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A STAFF REPORT FROM THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD What's the story on the curse of Macbeth? October 16, 2007 Is there any information you can give me on the supposed curse of Macbeth? It puzzles me that of all Shakespeare's plays, one of his best (in my opinion) should be cursed. Thanks for any enlightenment you can provide. — DGNR, via e-mail As success or failure in the theater can be influenced by so many intangible and unpredictable factors, it's not surprising that actors and other theater types maintain a variety of long-standing superstitions, which often are taken very seriously. (The most famous is the insistence on saying "break a leg" rather than "good luck.") Two such superstitions float around Macbeth. The first is that it's bad luck to even say “Macbeth” except during rehearsal or performance. When referring to the work one instead uses circumlocutions, such as “the Scottish play” or “Mackers” or “the Scottish business” or “the Glamis comedy” or just “that play." Some say this rule applies only when inside a theater; it’s OK, therefore, to use the dread name in other settings – like classrooms, for instance. The remedy, if someone does happen to utter the unutterable, is to leave the room, close the door, turn around three times, say a dirty word (or spit, some say), then knock on the door and ask to be let back in. If you can’t do all that, you simply quote from Hamlet, act 1, scene 4: “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” The second superstition is that the play itself brings ill luck to cast and crew, and many productions of Macbeth have, in fact, encountered unfortunate circumstances. The supposed origin story for this is that Shakespeare used “authentic” witches’ chants in the play; as punishment, real witches cast a curse on the play, condemning it for all time. If legends are to be believed, bad fortune for productions of Macbeth seems to have started fairly early on: one story (which I have not been able to verify), is that King James I banned the play for about five years after he first saw it, in 1606. Some say he found the witches’ curses too realistic – having authored a work on demonology, he considered himself an expert. Among the incidents cited as examples of the curse at work (and we don't guarantee the veracity of some of the earlier stories): • In the first production of Macbeth, on August 7, 1606, Hal Berridge, the boy playing Lady Macbeth, became feverish and died backstage. This story is likely mythical, and further tradition says that Shakespeare had to take over the part. (One version holds that Shakespeare played the role badly, and later chewed out his fellow actors for mentioning “that play,” thus beginning the tradition of not referring to it by name.) • In a 1672 production in Amsterdam, the actor playing Macbeth substituted a real dagger for the blunted stage dagger and killed the actor playing Duncan, in full view of the audience. • On the opening day of a London run in 1703, England was hit with one of the most violent storms in its history. • At a 1721 performance a nobleman in the audience got up in the middle of a scene and walked across the stage to talk with a friend. The actors chased him from the premises; he returned with militiamen, who burned the theater down. • Female Lady Macbeths haven't been immune. In 1775, Sarah Siddons was nearly attacked by a disapproving audience. In 1926, Sybil Thorndike was almost strangled by a fellow actor. And in 1948, Diana Wynyard decided to play the sleepwalking scene with her eyes closed and sleepwalked right off the stage, falling 15 feet. In the best show-must-go-on tradition, she finished the performance. • In the mid-1800s, two rival actors (William Charles Macready of England and Edwin Forrest of the U.S.) staged competing productions, so that on May 10, 1849, they were both playing Macbeth in New York. An audience of Forrest fans threw fruit and chairs at Macready during his performance at the Astor Place Opera House, disrupting the show and starting a riot. The militia was called in and fired on the crowd; more than 20 died and another 30-plus were wounded. • On April 9, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was reading passages from Macbeth – those following Duncan's assassination – aloud to some friends. Within a week Lincoln was himself assassinated. • During the first modern-dress production, at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1928, a large set collapsed, seriously injuring some cast members. • In a 1937 production a heavy counterweight crashed to the stage, missing Laurence Olivier, playing Macbeth, by only inches. • In a 1942 staging, with John Gielgud as Macbeth, three actors (two witches and Duncan) died and the set designer committed