The Scottish Play

This article is about the euphemism for the play Macbeth. For other plays, see The Scottish Play (Lee Blessing play) and The Scottish Play (Graham Holliday play).

The Scottish Play and The Bard's Play are euphemisms for William Shakespeare's Macbeth. The first is a reference to the play's Scottish setting, the second a reference to Shakespeare's popular nickname. According to a theatrical superstition, called the Scottish curse, speaking the name Macbeth inside a theatre will cause disaster. A variation of the superstition also forbids quoting it within a theatre except as part of an actual rehearsal or performance of the play.

Because of this superstition, the lead character is most often referred to as the Scottish King or Scottish Lord. Lady Macbeth is often referred to as the Scottish Lady. Sometimes Mackers or MacB is used to avoid saying the name.


Those who believe in the curse claim that real spells are cast in the three witches scene. Some of those who believe in the reality of the spells also believe real witches should be chosen to act the roles and that it is the failure to do so that creates the environment within which the curse supposedly has effect. Some believers claim that including the character Hecate, frequently cut from productions of the play due to questions about her part's authorship, intensifies the curse. It is said that the curse effects were initially introduced unwittingly by Shakespeare, and in a deficient form, in an early version of the play, however under threat of curse himself by a local coven of witches, which were increasingly common in Britain in the late-16th century,[1] he was induced to re-write the relevant portions to avoid the supposed dire consequences of incomplete incantations being uttered. It has been argued, however, that this was a fiction circulated by the Church in the context both of the run-up to the infamous trials of the Pendle witches, and of the spilling over of a rapid increase in concern over witchcraft in nearby Wales.[2][3] No such first version has ever been found.

Actors who do not believe the superstition will sometimes abstain out of politeness to those that do. Productions of Macbeth are said to have been plagued with accidents. According to legend, this dates back to the premiere of the play: an actor died because a real dagger was mistakenly used instead of the prop. The play does include more fight scenes and other such opportunities for accidents than does the average play, and the atmosphere in the backstage area of old-fashioned theatres was a prime setting for disasters, especially when dealing with potentially dangerous equipment. This would explain the accidents without invoking magic.

The popularity of the superstition might also be related to its mild hazing aspect. Veteran actors might relate some tale of woe that they witnessed personally due to someone invoking the curse, lending credibility and immediacy to the tale.

One hypothesis for the origin of this superstition is that Macbeth, being a popular play, was commonly put on by theatres in financial trouble, or that the high production costs of Macbeth put theatres in financial trouble, and hence an association was made between a production of Macbeth and theatres going out of business.[4] According to the actor Sir Donald Sinden, in his Sky Arts TV series Great West End Theatres, "contrary to popular myth, Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth is not the unluckiest play as superstition likes to portray it. Exactly the opposite! The origin of the unfortunate moniker dates back to repertory theatre days when each town and village had at least one theatre to entertain the public. If a play was not doing well, it would invariably get 'pulled' and replaced with a sure-fire audience pleaser – Macbeth guaranteed full-houses. So when the weekly theatre newspaper, The Stage was published, listing what was on in each theatre in the country, it was instantly noticed what shows had not worked the previous week, as they had been replaced by a definite crowd-pleaser. More actors have died during performances of Hamlet than in the "Scottish play" as the profession still calls it. It is forbidden to quote from it backstage as this could cause the current play to collapse and have to be replaced, causing possible unemployment."[5]

According to the superstition, Shakespeare got a few of the lines from an actual coven of witches, and when they saw the play they were greatly offended and cursed the play. Another tradition tells that the original propmaster could not find a suitable pot for a cauldron and stole one from a coven, who then cursed the play in revenge for the theft. It is believed that breaking the taboo calls the ghosts of the three witches to the show and it is they who cause all the mishaps. The last, and probably most spectacular view of the curse is that Shakespeare used the curse in the play to actually curse the play himself, guaranteeing that no one other than himself would be able to direct the play. It is also reported that when Shakespeare learned that James I, whose Scottish heritage he was trying to celebrate with the play, had not particularly enjoyed it, he became bitterly disappointed and would only refer to the play as "that Scottish play" for the rest of his life.

