USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘macbeth’
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic

Never Say Macbeth

Content:
Informant – “You know the story of Macbeth. There are a lot of witches in that play. Legend has it that the curses that they say are real. If you say the name of the Scottish Play in a theater needlessly, that theater is cursed. The name summons the witches and curses. To reverse it, you have to run around three times in a circle and spit, or say your favorite curse word. You also get shunned by your cast, which is not fun.”

Context:
Informant – “I heard it from my freshman theater teacher. He was crazy. I said Macbeth in class once and he yelled at me ‘YOU NEVER SAY THE SCOTTISH PLAY’S NAME.’ He almost threw a chair at me.”

Analysis:
I can’t think of any practical application for this superstition, so I believe it exists to create a more complex theater subculture. If you know about it then you are more of an theater person than those who don’t.

Folk Beliefs
Protection

Macbeth in the Theatre

Context: Subject had worked Theater production in high school and had been exposed to many superstitions surrounding ideas of bad luck, prevention, and reversal methods.

Informant:

[Speaking face to face in a lounge while studying for classes]

“The whole Macbeth rumor… where if you are in a theater and you say the word ‘Macbeth,’ you have to leave the theatre and… is it spin backwards in three circles, or forward…?”

“Um… I feel like it might be backwards”

“I think you have to spin in three circles backwards and like… spit or something. Um, and basically, people are very superstitious about it, even if it’s not… even people who aren’t generally superstitious or worried about it. Like my friend who studies stage management at Syracuse… um… was like… complaining to me about some kid who said Macbeth in the theater and refused to do the circle thing and their play went horribly… And she legitimately believed it was his fault. And in a way, it’s interesting because just since you think it’s going to ruin the play, like you subconsciously ruin it yourself… so that’s interesting.”

Introduction: The informant was introduced by fellow theater crew members when they joined stage production in high school.

Analysis/Interpretation: This is interestingly, a common phenomenon seen within the theater community. Given that I hadn’t been exposed to theater until becoming employed at one, I hadn’t been exposed to any theater folk beliefs or customs. As of recently, I have come to see more commonalities between theater-based folklore. Specifically, regarding Macbeth, it seems as though much of what is actively practiced and reinforced within the theater community, consistent amongst even the most different regions is contingent upon ideas of prevention of bad luck from pursuing during a production.

Contagious
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Protection

Macbeth Bad Luck

“Everyone that comes to my house who’s at all superstitious claims our house is haunted. Now, I have noticed all kinds of weird stuff in this house over the years. Believe me… I could not disprove it. I could not prove it, but nor could I disprove it., so there’s a feeling that there’s something going on in the house. Now I always maintain that they’re good ghosts, but when we did Macbeth at the house… it seemed like a very rough time doing that play. There’s a huge rumor in the theatre world that if you produce the play Macbeth, it is a nightmare. All kinds of ghosts come out, mess with your projects. You get all kinds of things that could go wrong… it’s scary.

“That has gone on for hundreds of years. It is the one play—Shakespeare—that is considered so heinously evil. Because the—the guy invites a guest over to his house and then kills him to become king. So, it’s considered so—such an evil premise, that we don’t. You, know, it’s something that you, you take very seriously if you’re going to do the play, and… that summer it was a nightmare to do the theatre.”

 

The informant added that you can’t say the name Macbeth in the theatre. He said that instead, you’re to refer to it as “The Scottish Play” (and the king as “The Scottish King” and queen as “The Scottish Queen”). He said that everyone in theatre will tell you this, (so he can’t remember where he originally heard it, but he hears it frequently). The informant follows protocol and uses the title “The Scottish Play.”

A teacher he worked with at Santa Monica College “freaked out” when they said they wanted to produce Macbeth, and she directed them to take themselves outside, spin around three times, and spit over their shoulders. The informant said people are very serious about this.

