The Bizarre History of ‘Macbeth’ Performances Would Even Scare Shakespeare

The Royal Shakespeare Company has released an itinerary for their 2018 theater lineup, and in March we can expect to see Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Macbeth, starring Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who) and Niamh Cusack.


Macbeth tells the story of a man driven by his and his wife’s thirst for power. They take every step necessary to ensure success, even going so far as to solicit the help of three evil witches. In the shadow of this already dark tragedy are actual tales of superstition and bad luck, which have followed the play around since its premiere in 1606. 


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No doubt the witchcraft present in Macbeth is an homage to Scottish King James VI’s obsession with dark magic. He was crowned in 1603 after a near-death experience at sea, which Shakespeare himself cites in a passage stating, “Though his bark cannot be lost, Yet is shall be tempest-tost. And while it may be a coincidence, the premiere of Macbeth itself was met with a slew of disasters. The actor scheduled to play Lady Macbeth dropped dead suddenly, forcing Shakespeare himself to take on the role.


Even in 1849 New York, during the Astor Place Riot, at least twenty people died when a fight broke out between two rival actors playing the title role of Macbeth in opposite productions: an American actor named Edwin Forrest and a British actor named William Charles Macready. More recently than that, in 1937, Laurence Olivier was nearly crushed to death by a falling stage weight while playing Macbeth, a la Looney Toons. 


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Another performance accidentally used real daggers where prop daggers should have been. This resulted in the untimely death of one of the leads. Even today, speaking the name ‘Macbeth’ within the theatre is said to release evil into the air. But fear not!


There is a surefire way to combat these dark spirits. One must simply exit the venue, spin around three times, hock a nice amount of spit onto the ground, say a curse, and knock on the door to be allowed back inside. So if you find yourself at the Royal Shakespeare Company this spring, be sure not to speak the cursed name. But if you choose to take that risk, bring along a healthy dose of dramamine should you become nauseated from all of that spinning!




Feature Image Via ThoughtCo.