By Trent Cash
Among members of the theatre community, there is a long-standing superstition that uttering the name “Macbeth” within the confines of a theater will curse both you and the entire production that is currently being performed (Sherman, 2015). But fear not, the curse can be reversed by walking out of the theater, spinning around three times, cursing, and spitting (French, 2016). This curse, often referred to as the Scottish Play Curse, originated in early 17th century England, though the exact date is unknown (Royal Shakespeare Company [RSC], 2019). What is known, however, is that the belief came into existence because Shakespeare’s contemporaries in the 17th century, including King John I of England, believed in the existence of witches, and feared that the witches who chant “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble” at the beginning of Macbeth were real witches attempting to curse the show for eternity (RSC, 2019). While genuine adherence to this belief has faded as the witch’s place in popular culture has diminished, many actors across the western hemisphere still refuse to say the name “Macbeth” in theaters – though the purpose of this superstition has transitioned from genuine fear to little more than tradition (RSC, 2019). While the Scottish Play Curse is no longer genuinely believed in the way it once was, many similar superstitions still exist today. As such, understanding the mechanisms behind these kinds of beliefs is important to developing knowledge of where superstitions come from, how they are propagated, and how they can impact the day-to-day behaviors of individuals from all walks of life. Furthermore, the Scottish Play Curse is clearly an extraordinary belief because science tells us that witchcraft is most definitely not real, so a curse of this sort – which, importantly, has no viable mechanism for occurrence – would truly undermine our understanding of many fields of science. Despite its status as an extraordinary belief, the Scottish Play Curse is so ingrained in theatrical culture that resources explaining its history and sharing stories about its manifestations are plentiful, with sources ranging from actors’ experiences and dramaturgical histories to podcasts and YouTube videos.
When it comes down to evidence for the Scottish Play Curse, pretty much every argument in favor of the curse’s existence is anecdotal or coincidental – a trend that has been true since the curse’s inception. The notion of the Scottish Play Curse began around 1606, when the first production of Macbeth was plagued by a series of accidents, including the death of the actor (not actress) playing Lady Macbeth (RSC, 2019). Critics, however, are quick to point out that we don’t even know when Macbeth was first performed, as record-keeping wasn’t exactly stellar back then. In fact, the first record we have of Macbeth being performed comes from the journal of astrologer Simon Forman, who notes that he saw it in 1611 (Sherman, 2015). While the death of the actor playing Lady Macbeth in the original production cannot be confirmed, many confirmed tragedies associated with productions of Macbeth have occurred since, keeping belief in the curse alive.
One of the most-frequently cited examples of the Scottish Play Curse is 1849’s Astor Place Riot, a New York City riot instigated by a competition between two Shakespearean actors, Edwin Forrest and William Macready, who, at the time of the riot that killed between 22 and 31 people, were both performing – you guessed it – Macbeth (Apmann, 2016). Following the Astor Place Riot, the next mainstream example of tragedy associated with Macbeth occurred in 1937 when superstar actor Laurence Olivier was almost crushed by a stage weight while playing the titular character (The Shakespeare Company, 2017). In the same vein as these historical examples of tragedies associated with Macbeth, many accounts of the Scottish Play Curse have crossed into the media as recently as last year (Faires, 2018). With stories that include actor suicides, characters sleep-walking of stage, stage daggers being replaced with real daggers, and so much more, who could resist the allure of the Scottish Play Curse (RSC, 2019)? Well, apparently the skeptics can, because there are plenty of theatre-community folks who are quick to debunk the Scottish Play Curse. While the primary argument made by skeptics is that witchcraft isn’t real, but rather a manmade notion used to explain the unexplainable (Sherman, 2015), other critics explain that the dark themes and dim lighting used in productions of Macbeth simply put the actors on edge and make the production more accident-prone (Olivero, 2018). Furthermore, Dr. Paul Menzer, a professor at Mary Baldwin College, asserts that many of the accidents associated with Macbeth are simply the result of poor technical design, and that because Macbeth is performed so frequently, accidents are bound to happen every once in a while (Witmore, 2016).
