After scouring the net for some time, I wasn’t able to come up with a source for this story, though quite a few people had heard of it. I also wasn’t able to come up with any reference to it as an urban legend, either.
Of course, I doubt anyone ever actually tried using it as an incantation (except maybe bored teens or Aleister Crowley), but if the cast of Prisoner of Azkaban starts dying off, I’m prepared to revise my opinion. What I’d like to know is how old the legend is – a modern-day invention? Or does it go back to Shakespeare’s time?
James I, who the play was originally performed for, was an avid believer in witchcraft, though, so maybe it started with him. He also doesn’t seem to have liked the play, though we don’t know if that was because he thought it was cursed, or for purely aesthetic reasons.
Has anyone found this story in an better source than personal websites, and “News of the Weird” sections in newspapers?
I was in Macbeth in high school…played the first witch, in fact! (I was fantastic, but that’s beside the point). Anyway, all we ever called it was “Macbeth”. Though our director did mention the curse to us, he never went into detail, so I don’t know the origins of the legend.
However, our production of The Scottish Play went off with as few hitches as a play done by a bunch of high school students, directed by their English teacher, could have. Nobody has died yet, and we did the play about 7 or so years ago.
Ironic. I read in Asimov on Shakespeare that the Bard wrote Macbeth for the specific purpose of currying favor with the new king. He included the witches because James VI and I was a witch-buff and had written books about witchcraft. And he added Macbeth’s vision of Banquo’s line going on “until the crack of doom” as a bit of plain, direct flattery – Banquo being an ancestor of the royal Stuarts.
They spoofed this on an episode of The Simpsons where the Simpsons go to England. They meet Sir Ian McKellen walking out of a theater wearing a kilt and he invites them to come see his play, and explains he can’t say the name of it. So then they keep saying, “Macbeth? You mean we can’t say Macbeth?” And every time someone said the word “Macbeth”, Sir Ian was hit by lightening. Then Bart of course, keeps saying, “Mabeth! Macbeth!” over and over again.
Finally, they give up, and Homer wishes him good luck. Sir Ian explains that it’s unlucky to wish an actor good luck when doing a play, and the marquee falls and crushes him.
There’s even more flattery than you think – during that scene the last king that MacBeth sees, “bears a glass, which shows me many more,” Since the performance would have been for James, the actor playing this ghost would have simply held out a mirror for James to see his own reflection, so he was actually part of the scene!
As to the curse, I’ve heard the theory that the witchcraft is real, but the explanation I like best goes like this: MacBeth is one of the more popular Shakespeare plays, right up there with Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, but it’s also the shortest Shakespeare play. So, theatre companies tend to do MacBeth when they need a show that will definitely turn a profit – when they’re strapped for cash. So, due to budget considerations you end up with shorter rehearsal periods, and possibly shoddy stagecraft, all of which is a recipe for disaster when you’re mounting a show with as much stage combat and special effects as MacBeth, particularly if your actors are skittish, both from the play’s reputation and from knowing that the company is in trouble. And every accident then feeds into the legend.
That said, I’ve never been in a production of MacBeth (unless you count the Reduced Shakespeare Company version), but I’ve had a lot of trouble with actors who don’t believe in the curse, and say MacBeth at every opportunity. Of course, it’s not so much that they wind up cursing the play so much as it is that actors who do that are jackasses.
This is a question that has been sitting around in the pile for the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board to work on for quite some time, but to date, no one has tackled it. If anyone would like to do more digging, we’d be glad to entertain a “Guest” staff report…
In the film “The Dresser”, the curse is touched on in one fairly lighthearted scene. Albert Finney inadvertently says MacBeth and is made to undergo[by Tom Courtneay] a silly ritual to avert the curse. It involved stepping outside the dressing room wherein the dreaded word was said, turning around three times, then knocking on the door and asking for admittance[I believe a mild profanity was also uttered to get rid of the curse] Wonder if that scene was made up out of wholecloth[hey, I have to use quilt-related words when I can!], or is there a bit of history to it.