During his production of Macbeth, he had a tenant that refused to leave and was not paying him rent (she was a friend of the informant), but a lease had been signed for another person to move in. He also had a rough time with the director, who had also threatened a lawsuit against one of the actors and well as against the informant.

I’ve heard of this superstition often throughout school where the play is frequently read in classes and performed by theatre students, but the specificities of this telling of it (the squatting renter and the lawsuit-threatening-director) add to the belief. It’s the little things that individuals add to the larger superstition that make it powerful and give it truth value.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic

Don’t say “Macbeth” backstage

“Macbeth–the Scottish play. You can’t say it backstage during a performance.”

 

Actors are probably the most superstitious professional group on the planet. Among their more common superstitions is the idea that “the Scottish play” – Macbeth – is cursed. Simply speaking the name of the play backstage will bring calamity upon whatever production is being put on, so actors call it “the Scottish play” instead. There are legends about bad luck following the productions of Macbeth, but at this point, the superstition is likely kept up just for traditions’ sake. However, my informant was adamant about the fact that she would not speak the name backstage, even though she doesn’t personally believe in the curse; apparently, enough actors do believe in it that it is better to refrain than risk their wrath.

Customs
Folk Beliefs

“Don’t say ‘Macbeth’ in a theater.”

My informant described himself as a “theater kid” in high school. He told me about a folk belief that was held by the members of his school’s theater. According to him, it is bad luck to say the word “Macbeth” in any theater. He thinks that this folk belief is quite widespread in theaters around the world. This is his description:

 

“I actually have no idea where the Macbeth tradition came from. I think it might just be… I heard a rumor that the opening cast of Macbeth on Broadway—when it was first on Broadway—all got mono during the rehearsal process, so that might have been it. And I know that happened with the first cast at my high school when we did Macbeth a few years ago. Like, six of the twelve people in the cast all got mono. I think I heard of this superstition for the first time when I first said it in the theatre, because someone was like, ‘You can’t say that in the theatre!’ And I was like, ‘What?’ So I got in on this conversation about all this bad stuff that has happened. And at first I thought it was stupid, but then that night, there was a short circuit backstage and like, sparks flew out and ignited a piece of carpet. And we didn’t have wings my theater; we had garage doors on the sides of the stage because… well, Illinois state funding. And one of them just fell down in the middle of a set change and hit someone in the head. And a costume change didn’t work, and something ripped. And lots of bad stuff happened that night and I don’t know why, other than attributing it to the fact that ‘Macbeth’ was said in the theater that day. So now I’ve learned to call it ‘The Bard’s Thirteenth Play’ or something like that, or like, ‘The Play That Starts with M.’ So yeah, that’s where that came from, and I have like, weirdly believed in that ever since.”

 

Folk beliefs—or “superstitions”—like this one are very common in drama and theater environments. Performers are very aware that they are under a significant amount of pressure to make sure everything to goes right during the show. This can be quite stressful because there are so many things that are out of their control, from technical difficulties to illnesses that plague the cast. Perhaps by not saying a certain word, they are making an attempt to curb the things they cannot control. Furthermore, it gives them what they see as a rational explanation for why things do go badly sometimes. It provides them a scapegoat for the problematic issues that can arise during a performance. They shift the blame to an old curse on a forbidden word; this explanation is widely accepted in the theater community. My informant admits being quite skeptical of this at first, but the suspicions were confirmed for him when a string of disasters occurred after “Macbeth” was uttered in his theater. That was enough evidence for him; he does not want to be the reason for future problems by being the person to say “Macbeth.” It may simply be that he was expecting things to go badly, so when they did, he immediately linked them to the folk belief. Yet who is to say that this word does not have the power to curse a theater?