suicide. • In a Thursday-night performance in 1947 actor Harold Norman was stabbed during the final sword fight in act 5 and died of his wounds. On Thursdays his ghost is now said to haunt the Coliseum Theatre in Oldham, where the fatal scene was played. • In a 1953 outdoor production in Bermuda, during the realistically staged attack on Macbeth's castle, a gust of wind blew smoke and flames into the audience, who fled. Charlton Heston, playing Macbeth, suffered severe burns on his groin and leg because his tights had accidentally been soaked in kerosene. • Rip Torn's 1970 production in New York City was halted by an actors’ strike. • David Leary’s 1971 run was plagued with two fires and seven robberies. • In 1971 Roman Polanski (who may himself have seemed cursed at the time, as his wife Sharon Tate had been murdered by followers of Charles Manson just two years earlier) made a film version; a camera operator was almost killed in an accident on the first day of shooting. • J. Kenneth Campbell, playing Macduff, was mugged soon after the play's opening in 1981 at Lincoln Center. • In a 2001 production by the Cambridge Shakespeare Company, Macduff injured his back, Lady Macbeth bumped her head, Ross broke a toe, and two cedar trees from Birnam Wood topped over, destroying the set. There are several explanations for why Macbeth seems so accident-prone. During much of the play lighting is low – the bulk of the scenes take place at night or in the dark or fog – thus increasing opportunities for accidents. There are several fight scenes, more than in most plays; in a long run, it's almost inevitable something will go amiss. Macbeth is also Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, and thus somewhat cheaper to put on; one theory suggests that when finances get tight, companies will slap together a production of Macbeth, and during the general cutting of corners safety gets compromised. But more than anything, the whole curse business benefits from a self-fulfilling circularity. Every play production involves some things going wrong – considering all the people, costumes, scenery, and equipment involved, there are bound to be problems. And if a play is popular enough to get staged and restaged for 400 years or so, some of those problems are bound to be pretty serious on occasion. If we could compile a list of accidents and near accidents for performances of, say, Hamlet, would it be equally long and dramatic? Almost certainly. But no one remembers or records these accidents, because there’s no curse on Hamlet. When accidents happen around Macbeth, though, the superstitious nod wisely and mutter about the curse. The play itself is soaked in blood, violence, and disorder – it's got gory ghosts, deceit, manipulation, assassination, malevolence, brutal murders of children, etc – and so provides fertile ground for dark musings. When cast and crew are expecting accidents, watching for them, any mishaps are uniquely bound to remembered. Every old actor has his or her own Macbeth story that gets reverently passed on to the younger ones. And so the curse persists, feeding upon its own reputation. Primary reference: Crystal, Ben and David, The Shakespeare Miscellany, Penguin Books (London, 2005) — Dex STAFF REPORTS ARE WRITTEN BY THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD, CECIL'S ONLINE AUXILIARY. THOUGH THE SDSAB DOES ITS BEST, THESE COLUMNS ARE EDITED BY ED ZOTTI, NOT CECIL, SO ACCURACYWISE YOU'D BETTER KEEP YOUR FINGERS CROSSED.
Contributed by Ana Micaela Aspiras
The choices Macbeth makes in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth ultimately cause the events that occur in his life regardless of the witches’ prophecies, fate and free will. Macbeth is given light to opportunity from the beginning of the play along with the free will to choose what fate he may pursue. Though there are many enticing factors that come into play (including the seduction from Lady Macbeth and the half-truths that the witches prophecy), the end result is the effect of Macbeth’s own cause. Macbeth has more than one opportunity to repent of his deeds and yet chooses to relentlessly follow the path to destruction. When his wife commits suicide, still he feels no remorse. Thus “evil must inevitably breed its own destruction” (Ribner 249). Works Cited Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Glencoe Literature the Readers Choice. Ed. Jeffrey Wilhelm. New York: McGraw Hill Glencoe, 2009. 319-402. Print. Curry, Walter. “Supernatural Elements”. Shakespeare for Students. Ed. Mark Scott. Vol. 1. Gale Research: Detroit, 1992. Print. 3 vols. Doren, Mark. “Overview”. Shakespeare for Students. Ed. Mark Scott. Vol. 1. Gale Research: Detroit, 1992. Print. 3 vols. Ribner, Irving. “Evil”. Shakespeare for Students. Ed. Mark Scott. Vol. 1. Gale Research: Detroit, 1992. Print. 3 vols.
