“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?