Folk Beliefs
Homeopathic
Magic

That Scottish Play

According to my informant, there is a long-running superstition in theatre surrounding the name “MacBeth.”  If you are in a theatre or involved in a theatrical production, you are not supposed to say the name “MacBeth” or quote lines from the play.  Instead of saying “MacBeth” you are supposed to say “That Scottish Show” or something along those lines.  It is akin to stepping on a crack or spilling salt; it is bad luck all around.  She says that if you say “MacBeth” around a theatre or while you are working on a play, then the theatre will burn down or someone will die on stage.  It’s just something you are not supposed to do.  My informant learned this from her high school theatre teacher.  Someone in rehearsal had said “MacBeth” and the teacher went pale and screamed at this offending student to leave the room and wash out her tongue or something.

After researching on Wikipedia and other websites, I have discovered that the taboo against saying “MacBeth” has many supposed origins.  Some believe it is because the original globe theatre burned down after a production of MacBeth, others believe it is because a real sword was accidentally used instead of a prop sword, and someone was killed during a performance.  Others still think it comes from the fact that the witchcraft lines used in the play are real magic, thus cursing each and every performance.  Some believe that Shakespeare stole these lines from an actual witching coven, and these witches cursed the play.  Some say that Shakespeare himself cursed the play so that no one but he would be able to put on a performance of the play.  Others still say that King James, for whom Shakespeare had written the play to impress, did not like the play very much.  Ashamed, Shakespeare would not talk about MacBeth openly, instead calling it “That Scottish Play.”  Speaking the name of the play, the names of the characters, and in some places directly quoting lines from the play, are all considered bad luck.

According to the site, productions of MacBeth are often accompanied by accidents and death.  Other theatres that put on the production will sometimes go out of business soon after.  MacBeth is, however, a more expensive production than most, and has more stage combat and special effects (old timey theatrical effects) than most plays, leading to the business failures and accidents, respectively.

If someone does speak the name “MacBeth” or quotes lines from the play, they are to exit the theatre immediately.  The offender must then spin around three times and then knock on the door.  The offender may not re-enter the theatre until someone lets them in.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Scottish_Play

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Signs

Theater Occupational Superstition: Macbeth (Version I)

Interview Extraction

Informant:”Now the interesting thing about a lot of old stories is- and this is actually something we mentioned in class, how there are often two or three explanations that might not even relate to one another for many of the old stories or traditions.  The Macbeth legend that I know, there are two- no, three variations of the Macbeth legend.  One is the story that the incantations used are actual witch’s incantations so therefore if you believe in witchcraft you do not want to evoke them.  The second one on Macbeth is that, Macbeth being an old ‘war horse’ and an audience favorite, was frequently the play that would replace a show that wasn’t doing well.  So if you heard someone talking about Macbeth, you didn’t like it because it meant that the play you are doing might be closing early, and be replaced by a revival of Macbeth.  I kind of like that legend the best.”

Analysis:

The Macbeth superstition is among the most common superstitions that people working in theater follow.  The legend of Macbeth is that it is bad luck to say ‘Macbeth’ in the theater.  To prevent unlucky things from happening such as the set falling over, people are encouraged to say ‘The Scottish Play’.  If you do make the mistake of saying ‘Macbeth’, you have to cut the curse by performing some kind of protection ritual.  This ritual changes based on who you talk to due to the fact that it is such widespread legend and many people have different ideas about the curse.  The first time I heard about the legend was in Boston when I broke the rule of not saying ‘Macbeth’ in the theater, and the people I was with made me run around the theater three times to cure the curse.  The next time I heard about ‘The Scottish Play’ legend was in Los Angeles, where the cure for the curse was to spin around three times and spit over your shoulder.  It is hard to say if the cure changes based on your location because people in theater often travel for work, so the ideas on the legend would be mixed.  There are many different origin stories behind the legend of Macbeth, and the stories my informant mentions are only some possibilities.

I am familiar with the legend that Shakespeare might have used real witch’s incantations in his play, but I am not sure if this is true.  It depends on your beliefs about witchcraft.  I think the reason why this particular legend is so popular is because witchcraft and magic hold such a high place of fascination in our imaginations, and believing in them is fun.  People are attracted to theater because it is about the magic of storytelling.  Therefore when people in theater participate in these kind of belief systems, they are doing so because it is an extension of working in an occupation that is full of play.  Theater is like magic in the fantastical sense, we rely on illusions to invoke a spectacular idea in the imaginations of the audience.