In line with the assertions made by Dr. Menzer, I think a host of cognitive distortions are at the root of the Scottish Play Curse. First and foremost, I believe that the curse arose from a misunderstanding of base rates and probabilities. For example, approximately 50 professional productions of Macbeth were put on from 2011-2016, and that doesn’t include the thousands of non-professional productions performed by school, local, and regional theatres (Kopf, 2016). Probabilistically speaking, with that many productions with many performances each, something is bound to go wrong eventually. The true problem, however, is that people only notice the handful of times that something does go wrong because it “proves” the curse, meanwhile they ignore all of the examples of when nothing goes wrong – a phenomenon associated with the confirmation bias (Heshmat, 2015). Beyond the probabilistic factors, I would argue that performers use the curse as an excuse for mistakes. For example, if an actor forgets his lines, it’s a lot easier to blame it on the curse than it is to blame himself – but if he does well, it’s because he’s a great actor. This tendency to blame external failures for bad outcomes, but attribute successes to internal factors, is an example of the self-serving bias (Fournier, 2018). Furthermore, blaming the curse can help reduce the cognitive dissonance an actor feels when he makes a mistake, but knows he’s a good actor. By blaming the curse, he can adjust the cognition from “I made a mistake” to “the curse messed me up,” a belief that is more consonant with his knowledge of his own skill (Mcleod, 2018). Finally, many actors report having adhered to the tradition of the curse simply because it’s better to be safe than sorry (French, 2016), an attitude that is common with superstitions, particularly when the cost of engaging in the curse-preventing behavior is low (Van Zandt, 2019).
Beyond the cognitive distortions associated with the Scottish Play Curse, there are, without a doubt, a variety of social factors at work. First and foremost, I think it’s important to realize that belief in the curse, because it is held by such a specific group of people (theatre people), can serve as a group identifier or status symbol. As with many things in life, this helps the performers to create an in-group vs. out-group scenario in which believing in the curse is an indicator that someone belongs in the in-group. This is a powerful factor because new members may start to believe in the curse (or at least say they do) so that they fit in better with the group because they want to be accepted by their peers and superiors (Whitbourne, 2010). Furthermore, I think it’s important to realize that, particularly at the highest level, the theatre industry is very competitive, and under the high levels of pressure, having an excuse for a bad performance could become even more essential than it is in lower-pressure environments (Mbe, 2016). As such, the curse could easily become a handy crutch for performers who constantly fear losing their careers. Finally, many actors claim that the key to getting into character is to allow the character to permeate all aspects of their life, and since the story of Macbeth is dependent on a belief in witchcraft, developing a belief in the veracity of the Scottish Play Curse could simply be a technique for developing the highest-quality performance (Ohikuare, 2014). As this technique is passed down from actor to actor, it could easily create a social environment that is more-open to extraordinary beliefs than most.
Ultimately, I believe that the Scottish Play Curse, despite the terrible tragedies with which it has been associated, is a rather light-hearted extraordinary belief that, over the course of time, has turned from a genuine fear into little more than an inside joke for actors across the western world. While many of these actors may still have that nagging voice inside their head telling them to avoid saying the name Macbeth, I believe that very few would tell you that they truly believe in the Scottish Play Curse or any other form of witchcraft. That said, many actors are perfectly open to using the curse as a tool to mitigate the impact of a mistake, but instead of depicting it as a genuine curse as they might have in the 17th century, today they use it to turn their mistake into something to laugh at – and having that knowledge of the curse helps them to become more ingrained in their theatre community. All things considered, I don’t think the Scottish Play Curse is much different than any other superstition. Have you ever knocked on wood, thrown salt over your shoulder, or worn a lucky pair of underwear for too many days just to be safe? These behaviors, in my humble opinion, are no different than the way that actors view the Scottish Play Curse – a charming antiquity that can’t hurt, but can most definitely make you feel attached to the people around you because they do it too.
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