The Macbeth Curse: Myth or Reality?

by Mara Sherman

Mackers. The Scottish Play. The Bard’s Play. These are all euphemisms for Macbeth, used by otherwise entirely reasonable people (well, reasonable by theater standards) to avoid saying a title that is supposed to bring bad luck. Any time anything goes wrong on a production of Macbeth – from stubbed toes, to poor box office receipts, to untimely deaths- gets blamed on “the curse.” As a world class spoilsport, I’ve taken three of the most common myths I’ve heard about the alleged curse, and have done my best to debunk them below.

mackers-keep-calmMyth #1) The actor who played Lady Macbeth in the first production died on opening night, which was August 7, 1606.

This one is pretty easy to dispel, because a) we don’t know what actor played Lady Macbeth; and B) we don’t know when opening night was. Like all female roles in this era, Lady Macbeth was played by a teenaged boy, an apprentice, but any record of who he was has been lost, if it ever existed at all. (Theater people: not so good with record keeping.)

In the same vein, we don’t even know in what year Macbeth was first performed, let alone on what day. The first written reference to a performance of Macbeth is in the diary of an astrologer named Simon Forman, who says that he saw the play performed at the Globe Theater on Saturday, April 20th, 1611. References within the play to current events suggest that it was written after 1605, which gives us a time frame of about seven years. The general consensus among historians is that Macbeth was written and performed for the first time in 1606, but on what day is anybody’s guess.

Theater people might not have been good record keepers, but the Church of England was. Marriages, baptisms, and deaths were all recorded by local priests in Parish Registers. Entries recording deaths included the deceased person’s occupation, which means if an apprentice died, there is probably a record of it somewhere. Someday someone with a lot of free time on their hands will sift through these records and see if any of the young men who died in 1606 were ever apprenticed to any actors, and then we can put this one to bed once and for all.

Myth #2) The Witches’ incantations are real black magic and have summoned demons to the stage, and/or actual witches are upset that Shakespeare stole their spells.

I’ll keep my opinions on the real-ness of magic, black or otherwise, to myself. That said: Witches were a popular subject for drama in the early 1600s. In his play The Witch, Thomas Middleton borrowed passages from The Discovery of Witchcraft, a book purporting to detail actual magic spells used by real witches, and yet The Witch does not seem to have been cursed- except, perhaps, to languish in obscurity. The witches’ brew in Macbeth, however, has no identifiable source in other literature from the time- which means the list of grisly ingredients (snake fillets, worms, human liver) in the “double double toil and trouble” scene is entirely of Shakespeare’s own doing. So if Shakespeare didn’t steal witches magic, where does the history of alleged demonic appearances come from?

About fifteen years before Shakespeare composed Macbeth, playwright Christopher Marlowe wrote Doctor Faustus, a play in which the title character summons the demon Mephistopheles, sells his soul to Lucifer, and then plays practical jokes on the Pope before being dismembered and dragged to hell. This play has, understandably, inspired a lot of theatrical lore with a devilish component, and many of the urban legends about Macbeth seem to be borrowed from the stories that are actually about Doctor Faustus.

William Prynne, a Puritan preacher in mid 17th century London, was famously disdainful of the theater. He wrote an anti-theatrical (but especially anti-actor) book called Histriomatrix, where he argues that “popular stage-playes are sinfull, heathenish, lewde, ungodly spectacles, and most pernicious corruptions.” (So, you know, business as usual.) In Histriomatrix, Prynne claims that theaters were not merely hotbeds of alcohol, lying, and lust; but that the words spoken in a playhouse literally had the power to summon the devil. (He also hated Christmas, FYI.) He claims that during a performance of Doctor Faustus, “in Queen Elizabeth’s days” the actors raised “the visible apparition of the Devill on the Stage, to the great amazement of both the Actors and Spectators.”

Urban legends about devilish things happening during productions of Doctor Faustus continued to crop up through the years, but sometime in the last century or so, the spooky stories about Faustus seem to have been absorbed into the tales of the Macbeth curse. This means that urban legends that claim that the witchcraft in Macbeth is “real” – stories that add to the play’s cultural cache and probably help sell tickets- actually got started by a guy who hated theater. Thanks, William Prynne!

lincolnMyth#3) President Lincoln read Macbeth the night before his assassination.

This one might actually be true! We know from Lincoln’s correspondence that Macbeth was his favorite play. It is entirely possible that he was reading it the night before he was shot at Ford’s Theater, where he saw a play called Our American Cousin. Interestingly, nobody seems to think that Our American Cousin is cursed, even though the leader of the free world was shot during a performance of it. Instead, Macbeth, which has killed zero Presidents to date, gets a bad rap.

Works Consulted/Further Reading

Bray, Robert. “What Abraham Lincoln Read: An Evaluative and Annotated List.” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 28.2 (2007): 28-81. JSTOR. Web. 17 July 2015.

Marlowe, Christopher, Frank Romany, and Robert Lindsey. The Complete Plays. London, England: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Middleton, Thomas. “The Witch.” Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works. Ed. Gary Taylor, John

Lavagnino, and MacDonald P. Jackson. Oxford: Clarendon, 2007. Print.

Prynne, William. “Prynn’s Histriomastix: The Prologue.” Prynne Histriomastix. The University of Wisconsin-Madison, n.d. Web. 18 July 2015.

Shakespeare, William, Jesse M. Lander, and Kevin Stanton. Macbeth. New York: Sterling Signature, 2012. Print.

About the author Mara Sherman is the dramaturg for Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s 2015 production of Macbeth. Favorite dramaturgy credits at SSC include The Man in the Iron Mask, The Lion in Winter, and Shakes-to-Go’s Twelfth Night. Mara has a Master’s degree in Shakespeare & Performance from Mary Baldwin College and a B.A. in Literature (’11) from UCSC.

Tickets on sale now for the 2015 season, which features three outdoor productions, starting with the wickedly romantic Shakespeare comedy Much Ado About Nothing, opening July 3; followed by David Ives’s modern adaptation of the wickedly hilarious 17th century farce, The Liar, opening July 24; and Shakespeare’s wicked tragedy, Macbeth, opening August 7. Plus, SCS continues the tradition of its intern-showcasing Fringe production with four performances of the wickedly festive comedy The Rover, starting August 18.


Subscribe to Santa Cruz Shakespeare News Blog by email