The Scottish Play

Background Information:

My informant is a theatre major. She has told me that theatre people are very superstitious, and have many rituals that they do before and after a performance for good luck. Inversely, they avoid saying some things as they believe it will bring them bad luck. One of these things is saying the same of Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” inside a theatre. There are various reasons for this superstition and as many ways to ward it off if it is accidentally spoken. She learned this as a member of the theatre community, and it is a both a superstition that she doesn’t disbelieve, and also a fun initiation ritual to distinguish people new to theatre. She is signified in this conversation by the initials B.I.

Main Piece:

B.I.: So basically you’re not supposed to say the name “Macbeth” in a theatre. Like when one of us accidentally said it in rehearsals, we were told by our director that instead of saying “Macbeth” we should call it “the Scottish play.”

A.: Do you know where that superstition comes from?

B.I.: As far as I know there’s a lot of different reasons that the superstition exists. One of my friends told me that it comes from the fact that the witches in the play chant some actual words that witches said, and so it casts an incomplete spell which brings bad luck to a performance. It’s mostly to do with the witches I think, that they’re casting some kind of spell on the play. I’ve also heard that when the play was being performed some time in the past, the props director stole a cauldron from an actual coven of witches, and they cursed anyone who said the name of the play in a theatre.

A: And what kind of bad luck does saying it bring?

B.I.: Well I’ve actually never seen it bring any disaster, but from what I’ve heard people say that the actual performance will be disastrous, like people will forget their lines, and the lights or mics won’t work, that kind of stuff. Sometimes the actual play itself will go bust too, and it’s run will be cancelled. I’ve heard people say that the theatre could burn down too, or that it could flood.

A: If someone does say “Macbeth” what are they supposed to do next?

B.I.: They spin around in a circle and say “Macbeth” three times, sometimes outside the theatre, and then they come back inside. I’ve heard of people spitting too, maybe to get the word out of their mouth, but that’s not something we really do. It’s a kind of cleansing thing I think, like they’re forcing the witches and the curse outside of the theatre.

Performance Context:

After watching an episode of “Blackadder” in which two characters seemed to satirize the ritual of what to do should someone say the name “Macbeth,” I asked my friend in theatre whether or not she had heard of this before, and she related to me this ritual in person.

My thoughts:

I had often heard of this superstition before, and especially the parody of the cleansing rituals in the BBC comedy Blackadder, in which two actors have increasingly complex and violent ways of counteracting the curse, which the titular character keeps inciting in order to annoy the actors. Ghosts are a common theme in theatre and film superstitions, such as in the superstition surrounding the ‘ghost light’ that she later told me about. In the cleansing ritual, the use of the number three in the amount of times one must spin around is particularly important, as the number three often appears in folklore as the number of tries before a hero wins a fight, or the amount of trials a hero must face in a tale. This use of threes is part of Axel Olrik’s Epic Laws of Folk Narrative, and so therefore has often been noted in reference to folktales in particular, and extended to all aspects of modern life. I have heard of people turning the lights on and off three times before they go to bed, or checking three times that the front door is locked.