Cultural Symbols

Why is It Unlucky To Say ‘Macbeth’ In a Theatre?

William Shakespeare is one of the world’s most famous and celebrated writers. His plays are performed around the world, all of the time. Not all of his plays survived sadly, but those that do are the literary food of schoolchildren everywhere. One play stands out above all others. It’s one of his most celebrated yet for actors and behind the scenes theatre crew, it is considered unlucky.

Macbeth’s Unlucky Reputation

Actors are a superstitious bunch. It is said that no actor will utter the name of the play inside a theatre except in some circumstances. If discussion is unavoidable, it becomes “The Scottish Play” or “The Bard’s Play”. They will even go so far as to avoid quoting anything from the play unless they happen to be acting in a performance of it. However, they must either be rehearsing or performing at the time, in which case quoting it and using its name is unavoidable!

Should an actor commit this faux pas, he or she must exit the theatre, turn three times, spit on the floor and curse (any word will do). The actor must then knock on the door for re-entry; everything carries on as normal.

Macbeth Euphemisms

We have already discussed above that the play is referred to as “The Scottish Play” or “The Bard’s Play” to avoid any undue discussion and invoking the curse. There are other euphemisms to reference Macbeth. The character of Macbeth also goes by “The Scottish King” or “Scottish Lord”. Similarly, Lady Macbeth becomes “The Scottish Queen” or “The Scottish Lady”. Other euphemisms are “Mackers” or “MacB” to avoid saying the whole name.

Why Does It Have an “Unlucky” Reputation?

Macbeth is one of literature’s greatest tragedies. It is certainly one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. Whether its fame is because of this strange theatrical tradition or in spite of it is subject to some debate. There are several competing theories:

  • One unchecked claim is that when the play was first performed in 1606, the actor supposed to play Lady Macbeth died on stage (literally, not figuratively) and was replaced
  • If true, the reputation may have been enhanced with the death of the actor playing King Duncan in Amsterdam in 1707. Instead of a prop knife, a real knife pierced his heart and he died
  • Due to public riots over who should play the lead character in a local production, Macbeth has been the centre of many deaths. Modern obsessive fans have nothing on those of the past
  • Others suggest that the “curse” is based on something less tangible. There is the belief that the witches cast genuine spells. Although we are more sceptical of such claims today, the idea of the power of a spell does not die quite so easily
  • The final suggestion, and one that most feel is the most plausible, is that theatres performing poorly would pull a play from the schedule and replace it with Macbeth – a guaranteed draw. The play is not unlucky, but to incite it during a production of something else means that play will fail, leading to the theatre putting on Macbeth to save itself