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

The Dead Man’s Hand

The first mention of the Dead Man’s hand goes back many years to 1886 when it was originally used to describe a full house made up of three jacks and a pair of tens. Over the years the cards ascribed to the hand have changed many times with jacks and sevens noted in the Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Folklore and the Occult Sciences in 1903. The hand later became associated with wild west hero Wild Bill Hickok and is more commonly described as a pair of black aces and eights.

The legend goes that in 1876, Wild Bill was playing a game of five-card stud and held four cards consisting of two black aces and eights and a ‘hole’ card. Why he didn’t have the fifth card in his hand is often argued, with some saying he had discarded a card, some saying that he was about to receive the fifth card. Either way, the story goes that as he was playing cards in the Nuttall and Mann saloon in Deadwood and was shot in the head from behind by a man called Jack McCall, reportedly leaving his blood marking the fifth card.

The fifth card has been argued over the years, with those in the town of Deadwood, displaying the nine of diamonds as the fifth card in their reconstruction of the saloon Hickok died in. A biographer by the name of Joseph Rosa argues that the hand consisted of two black aces, a pair of black eights and the queen of clubs, although, admittedly he cannot find any solid sources to back up his claims.

We may never know what the fifth card Hickok held was, but what we certainly do know if that the Dead Man’s hand is unlucky – at least for him.

Crickets

About the Cricket

Crickets are an insect found in most parts of the world where there is grassland. They are closely related to grasshoppers. Both creatures make a distinct rattling sound that they make by rubbing their legs against their back. Most people accept them as a harmless or simply welcome their arrival in spring, but in some cultures, they are a symbol of luck and fortune.

The Cricket and World Cultures

The cricket is considered lucky in the Far East, particularly in China and Japan where it is a symbol of the returning spring. Chinese people would catch them and keep them in their homes, believing that to capture and keep one in the home would allow for good luck and fortune for the household. They would often keep them in cages and listen out for their distinctive chirps.

We also know that some African cultures value and celebrate the cricket for much the same reasons as they do in China (see below). The symbolism with spring is obvious. Some European cultures have an altogether different approach. Although not considered good luck, killing one is considered bad luck.

Brazil has a much different approach. Depending on context, crickets could be a sign of stormy weather or of financial reward due to the person who heard it. A number of folklore traditions determine that the colour of the cricket determines good or bad luck: green for hope, black for ill health and grey for money.

How is The Cricket Considered Lucky?

Most cultures have spring festivals and symbols, but few associate them with abundance. It could be indicative of the new growth of spring and summer crops. Therefore, in China and Japan at least, they are seen of a potential bumper harvest and clement weather to come. Elsewhere, they are used as a guide to know when to plant crops.

China has the most fascinating history with the cricket. So much so, that an entire period of their kingdom is called “Cricket Culture”. They were revered and valued as symbols of luck and vitality, and cricket fighting regularly took place.

Many people in Africa live in ecologically delicate landscapes that rely on rains elsewhere for landscape fertility. The arrival of crickets was seen as important to the growth of new crops – much like in China and Japan.

There are some suggestions that the cricket symbolised with luck and material wealth originated with Native American tribes. This is why it has become such a potent symbol of luck in North America and Asia.

Crickets in the Context of Gambling

The association with luck, fortune and fertility is clear. Therefore, it is not much of a leap to understand why gamblers use crickets and cricket symbols as a good luck charm or ritual. Further, there is direct correlation between the cricket and financial good fortune and for why so many people in casinos use them.

It is known that crickets, like many but not all insects, lay hundreds of eggs at once in the breeding process. In most ancient cultures, having more than one child (especially in times when child mortality was high) was something to celebrate. It is also known that the larger the family, the more resources are required.

Once again, it is obvious how crickets have come to be symbolic of material wealth and why they are a popular lucky charm with casino gamers today.

White Elephants

Elephants have been deemed to be lucky on a global scale, but especially in the Hinduism religion. Elephant statues, patterned materials, charms and jewellery all make an appearance in an abundance across the world- and they are often hunted for their ivory tusks for money and also because they are deemed to be lucky. (more…)

Scarabs

In the times of Ancient Egypy, lucky amulets, good luck charms, lucky talismen and anything else that could bring good luck was in in a big way. This was because the Egyptians were highly superstitious and believed that there were evil spirits everywhere, whilst you were alive and whilst you were dead. One of these lucky charms favoured by the Ancient Egyptians was the scarab beetle. Alive or dead, these insects were used as good luck charms for Egyptians. Some of the games on Thrills are influenced by this, and use scarab beetles within them. (more…)

Maneki-Neko

Maneki-Neko may sound totally strange and foreign but you’ve probably seen one a million times before. Maneki-Neko translates to “waving cat” in Japanese, and that’s exactly what it is- a waving cat. You’ll probably have seen them in London’s China Town or in Chinese or Japanese shops and restaurants, sat on a shelf, waving away. The reason they’re seen in an abundance is because they’re considered to be a lucky talisman that will bring good luck to whomever owns one. (more…)

Alligator Teeth

Alligator teeth are one of many animal parts that are used to bring about good luck. This is most common among the Afro-American culture.

In the Afro-American culture, it is common to create mojo bags full of good luck charms before you go gambling. More often than not, alligator teeth are thrown into a mojo bag, above any other kind of charm. (more…)

Bamboo

Bamboo is considered lucky thanks to the huge role it plays in the Chinese interior methods in Feng Shui. Bamboo as a general plant is considered lucky, and you may want to give a bamboo plant to somebody before a big event or moment in their life in which you wish them well. However, there is another side to the good luck that comes with bamboo. These are the lucky bamboo numbers. (more…)