a theatrical superstition, called the Scottish curse, speaking the name Macbeth inside a theatre will cause disaster. A variation of the superstition also forbids quoting it within a theatre except as part of an actual rehearsal or performance of the play.

Because of this superstition, the lead character is most often referred to as the Scottish King or Scottish Lord. Lady Macbeth is often referred to as the Scottish Lady. Sometimes Mackers or MacB is used to avoid saying the name.


Those who believe in the curse claim that real spells are cast in the three witches scene. Some of those who believe in the reality of the spells also believe real witches should be chosen to act the roles and that it is the failure to do so that creates the environment within which the curse supposedly has effect. Some believers claim that including the character Hecate, frequently cut from productions of the play due to questions about her part's authorship, intensifies the curse. It is said that the curse effects were initially introduced unwittingly by Shakespeare, and in a deficient form, in an early version of the play; however, under threat of curse himself by a local coven of witches, which were increasingly common in Britain in the late-16th century,[1] he was induced to re-write the relevant portions to avoid the supposed dire consequences of incomplete incantations being uttered. It has been argued, however, that this was a fiction circulated by the Church in the context both of the run-up to the infamous trials of the Pendle witches, and of the spilling over of a rapid increase in concern over witchcraft in nearby Wales.[2][3] No such first version has ever been found.

Actors who do not believe the superstition will sometimes abstain from saying the name of the play out of politeness to those that do. Productions of Macbeth are said to have been plagued with accidents. According to legend, this dates back to the premiere of the play: an actor died because a real dagger was mistakenly used instead of the prop.[citation needed] One belief is that the fake dagger that was meant to be used, was swapped out instead with a real dagger.[citation needed] The play does include more fight scenes and other such opportunities for accidents than does the average play, and the atmosphere in the backstage area of old-fashioned theatres was a prime setting for disasters, especially when dealing with potentially dangerous equipment. This would explain the accidents without invoking magic.[original research?]

The popularity of the superstition might also be related to its mild hazing aspect. Veteran actors might relate some tale of woe that they witnessed personally due to someone invoking the curse, lending credibility and immediacy to the tale.[original research?]

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.[4]

According to the superstition, Shakespeare got a few of the lines from an actual coven of witches, and when they saw the play they were greatly offended and cursed the play.[citation needed] Another tradition tells that the original propmaster could not find a suitable pot for a cauldron and stole one from a coven, who then cursed the play in revenge for the theft.[citation needed] It is believed that breaking the taboo calls the ghosts of the three witches to the show and it is they who cause all the mishaps. The last, and probably most spectacular view of the curse is that Shakespeare used the curse in the play to actually curse the play himself, guaranteeing that no one other than himself would be able to direct it.[citation needed] It is also reported that when Shakespeare learned that James I, whose Scottish heritage he was trying to celebrate with the play, had not particularly enjoyed it, he became bitterly disappointed and would only refer to the play as "that Scottish play" for the rest of his life.[citation needed]

Cleansing rituals[edit]

When the name of the play is spoken in a theatre, tradition requires the person who spoke it to leave, perform traditional cleansing rituals, and be invited back in. The rituals are supposed to ward off the evil that uttering the play's name is feared to bring on.

The rituals include turning three times, spitting over one's left shoulder, swearing, or reciting a line from another of Shakespeare's plays.[5] Popular lines for this purpose include, "Angels and ministers of grace defend us" (Hamlet 1.IV), "If we shadows have offended" (A Midsummer Night's Dream 5.ii), and "Fair thoughts and happy hours attend on you" (The Merchant of Venice, 3.IV).[5] A more elaborate cleansing ritual involves leaving the theatre, spinning around and brushing oneself off, and saying "Macbeth" three times before entering again. Some production groups insist that the offender may not re-enter the theatre until invited to do so, therefore making it easy to punish frequent offenders by leaving them outside.

A realistic portrayal of a ritual occurs in the 1983 film The Dresser, in which Sir is the offender, and Norman, his dresser, officiates over the propitiation.

The cleansing rituals have been parodied numerous times in popular culture, including in Blackadder, Slings and Arrows, The Simpsons, The West Wing, and Make It Pop.[6] For example, in the Blackadder episode "Sense and Senility", a parody ritual performed by two actors involves slapping each other's hands pat-a-cake fashion with a quickly-spoken ritual ("Hot potato, orchestra stalls, Puck will make amends"), followed by tweaking the other person's nose. In Slings and Arrows, a guest director mocks the superstition by saying the word "Macbeth" onstage, spins around, and falls off on her third spin, resulting in an injury that takes her out of commission for the rest of the season. On The Simpsons, the core five are invited into a performance by Sir Ian McKellen (in Scottish attire, clearly in the title role). The family keeps saying the title, which only makes more bad luck strike the actor, including lightning striking him and the "MAC" falling from the signage (leaving the "BETH").[7]

Historical mishaps[edit]

Believers have attributed to the curse problems in early productions staged by Shakespeare himself, arson in 1721 by a disgruntled patron, the Astor Place Riot in 1849, injuries sustained by actors at a 1937 performance at The Old Vic that starred Laurence Olivier, Diana Wynyard's 1948 accidental fall, and burns suffered by Charlton Heston in 1954.[8]

On December 2, 1964, a fire burned down the D. Maria II National Theater in Lisbon, Portugal. At the time, the play being shown was Macbeth.[9]

In 1980, at The Old Vic a production of Macbeth starring Peter O'Toole, often referred to as Macdeath, was performed. It was reviewed so badly that the theatre disbanded shortly after the play.[10]

Mishaps on the set of his film Opera led director Dario Argento to believe that the film had been affected by the Macbeth curse; the opera being performed within the film is Verdi's Macbeth.[11]

Ari Aster, writer and director of Hereditary, said that during filming, "Alex Wolff told me not to say the name of William Shakespeare's Scottish play out loud because of some superstitious theater legend. I smugly announced the name, and then one of our lights burst during the shooting of the following scene."[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Willis, Deborah (2004), "10. Magic and Witchcraft", in Kinney, Arthur F., A Companion to Renaissance Drama, Wiley-Blackwell
  2. ^ Wilson, Richard (2002), "The pilot's thumb: Macbeth and the Jesuits", in Poole, Robert, The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories, Manchester University Press, pp. 126–145, ISBN 978-0-7190-6204-9
  3. ^ Sally Parkin, "Witchcraft, women's honour and customary law in early modern Wales." Social History 31.3 (2006): 299-302.
  4. ^ Harrison, Martin (1998). The Language of Theatre. Routeledge. p. 239. ISBN 0-87830-087-2.
  5. ^ a b Garber, Marjorie B. (1997). Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality. Methuen. p. 88. ISBN 0-416-09432-5.
  6. ^ Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith (2012). 30 Great Myths about Shakespeare. John Wiley & Sons. p. 151. ISBN 1118324870.
  7. ^ Burt, Richard (2007). Shakespeares after Shakespeare: an encyclopedia of the Bard in mass media and popular culture, Volume 2. Greenwood Press. p. 698. ISBN 0313331189.
  8. ^ Hurwitt, Robert (August 19, 2010). "Cal Shakes risks curse of 'the Scottish play'". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved September 10, 2015.
  9. ^ "O incêndio no Teatro Nacional D. Maria II | DN 150 Anos". Archived from the original on 2016-10-11. Retrieved 2016-07-01.
  10. ^ The Old Vic
  11. ^ "Opera (1987)" – via
  12. ^ "Ari Aster comments on Shakespeare's Scottish Play curse". June 15, 2018.

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