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"Macbeth" curse spooks thespians

Published: Monday, November 5, 2007

Updated: Sunday, June 17, 2012 14:06

The legend of the curse of "Macbeth" has swept through the theater community for over five centuries leaving bad fortune in its path of destruction.

To believe or not to believe in the curse, that is the question.

Many thespians and literary scholars consider "Macbeth" Shakespeare's darkest play.

The plot consists of betrayal, multi-murders, witchcraft, vengeance, and greed that demonstrate evil in the purest sense of the word.

To condense a rather complex plot, Lady Macbeth pleads with "evil spirits" to strip her of all mortal weaknesses so her husband, Macbeth, can murder their king and fulfill a prophecy delivered by three witches in which he claims the throne. This sets off a series of violent and bloody fights and murders throughout the duration of the play.

Shakespeare penned "Macbeth" over five centuries ago in 1606. Ordered by King James I to be preformed for King Christian of Denmark, the Queen's brother, "Macbeth" was written in a hurry and as a result it is Shakespeare's shortest play.

In effort to appease King James I who had an obsession with witchcraft, Shakespeare included real spells and black magic in the play.

The backdrop of England during the early 1600's provided plenty of worldly material from which Shakespeare could choose.

It is speculated that Shakespeare dabbled in a place where he did not belong. The legend tells that he angered witches with his use of spells and black magic practices and, as a result, they cursed the play.

Over the past five centuries, few productions of the play have gone unscathed by the curse. Odd occurrences, such as opening night prop malfunctions, last minute illnesses of leading actors and unexplained mistakes are all examples of the bad karma that is attached to "Macbeth."

This superstition has plagued the theatre since the first documented production on Aug. 7, 1606 in the Great Hall at Hampton Court.

On the night of the performance ,the 13 year-old boy, Hal Berredge, who was playing Lady Macbeth, came down with a fever and was unable to perform.

Shakespeare himself had to stand in for the role.

Theater director and acting teacher at UAlbany, Mark Dalton, has experienced the curse first hand.

In his early 20's, while stage managing a production of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Dalton unknowingly spoke the word, Macbeth, to another stage manager on the night of the final dress rehearsal.

"He really freaked out," said Dalton. "He was really scared and eventually just walked away."

The following night it rained, canceling the opening night performances since it was at an outdoor arena specially built for the play.

As a result, the crew went to a bar that night where Dalton received a phone call.

"It was the director telling us that a violent wind storm had come and destroyed the arena," said Dalton.

Dalton recalls thinking about the curse immediately.

"When I got that phone call, I just thought, 'oh boy'."

The scaffolding of the arena had been blown apart, props were destroyed and the set and lights had crashed onto the stage.

The damage was severe.

Although Dalton denies being superstitious,"Macbeth" is the only theatre curse he believes in.

If an actor is to say "Macbeth," or quote from it in a theatre, unless she or she is stating it as a line in the play, the curse will be invoked.

In order to prevent this, many aliases and nicknames have been created to refer to the play.

Two of the most famous nicknames are "the Scottish play," and, "Lady M."

The name ,"the Scottish play," was derived from the fact that the play takes place in Scotland and it is about the Scottish King, Duncan, who is slain by Macbeth.

Dalton chooses to refer to Macbeth as"Macbizzel."

He adopted the term from a former student from one of his acting classes.

If an unknowing actor, or one who simply is a non-believer, does utter the word "Macbeth," in a theatre during the night of a performance, he must immediately perform a ritual, or exorcism, to undue his actions-- otherwise it is believed that the production will suffer serious consequences.

Upon speaking the word, the actor must immediately exit the theatre, turn around three times, spit, knock on the door three times, and ask permission to re-enter the theatre.

"I do the ritual very frequently in class and at rehearsal," said Dalton.

There are numerous variations of this ritual.

Some of these include yelling curse words as you spin around, or reciting from Shakespeare's "The Merchant," which is considered to be a "lucky" play.

Dalton explained that there is a logical theatrical reason for why things go wrong with the play.

"It's a perfect set up for a problem," said Dalton.

The play, which takes place predominately at night, is done in the dark. The play demands special effects, due to the supernatural element. It also involves fighting and sword duels, both of which are done in the dark and are inherently risky to any production.

Although many of the strange occurrences during productions of, "Macbeth," could be contributed to logical reasons, or merely coincidence, many still believe.

Dalton forbids his students from speaking the play's name in class, or onstage, out of respect for the curse.

"I definitely think it's coincidence," said Dalton "But I'm just playing it safe."

Provoke the Macbeth curse? Here's what to do:

  1. 1. Exit theatre immediately
  2. 2. Turn around 3 times while yelling curse words
  3. 3. Spit once
  4. 4. Knock on theatre door 3 times and ask permission to enter
*Optional* Recite lines from Shakespeare's lucky play, "The Merchant."

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