Something Wicked This Way Comes––A Look at the Curse of “Macbeth”

By Connor Reilly '20 | English and Classics Major, October 23, 2019 News & Announcements, Student Review, Students

[About a 6 MIN read]

Warning: DPAC may be inviting a horrific curse upon itself this Halloween.

On October 30–31, Shakespeare at Notre Dame presents a 2-man production of Shakespeare’s scariest play, Macbeth, at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. The play has a long reputation as being cursed, and many actors refuse to even pronounce the word “Macbeth” in a theater for fear of bringing down supernatural effects on themselves, calling it instead “The Scottish Play” or “Maccers.” (For an example, see the unimpeachable source of The Simpsons, with special guest Ian McKellen.)

MacbethThe origin of the curse supposedly comes from Shakespeare including actual dark magic rituals in the witches’ lines in the play. In revenge for spilling their secrets, a coven of witches cursed the play. According to the Royal Shakespeare Company, “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 rumored mishaps include real daggers being used in place of stage props for the murder of King Duncan (resulting in the actor’s death).” (This interestingly implies that Duncan’s death was initially portrayed on stage, while the script leaves it out.)

Many misfortunes, injuries, and even deaths have been reported surrounding productions of the play ever since. The Astor Place Riot in New York in 1849, in which a dispute between two actors playing Macbeth in rival productions, inflamed anti-British tensions at a performance that left at least 22 people dead. In one remarkable staging starring Sir Ian McKellan and Dame Judi Dench, a priest sat in the theater every night with a crucifix to protect the actors from the evil forces conjured in the show.

Because of this, many actors avoid saying the name of the play in a theater. I asked a few Shakespeareans at Notre Dame about their thoughts on the superstition. Grant Mudge, the Ryan Producing Artistic Director of the Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival, isn’t taking any chances. “I will err on the side of “The Scottish Play” because it’s fun, and I enjoy the maintenance of the tradition. It’s a fun insider thing for theater people––other people are confused and you get to talk about how Shakespeare maybe put black magic incantations in the play.”

The origin of the curse supposedly comes from Shakespeare’s including actual dark magic rituals in the witches’ lines in the play.

MacbethMary Elsa Henrichs, the Executive Producer of the student-run Not-So-Royal Shakespeare Company, may not believe in the curse of the name, but she avoids it as well. “My personal opinion is that if you end up working in the theater, best practice is to avoid saying the name, not because saying the name will curse the production, but because it could seriously upset a fellow actor who believes in the curse. It’s generally best to avoid upsetting an actor prior to a performance.” However, she does believe in the power of the play. “Do I believe there’s darkness in the play Macbeth, itself? Absolutely. Shakespeare researched real witchcraft to put in his production. To me, it’s a bit terrifying to play around with that stuff.”

For my own part, I believe I the curse of the play. I was the light board operator for the Not-So-Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Macbeth in Fall 2017, and the play seemed to live up to its reputation. Although Washington Hall’s Lab Theatre, where we perform, is notoriously haunted, the ghost there seemed to kick it up a notch for the play, as though energized by the play’s magic.

One time, as I discussed with the director whether we would need to readjust some of the lights, the light above me swung down in the way I had just described. Another time, coiled wire unraveled in front of the director just as he discussed wanting to move the coil. Finally, and most spectacularly, a lightbulb exploded on opening night during the banquet scene, at which Banquo’s ghost appears to torment Macbeth. It all sounds silly, but I swear that something was up around this play that wasn’t quite normal. I avoid saying “Macbeth” in a theater unless absolutely necessary. We can only hope that this week’s production ends well for Shakespeare at Notre Dame, the Center, and the incredible actors who will be in the show.


Related:


Macbeth

This extraordinary staging features the entire play performed by two actors, Troels Hagen Findsen and Paul O’Mahony, in a dynamic contemporary production that reveals fresh new layers in the timeless story. Highlighting Shakespeare’s themes of manipulation, guilt, and power with boundless energy and surprising wit, Macbeth is both enormously entertaining and chillingly relevant.


October 30––31, 2019 at 7:30 p.m.