Double, Double, Toil and Trouble – The Story of the Scottish Play Curse

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.


Apmann, S. B. (2016, August 25). The Astor Place Riot. Retrieved from

Faires, R. (2018, November 2). Macbeth’s Myriad of Misfortunes. The Austin Chronicle. Retrieved from

Fournier, G. (2018, October 08). Self-Serving Bias. Retrieved from

French, E. (2016, October 18). How to counteract the curse of Macbeth (er… The Scottish Play). Retrieved from

Heshmat, S. (2015, April 23). What Is Confirmation Bias? Retrieved from

Kopf, D. (2016, September 22). What Is Shakespeare’s Most Popular Play? Retrieved from

Mbe, V. S. (2016, May 25). Theatre, Performance and Society. Retrieved from

Mcleod, S. (2018, February 05). Cognitive Dissonance. Retrieved from

Ohikuare, J. (2014, March 10). How Actors Create Emotions: A Problematic Psychology. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Olivero, T. (2018, August 22). Macbeth: But, like, how cursed is it, really? Retrieved from

Royal Shakespeare Company. (2019). The Curse of the Scottish Play | Macbeth. Retrieved from

The Shakespeare Company. (2017, May 25). The Macbeth Curse: A History. Retrieved from

Sherman, M. (2015, July 31). The Macbeth Curse: Myth or Reality? Retrieved from

Van Zandt, T. (2019, February 7). Learning and Superstition [Powerpoint slides]. Retrieved from

Whitbourne, S. K. (2010, December 7). In-groups, out-groups, and the psychology of crowds. Retrieved from

Witmore, M. (2016, September 20). Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 57 [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from

17 thoughts on “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble – The Story of the Scottish Play Curse

  1. I have no involvement with theatre, so I have never heard of this before. It’s really interesting! How do you think the “curse reversal” process was created?

    • Honestly, I have no idea, but if I had to guess I would say that one day somebody accidentally said “Macbeth” in the theater and he asked his friend what to do and his friend was like “I don’t know – go outside and spin around I guess?” and, lo and behold, it became the official strategy!

    • According to me a bunch of silly people were bored and help a round table conference, were they voted for the dumbest idea, for it to be treated as a curse reversal. The sillier the better.

  2. I took an Intro to Theatre class a couple of semesters ago, and while we never mentioned this particular superstition, we did address the superstitious nature that seems to go hand-in-hand with the theatre world. For example, the idea of keeping a light always aglow onstage (i.e., a ghost light), in order to allow for enough light that ghosts can continue to perform onstage once the living have gone home for the night. I think that superstitions arise from theatrical productions because of the inherent need for a show to be spectacular, which pushes everyone involved in the production to do anything they can to assure success of the performance.

    • I think you’re totally right that the dramatic nature of the theatre community encourages these kinds of beliefs!

  3. I was an active part of the Drama society, when in high school. Because of my involvement in drama I knew a little about this curse, but never dug deep. It was so interesting to read. I never we always used to joke around about this just to scare people in our group.

    • I’m glad someone else had never heard of it! I did theatre all throughout middle and high school, and hadn’t heard of this “curse” until I attended a professional show my senior year of high school!

  4. The Scottish Play Curse seems to fit in with those traditions that we keep more for our enjoyment than any fear – as you mentioned. It’s more of a cultural touchstone in theater (like knocking on wood) than it is an element of superstition. I wonder how extraordinary beliefs make these transitions from something that is approached with genuine fear or apprehension into something mundane or comical. Is it through the advancement of scientific knowledge/modernization? Do some things just become less scary to us as we modernize?

    • As I’ve read through all of the posts on this blog, this is something I’ve been constantly wondering. Many of our beliefs are so driven by the culture of the time that they can seem silly to a modern community, but they persist because they’ve been so ingrained as a part of the culture. It will be interesting to see if some of the fears of today (e.g. Alexa listening to us at all times) will look silly to future iterations of our society.

  5. I really enjoyed your blog post, because this whole superstition is not harmful like a lot of the conspiracy blog posts that I have read on here. Refraining from saying MacBeth in a theatre doesn’t harm anyone, at least I don’t think it does. This just goes to show that superstitions can be a part of anything. We see them with sports, before presentations, and in a lot of daily. Although I have never heard about this superstition before it makes sense, you don’t want to cause jeapordy to your performance at any cost, so why not just refrain from saying “macbeth” if it sets you at ease!

    • I love that you mention that, compared to many of the posts, this is a relatively harmless extraordinary belief – that’s one of the reasons I picked it! For all of the scary things in the world, sometimes it’s nice to just think about something fun for a change!

  6. I was a set builder once for a production of Sweeney Todd and lemme tell ya- we painted the name Macbeth all over the most critical step points of each actor in slightly lighter colors. Now, the cast and crew didn’t take lightly to the name so the crew decided to paint over most of them. Despite this, ironically enough the ones that remained were reported by the actors and actresses to actually help them remember lines and where to move to!

    Yes, the name was never uttered verbally while on set, but the entire cast was seen doing their own little “before the curtain” superstitious acts. They would all spin in a circle together, spit over their right shoulder, and then run to hit the back doors of the theater. It was rather odd, but you could tell it helped shake off the nerves and made them closer as a cast!

    • That’s a hilarious story about painting Macbeth all over the set – I know a lot of theatre kids that would’ve freaked out about it!

  7. The Scottish Play Curse is a really interesting superstition that I had no knowledge of due to my lack of theatre experience. Do you think maybe the self-fulfilling prophecy has anything to do with it and that maybe things go wrong if uttering the name “Macbeth” purely because people think that something will go wrong? I can see how confirmation bias plays a huge part and also availability bias because only the times where something went wrong are remembered overall the times that everything went right.

  8. I am really excited when I am reading your post because I have never heard the Scottish Play Curse. The curse has is the main theme is the play “Macbeth”. Macbeth obeys the prophecy and becomes the king, but he still cannot get rid of the curse and died at the end of the book. I think this curse is only a joke that obeys the plot in the play and they want to use this curse to attract more audience when they first created this curse. There are many doubts about the death of actor and I don’t believe it’s caused by the Macbeth’s curse.

  9. I think the theatre absolutely thrives off superstitions like this and like the ghost light. The theatre beckons one to escape the realities of the present through rich storytelling fueled by sheer imagination, so how fitting it is to have such fantastical superstitions as a part of the lore. I feel as though superstitions are a byproduct of this imaginative society, and in turn, superstitions act to bolster and sustain the creative atmosphere that is indeed the theatre.

  10. Scottish Play Curse of Lady Macbeth dying and other mishaps are sketchy. The tragedy of Macbeth is considered so unlucky that it is hardly ever called by name inside the profession. I have always loved Shakespeare. I think since Macbeth is a violent play, the fact that nothing went wrong until the fight scene is extremely concerning.

Comments are closed.