Contributed by Ben Aaron Shea
Though the weird sisters are the first to water the seed of ambition for Macbeth, their prophecies are not the cause of the events that occur in Macbeth’s life. It is when the witches hail Macbeth as “thane of Cawdor” and “king hereafter” (1.3.52-53) that Macbeth becomes curios of what these prophecies might mean. The witches do not cause the change in heart of Macbeth however; he does that all his own when Ross pronounces him thane of Cawdor (1.3.110-11). The predictions “arouse his passions” and “inflame his imagination” (Curry 257). The prophecies “set his heart knocking at his ribs” and takes him to “unsafe extremities of rhetoric” (Doren 242). These “unsafe extremities of rhetoric” are evident in events such as the death of Banquo. Just before the murder, Macbeth utters “Come seeling night, Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day;” in order to “tear to pieces the great bond Which keeps me pale!” (3.2.46-50). This “great bond” could be the prophecy of the witches or “Banquo’s lease on life” (Ribner 246). It is clear from either interpretation that the witches do not have a role to play in the decisions Macbeth is making. Macbeth still decides to go ahead with the murder. This is a pivotal realization regarding the witches as they “do not suggest evil to man” but simply “suggest an object which may incite the inclination to evil” that is in man from the moment of birth (Ribner 247). The role of the witches in the deterioration of Macbeth is only secondary (like Lady Macbeth) to his ability to discern between what he should and should not do. The prophecies are not proclamations of what will be, but possibilities of things that could be. If Macbeth had decided from the start not to pursue the murder of King Duncan he may not have been king after all, but Shakespeare’s writing does not elude to that possibility. Rather, Shakespeare shows the reader a symbolic character, representing all of the distasteful choices of man that lead inevitably to destruction and death. Fate is therefore variable in the free will Macbeth has to discern. Fate and free will are significant to the events that occur in Macbeth’s life when considered with the choices he makes. Fate is a development of events that is typically outside one’s control and can be assumed to have supernatural elements involved. Taking this into account, it is logical to pair the idea of fate with the presence of the witches. This is not entirely the case with Macbeth however; the world that he is in “has closed around him and rendered him motionless” (Doren 242). The decisions that Macbeth make lead him to a world that is unfamiliar to him and so “terror has degenerated into tedium, and only death can follow” (Doren 243). By his own choices Macbeth creates a universe that follows his own discretion, and thus the play ends with “the gruesome spectacle of the murderer’s head held aloft in triumph” (Ribner 251). Free will is Macbeth’s ability to act based on his own discerning ability, which he exercises freely throughout the tragedy in deciding to kill King Duncan, Murder Banquo, and slaughter Macduff’s family. For Macbeth, the “impulse to evil” must “come from within man himself” (Ribner 247). The most defining decision for Macbeth is his first choice to kill the king because he “can never renounce his free-willed moral choice, once it has been made” (Ribner 246).
