Is There a Macbeth Curse?
by Doug MacGowan, May 2012 – Updated March 2022
One of Shakespeare’s more popular plays, Macbeth has a bizarre and dangerous past, going right back to its premiere performance in the early 1600s. It is so bizarre that people claim there is a Macbeth Curse. In the play, Macbeth is plagued by insomnia, and his wife, Lady Macbeth, is prone to sleepwalking. As the play develops, Macbeth becomes increasingly paranoid that his misdeeds will be uncovered. The ghost of his old friend Banquo, who he has ordered to be killed, returns to haunt Macbeth, symbolizing his guilty conscience.
A String of Bad Luck and Tragedies
At that first performance, legend states that the boy cast as Lady Macbeth took ill and died right before going onstage. When this happened, Shakespeare himself had to go on in drag to play the part.
King James I became so reportedly disgusted by all of the bloody action on the stage that he forbade the play from being performed again for several years.
Tragedy continued to plague the play.
Playing the part of Lady Macbeth was especially risky. Actresses who portrayed the character were chased out of the theater by audiences believing the actress was a real killer. Another actress fell 15 feet off the stage during the infamous sleepwalking scene. And in 1926 a minor actor improvised his part and tried to strangle Lady Macbeth on stage.
An 1849 performance in New York whipped up the audience into such a frenzy that a riot broke out and more than 30 people died.
The 20th-century performances were especially brutal. When Laurence Olivier played the title role in 1937, a heavyweight above the stage mysteriously came untied and crashed down within inches of the actor. This production unwisely chose to use actual swords in the fight scenes. In one instance, the tip of one of the swords broke off and flew into the audience. It hit a man, causing him to have a heart attack.
A 1942 production starring John Gielgud holds the record for most misfortune. Three actors died during its run, and the costume designer killed himself right after the premiere.
In 1953, Charlton Heston played the lead and suffered severe burns on his legs. It was later discovered that his tights had been mysteriously soaked in kerosene.
And the list goes on.
Theatre People Know of the Macbeth Curse
Theater people are a superstitious lot, and anything causing as much trouble as Macbeth has a bevy of lore about it. For example, unless in actual rehearsal for the play or for actual production, nobody utters the title/name “Macbeth.” The play itself is commonly referred to in theater circles as The Scottish Play. Of course, actors do accidentally say the title of the play at times. And there are numerous beliefs on how to ward off the bad luck once this happens. Most of the variations include leaving the theater, spinning around three times, cursing, spitting over one’s left shoulder, and then waiting for an invite back into the theater building.
The big question is what caused the Macbeth curse in the first place. There are differing stories. One tale says that Shakespeare used an actual incantation within the play. Witches who attended the performances became so angered that they placed a curse on all future productions of the drama. Another said that Shakespeare himself cursed the play once King James I forbid it to be performed again.
Regardless of the reason, acting troupes remain wary of the play, even though it proves to be a crowd-pleaser with audiences.
A Scientific Link to Macbeth’s Curse
In a 2009 study, researchers found an interesting link between insomnia and paranoid thinking, a theme highlighted in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth.’ With these findings, researchers noted that people with insomnia were five times more likely to have high levels of paranoid thinking than people who were sleeping well. Although the study shows a clear link between the two conditions, it is unclear which causes the other. Clinical experience indicates that there is a vicious cycle: insomnia makes us anxious and fearful, and these feelings make it harder for us to sleep. So, try to get a good night’s sleep tonight.