I was not familiar with the idea that perhaps Macbeth has transformed into a superstition based on the idea that it is a show that frequently replaces unsuccessful productions.  It is very possible that this legend is the true reason behind why the play has become part of theater lore.  This is because Macbeth is a very popular production and you can always find it being performed during a production season, so I can easily see it replacing a show that didn’t prove to be popular.  If this is true, then Macbeth probably evolved into a superstition of bad luck because it has it’s origins in bad luck.

My informant was born in 1949, Connecticut.  He works as a costume designer in the entertainment industry occasionally, and serves as the head of the USC costume shop in addition to being a faculty member for the USC School of Dramatic Arts.  He has more than 40 years of experience in the theater.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Legends
Magic
Narrative
Protection

Theater Occupational Superstition: Macbeth (Version II)

Interview Extraction:

Interviewer: (continued from a pervious question) “So it’s considered bad luck to whistle in the theatre, right?”

Informant: “If you are whistling backstage it is considered back luck. I don’t know what you do to cure that, it’s not like ‘The Scottish Play’ where you have to go outside, twirl around three times and spit into the wind or something. I never entirely understood that one…”

Interviewer: “And that ‘cure’ changes every theatre your at, doesn’t it?”

Informant: “It seems to be, the cure for that seems to vary a lot with who ever you talk to. I don’t know where that superstition came from.”

Interviewer: “And is it true that that they think Shakespeare actually took real witchcraft and put it in his play?”

Informant: “Uh, well… I don’t know. However. In the production that Orson Welles did for The Public Theatre, supposedly he hired real voodoo witch doctors to play the witches. Hints, Voodoo Macbeth. And at the beginning of the play, the witch doctors arrived and they requisitioned a goat. Which was provided to them. And they then proceeded to go into the basement of the theatre for three days and at the end of that time they emerged with their drums to use in the production. Presumably they also requisitioned some lumber with which to make the sides of those drums, I don’t know… Anyway. When the production opened one of the New York Times critics was particularly vicious and did not like the play. And the cast and the crew were sort of moping around because they had gotten this really horrid review and the compliment of witch doctors supposedly went to Orson Welles and said ‘this man made you all so sad, is he a bad man?’ And Orson Welles supposedly said yes. And then three days later the critic got sick and died. You may draw your own conclusions from that! But yes, supposedly the theory was that voodoo was done.”

Analysis:

The Macbeth superstition is among the most common superstitions that people working in theater follow.  The legend of Macbeth is that it is bad luck to say ‘Macbeth’ in the theater.  To prevent unlucky things from happening such as the set falling over, people are encouraged to say ‘The Scottish Play’.  If you do make the mistake of saying ‘Macbeth’, you have to cut the curse by performing some kind of protection ritual.  This ritual changes based on who you talk to due to the fact that it is such widespread legend and many people have different ideas about the curse.  The first time I heard about the legend was in Boston, when I broke the rule of not saying ‘Macbeth’ in the theater, and the people I was with made me run around the theater three times to cure the curse.  The next time I heard about ‘The Scottish Play’ legend was in Los Angeles, where the cure for the curse was to spin around three times and spit over your shoulder.  It is hard to say if the cure changes based on your location because people in theater often travel for work, so the ideas on the legend would be mixed.  There are many different origin stories behind the legend of Macbeth, and the story my informant mentions is only one possibility of why people in theater are attracted to this superstition.

The production of Voodoo Macbeth was a real production that occurred in 1936 under the Federal Theater Project, and the New York Times critic that gave the production a bad review really did die three days after he published his review.  Whiter or not the cause of death was related to Voodoo Macbeth remains to be determined.  His cause of death could have been influenced by homeopathic magic, in which his anxiety over the threat of the witchdoctors caused him to die or the cause could have been from contagious magic, in which the witchdoctors actually performed a spell.  This depends on your view of witchcraft.  Or perhaps his death was unrelated to the theater production, and the timing of his passing was just a coincidence.  The fact that this really happened gives the legend more power in the imaginations of those who tell the story.

