What is the curse of 'Macbeth' and did Chris Rock get slapped after uttering it?

Daniel Craig’s Broadway production of the play was also halted moments before curtains up

The Chris Rock slap at the Oscars, left, and Daniel Craig's virus-hit Broadway production, have both been attributed to the 'Macbeth curse'. Centre: Laurence Olivier as the treacherous general in 1937. AFP, Getty Images
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Even before Will Smith was back in his seat after slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars, Twitter was already lighting up with tweets from attentive viewers who had, just moments before, heard Rock tell Best Actor nominee Denzel Washington: “Denzel. Macbeth. Loved it”.

In doing so, Rock, onstage at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, had failed to adhere to one of the most famous superstitions in theatre: you don’t mention the Scottish play by name.

Following the slap came the news this week that a production of Macbeth on Broadway, starring Daniel Craig as the treacherous king-slayer, was forced to cancel a preview performance just moments before curtain-up after a cast member tested positive for Covid-19.

Craig himself then came down with the virus the following day, as did a third cast member, shutting down the show ahead of its April 28 opening night after they ran out of understudies.

Having been associated with bad luck since it was first performed more than 400 years ago, misfortune has become part of the folklore surrounding Macbeth, but where did the stories come from? And did witches really curse the play?

Murder, mayhem and hurricanes: Shakespeare’s ‘cursed’ play

Denzel Washington is the most recent actor to portray Macbeth onscreen in the Oscar-nominated 'The Tragedy of Macbeth'. AP

The history of Macbeth is steeped in superstition, both factual and fiction, all of which have become entangled over time. According to theatre lore, the play’s link to bad luck began during its first performance, most likely at King James’s court in late 1606. The unsubstantiated tale has it that Hal Berridge, the actor playing Lady Macbeth, died suddenly and William Shakespeare was forced to step in to play the role himself.

During a 17th-century performance in London, actor Henry Harris who was playing Macduff, accidentally killed the actor playing Macbeth while enacting the duel scene.

A London performance in November 1703 coincided with a category two hurricane that ripped through the capital, while an argument over a stage invasion by a nobleman at a 1721 performance resulted in the theatre being burnt to the ground.

In New York, during aperformance at the Astor Place Opera House on May 10, 1849, more than 10,000 people gathered to protest against the appearance of British actor William Charles Macready. At the time, he was embroiled in a public war of words with American actor Edwin Forrest, who was starring in a competing production of Macbeth nearby. The protest escalated into a riot that killed 22 people.

One of the most famous stories involving the alleged curse concerns US president Abraham Lincoln. He read scenes from the play aloud to his friends while aboard the boat River Queen on April 9, 1865. Within a week, Lincoln was shot dead by an assassin while attending the theatre.

Laurence, Gielgud and Heston all fall foul

Laurence Olivier starred as Macbeth at London's Old Vic in 1937. While he was onstage, an 11-kilogram weight fell from the ceiling missing him by inches. Getty Images

The cloak of calamity that shrouds Macbeth isn’t only the preserve of olden times. During a 1934 run at London's Old Vic Theatre, the production went through four Macbeths in the space of a week.

In 1937, British actor Laurence Olivier was part of another production of the play at Old Vic, during which an 11-kilogram weight fell from the ceiling, missing him by inches.

More intriguingly, the Old Vic's founder, Lilian Baylis died of a heart attack just before the final dress rehearsal. Seventeen years later, the next time Macbeth was performed there, the portrait of Baylis in the theatre fell from the wall on opening night.

A 1942 production, which starred Sir John Gielgud, had three members of its cast die, while a 1953 open-air performance with Charlton Heston resulted in the actor suffering severe burns after his tights were accidentally soaked in kerosene.

What’s behind the Macbeth ‘curse’, and how to break it?

The three witches who give Macbeth the prophecy are also known as the Weird Sisters. Folklore has it that Shakespeare used real incantations in the play, leading to it being cursed. AP

Theatrical folklore has long held that Shakespeare used real incantations when creating the dialogue for the three witches who tell Macbeth the prophecy. Legend has it that a coven of witches, angry at the Bard for appropriating their spells, cursed the play.

More pragmatically, the curse story could have originated from how expensive it was for theatres to stage the play, which often resulted in them running into financial difficulties.

More logically still, any play that has been continuously performed for more than 400 years is bound to have suffered some misfortune along the way.

Whatever the reason, the word Macbeth is not allowed to be spoken in the theatre, and is instead referred to as “the Scottish play”. When referring to the character Macbeth, he is called the "Scottish king”.

Traditionally, anyone who utters the name has to carry out a cleansing ritual, some of which include leaving the theatre and not re-entering until invited to do so, or turning around three times and spitting on the ground.

It is also common practice to quickly recite a line from another one of Shakespeare's plays that is optimistic in nature, with: “Angels and ministers of grace defend us” from act one of Hamlet a favourite.

Updated: April 19, 2022, 3:43 AM
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