Cleansing rituals

When the name of the play is spoken in a theatre, tradition requires the person who spoke it to leave, perform traditional cleansing rituals, and be invited back in. The rituals are supposed to ward off the evil that uttering the play's name is feared to bring on.

The rituals include turning three times, spitting over one's left shoulder, swearing, or reciting a line from another of Shakespeare's plays.[6] Popular lines for this purpose include, "Angels and ministers of grace defend us" (Hamlet 1.IV), "If we shadows have offended" (A Midsummer Night's Dream 5.ii), and "Fair thoughts and happy hours attend on you" (The Merchant of Venice, 3.IV).[6] A more elaborate cleansing ritual involves leaving the theatre, spinning around and brushing oneself off, and saying "Macbeth" three times before entering again. Some production groups insist that the offender may not re-enter the theatre until invited to do so, therefore making it easy to punish frequent offenders by leaving them outside.

A realistic portrayal of a ritual occurs in the 1983 film The Dresser, in which Sir is the offender, and Norman, his dresser, officiates the propitiation.

The cleansing rituals have been parodied numerous times in popular culture, including in Blackadder, Slings and Arrows, The Simpsons, and Make It Pop.[7] For example, in the Blackadder episode Sense and Senility, a parody ritual performed by two actors involves slapping each other's hands pat-a-cake fashion with a quickly-spoken ritual ("Hot potato, orchestra stalls, Puck will make amends"), followed by tweaking the other person's nose. In Slings and Arrows, a guest director mocks the superstition by saying the word "Macbeth" onstage, spins around, and falls off on her third spin, resulting in an injury that takes her out of commission for the rest of the season. On The Simpsons, the core five are invited into a performance by Sir Ian McKellen (in Scottish attire, clearly in the title role). The family keeps saying the title, which only makes more bad luck strike the actor, including lightning striking him and the "MAC" falling from the signage (leaving the "BETH").[8]

Historical mishaps

Believers have attributed to the curse problems in early productions staged by Shakespeare himself, arson in 1721 by a disgruntled patron, the Astor Place Riot in 1849, injuries sustained by actors at a 1937 performance at The Old Vic that starred Laurence Olivier, Diana Wynyard's 1948 accidental fall, and burns suffered by Charlton Heston in 1954.[9]

On December 2, 1964, a fire burned down the D. Maria II National Theater in Lisbon, Portugal. At the time, the play being shown was Macbeth.[10]

See also


  1. Willis, Deborah (2004), "10. Magic and Witchcraft", in Kinney, Arthur F., A Companion to Renaissance Drama, Wiley-Blackwell
  2. Wilson, Richard (2002), "The pilot's thumb: Macbeth and the Jesuits", in Poole, Robert, The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories, Manchester University Press, pp. 126–145, ISBN 978-0-7190-6204-9
  3. Sally Parkin, "Witchcraft, women's honour and customary law in early modern Wales." Social History 31.3 (2006): 299-302.
  4. Harrison, Martin (1998). The Language of Theatre. Routeledge. p. 239. ISBN 0-87830-087-2.
  5. Great West End Theatres Sky Arts. 10 August 2013
  6. 1 2 Garber, Marjorie B. (1997). Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality. Methuen. p. 88. ISBN 0-416-09432-5.
  7. Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith (2012). 30 Great Myths about Shakespeare. John Wiley & Sons. p. 151. ISBN 1118324870.
  8. Burt, Richard (2007). Shakespeares after Shakespeare: an encyclopedia of the Bard in mass media and popular culture, Volume 2. Greenwood Press. p. 698. ISBN 0313331189.
  9. Hurwitt, Robert (August 19, 2010). "Cal Shakes risks curse of 'the Scottish play'". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved September 10, 2015.
  10. "O incêndio no Teatro Nacional D. Maria II | DN 150 Anos". Retrieved 2016-07-01.
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