Real instances such as this are what makes ‘The Scottish Play’ superstition such a popular belief in theater culture.  Another reason why this superstition is so popular along with other theater superstitions is that believing in them is fun.  People are attracted to theater because it is about storytelling.  Therefore when people in theater participate in these kind of customs, they are doing so because it is an extension of working in an occupation that is full of play.

My informant was born in 1961, Connecticut.  He has more than 30 years of experience in theater and has worked on over hundreds of productions.  He continues to work on theater productions today, and serves as the associate professor of theater practice and technical direction at the University of Southern California. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
general

A Variation on Macbeth Superstition

My informant grew up in Los Angelos. His father is from the Michigan and his mother is from Indonesia. He performed the following variation on the Macbeth theater superstition during a casual hangout with a friend group:

Informant: So the myth is amongst theater professionals that if you say the word Macbeth, it depends on how serious you are, sometimes people say on stage, in the theater, the most serious people won’t ever say the word, they’ll say ‘Mac B.’ or the ‘The Great Scottish Tragedy’ or whatever because it’s bad luck in the theater, because there’s all kinds of weird superstitions around the theater and I was taught this by my technical theater teacher who was also a guy who had been in it for years and years and years and he was running like an introductory group kids at school called Shakespeareans or Shakespeare Plays. And he to-told them about the rule about how you’re supposed to never say Macbeth and like some kid in the front row like was being a joke and during an entire performance, he kept saying Macbeth, Macbeth just trying to scare the actors and when the intermission came and the lights went down, a light crashed from the ceiling and landed right in front of this kid…and like, it would have killed him if it landed on him, like a huge light, that had never fallen before and never had any problems just like crashed right in front of him and that’s sort of the reason that I’ve been given to believe in the Macbeth rumors that some dark force will drop a light on you if you say it.”

The Macbeth superstition is common among theater groups. The rule remains the same: “Don’t say Macbeth”, but there are many variations on what happens to people when they say it or what one is supposed to do if they say it by accident. In my informant’s story, he attributes the reason for the light crashing to the “dark force” or curse behind the Macbeth superstition and furthermore, he changed from a non-believe of the superstition to a believer after “witnessing it in action”. My informant repeated emphasizes the safety of the light before the accident and after the accident to make his audience (a group of friends) believe that it was truly Macbeth that caused the accident. Ultimately, this is a good example of a personal account that adds to an already existent pool of knowledge that surrounds a superstition or belief, much like how UFO stories add to each other.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
general
Protection

Folk Custom – University of Warwick, Coventry, United Kingdom

„Whenever we put on a play at my school, we keep a copy of Macbeth on the stage. My Drama teacher insists it on it and now its common practice. Honestly I don’t know whether it has done wonders but at least it hasn’t brought about any problems yet”

This piece of occupational folklore is usually different in that the use of Macbeth within a Theatre apparently curses the performance. To the informant, and actor, this practice is carried out to bring luck to the production and the performance. Often a copy of the play will be used as prop or placed inside the drawer of whatever piece of furniture is placed on the stage. What I found interesting about this tradition at Warwick University is that they do exactly the opposite. I found this very interesting that it matches a lot of sayings that are supposed to wish luck, such as “break a leg”. My interpretation of this idea is that in encouraging something bad, you eliminate the curse in mentioning it so as to cause the opposite to happen. As far as thespian superstitions are concerned, this is a relatively controversial practice: usually bringing up Macbeth within a Theatre brings bad luck, and there are many practices discussed to counteract the curse, i.e. running around the theatre three times etc. I found this particularly important because it sheds light on the evolution of folklore and how things will adopt different meanings over time.

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