“The Scottish Play,” Or, Why You Don’t Say Macbeth in the Theatre

Informant: One of the biggest is the myth surrounding saying the… “Scottish Play” name, or… Macbeth, which I typically don’t like saying, because – I used to not be as superstitious about this as I am, but… anyway. Originally, I believe, it came from the fact that there are witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and they’re showing magic onstage, and I’m sure to a bunch of villagers seeing Shakespeare, that would’ve probably provoked a different reaction than it would today, hence leading to the idea that the name “Macbeth” is associated with an evil curse. 

So typically, the way this manifests in theatres, if someone says “Macbeth” backstage of a show that is currently running or in rehearsal – first of all, they will immediately be shunned by all of their friends. Second of all, they would have to perform some sort of ritual to break the curse. Now I’ve seen multiple versions. Some are like, spin around three times, spit, and swear. There’s another where you have to physically leave the theatre and wait for someone to let you back in. I don’t know what these are supposed to do besides help me feel better, but it does definitely prevent people from saying it, besides the fact that there is generally bad luck associated within the production itself. It’s supposed to cause some sort of tragedy onstage – which, in my experience, has actually happened, so now I don’t mess with that. 

Me: What happened?

Informant: So, on three separate occasions, when someone said it during a run of a show, a lead has had an injury onstage. Something – I mean, arbitrarily minor. In one, we had this old rusty stove – I was the lead in this production, which is why I remember it the most – and I ended up slamming my finger into it, and causing, like, gushing blood onstage, and they thought I’d need to get a tetanus shot. So that was fun. Now I don’t mess with it, and I will make you spin around three times and spit and say – oh! Or say your favorite Shakespeare show, or favorite line from a Shakespeare show. I don’t know what that’s supposed to do besides, like, appease the Shakespeare gods, but whatever.

My informant is a 20-year-old college student, majoring in theatre, who recently returned from a study-abroad semester in London, England. She’s been doing theatre for twelve years now in various parts of the country, so she’s heard many versions of theatre legends, tales, superstitions, and other pieces of theatre folklore.

I’ve also heard many versions of the Macbeth legend, but the one that I’ve heard most often is actually a different version: I’ve heard that the lines the witches say are actually real witches spells, and the witches he took the spells from were angry (like an early copyright problem!) and put a curse on the play. All of the antidotes though are familiar, and I’m certain there’s more out there that neither me nor my informant had heard before. While I’ve never had a direct interaction with the Macbeth curse, I’ve heard many stories of those who have, enough that I believe in the curse too. At the very least, I try to avoid saying Macbeth in a theatre out of respect for tradition, and out of respect for those who do believe in the curse.