Contributed by Ben Aaron Shea
The role of Lady Macbeth in prompting Macbeth to kill King Duncan is weak, as the decision lies with Macbeth. Lady Macbeth has “a poorer imagination” and has “less of that power which enables it [her mind] to stand up under torture” (Doren 240). Still, Lady Macbeth does possess a power over her husband that is enough to quell his deserting thoughts on following through with the plan to kill King Duncan. First, she tells him that “from this time /Such I account thy love (1.7.38-39), and even goes so far as to say she would of “dashed the brains out” of her baby to keep her word to Macbeth (1.7.58). Lady Macbeth, in using this, “seduces” Macbeth though her function is secondary in “the moral choice which is his alone” (Ribner 248). Lady Macbeth is therefore merely a suggestion from which Macbeth draws inspiration because “the cardinal instance of transformation is himself” (Doren 240). Ambition’s role does not take long to surmount upon the mind of Macbeth as it proceeds to influence the actions he welcomes. Within the first scene of the second act, Macbeth is on his way to murder the king: “Is this a dagger I see before me (2.1.41)… Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going; And such an instrument I was to use” (2.1.50-51). Macbeth has become “like Satan” and he “is entirely aware of the evil he embraces” (Ribner 246). The notion for Macbeth to embrace evil so quickly appears odd at first glance to the reader as the first impression of Macbeth is of one who is loyal, noble and honorable (1.2.76). Considering the pre-implied character of Macbeth and the events that have followed through act 1, it is evident that ambition (the trait that will grow hungry and feed on the very soul of Macbeth) is more prominent. Alas Macbeth makes his first life altering decision as the bell rings to signal him to his purpose: “the bell invites me. Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell That summons thee to heaven or to hell” (2.1.70-72). After Macbeth kills Duncan, he realizes that he has cut himself off from the righteous path that leads to God: “But wherefore could not I pronounce ‘Amen’? I had most need of blessing, and ‘Amen’ Stuck in my throat” (2.2.39-41). It is through this voluntary choice of evil that Macbeth “closes the way of redemption to him” by denying nature. Therefore he must “end in total destruction and despair” (Ribner 247). By murder Macbeth has been severed of his religion. Once on the path to destruction he decides that turning around would be just as tedious: “I am in blood Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (3.4.135-37). At this point the character of loyalty and honor has completely dissolved and there is no hope for Macbeth as he has chosen to remain in his own turmoil. It is out of fear and despise of Banquo’s prophecy [his sons will be kings] that Macbeth decides to commit another murder: Banquo (3.1.52-54). It is Macbeth’s choice here that causes him further unrest. Macbeth assumes all has gone well and that upon the death of Banquo his fears will be solved. Upon entering the dining hall where a feast is prepared and guests are gathered however, Macbeth encounters the ghost of Banquo, returned to haunt him: “Thou canst not say I did it: never shake Thy gory locks at me” (3.4.60-61). Macbeth is in denial and not only disregards his actions as not entirely of his own creation, but acts innocent in the presence of Banquo’s ghost.
Contributed by Ben Aaron Shea
A storm lingers overhead as lightning crashes and thunder erupts in booming symphonies over a deserted area in Scotland. The stage is set for the beginning of a tragedy that will follow the decisions and resulting consequences of a single man, leading ultimately to his downfall. In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the choices Macbeth makes cause the events in his life despite the prophecies of the witches, the role of fate, and the role of free will. The most influential factors affecting the events that occur in Macbeth’s life are the choices he makes, the mitigating forces of Lady Macbeth, and his own ambition. From the start of the play Macbeth has surrendered his soul as “he is already invaded by those fears which are to render him vicious” and eventually abominable (Doren 239). This is in reference to the first description the reader receives of Macbeth upon discovering the traitor Macdonwald: “With his brandish’d steel, Which smoked with bloody execution, Like a valour’s minion carved out his passage Till he faced the slave; Which ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him, Till he unseam’d him from the nave to the chaps” (1.2.19-24). This is important to note as one follows the tragedy of Macbeth because the characteristics will be driven to new extremes; however the foundation for Macbeth’s deteriorating persona is evident before the play even begins. It is upon hearing the prophecies of what is to be that Macbeth is first enticed and commands the witches to “Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more” (1.3.72). In this short yet simple pronouncement from Macbeth, Shakespeare foreshadows a choice that Macbeth has already made in his mind. The letter sent to Lady Macbeth (1.5.1-14) does invoke her to motivate Macbeth towards mal-deeds; though the character of Macbeth is more susceptible to corruption.
Contributed by Ben Aaron Shea