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Toil and Trouble: The Curse of Macbeth
https://twitter.com/intent/tweet?text=The%20Curse%20of%20Macbeth%20should%20make%20Shakespeare%27s%20play%20too%20dangerous%20to%20perform.%20Is%20this%20the%20case%3F&url=http%3A%2F%2Fskep.us/4222The Curse of Macbeth should make Shakespeare's play too dangerous to perform. Is this the case?
Skeptoid Podcast #222 September 7, 2010 Podcast transcript
They simply call it "The Scottish Play", because even to utter the title of Shakespeare's Macbethis to invite bad luck. The very same bad luck, in fact, that has plagued performances throughout its history, according to theater lore. From tragedies onstage to deaths and riots surrounding performances, the curse of Macbeth is one of the most enduring superstitions of the stage, and seems to be taken quite seriously.
The basic claim is that performing Macbeth, or even speaking its title in a theater, invokes an ancient curse as old as the play. This curse strikes actors or other people associated with the performance, sometimes killing or maiming them. This curse, so goes the tale, has its roots in the play's occult storyline of witchcraft, murder, and ghosts. The most often cited reason for the curse is a belief at the time that Shakespeare had used real witches' incantations in the famous scene where the three witches chant:
Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
The legend is that Shakespeare wanted to throw something special into the play to please King James, who had written the 1597 book Daemonologie which discussed witchcraft and warned against its use. So Shakespeare used some of King James' documented incantations in the scene, probably hoping to ingratiate himself with the King. No good evidence exists for this, but the story maintains that some practicing witches saw the play and took great offense at this misuse of their sacred craft, and placed a curse upon any who might perform Macbeth. Now, whenever the play is given, the three witches whose spells were appropriated are awoken and it is they who cause the disasters onstage.
If you search the Internet for examples of such disasters, you'll find plenty. I could rattle on for 25 minutes just listing some of the many that have been reported: Actors being killed or injured during the stage fights when real weapons were used by mistake, natural disasters happening during performances, accidents and illnesses striking the crew before and after shows; the list goes on and on until you're bored to death and would be glad to count yourself among the casualties. One such episode, however, deserves special mention for its extraordinarily high body count.
Often cited as the most dramatic evidence of the curse is a riot that erupted at the Astor Place Theater in New York in 1849. The National Guard was called and fired on the crowd, killing at least 25 people and injuring some 120, all due to rival support for two different actors playing Macbeth on the same night at two different theaters. At least, that's usually how it's framed by fans of the curse. In fact, the Astor Place Riot had everything to do with class struggles in New York City, and little to do with Macbeth. Unrest had been growing for years between the working class, which included many Irish immigrants, and the Anglophile upper class. The discontent was coming to a head, and the National Guard was already in place some days before the actual riot on Macbeth's opening night. Irish and American workers planned to express themselves by crashing the opening night of the upper class's favorite British actor, William Macready. They stoned and tried to burn down the theater, people started shooting guns, and by morning the cobblestones were awash with blood. The next night an angry mob demanded an explanation from the authorities, and more violence ensued, this time resulting in the death of a young boy.
The Astor Place Theater had been built, apparently, largely as a way for the well-heeled to have somewhere to go other than the Bowery Theater, traditionally the principal theater in town, but which catered to all classes. The rising American star with a blue collar image, Edwin Forrest, planned his opening on the same night as Macready's largely as a slap in the face to this rising elitist sentiment. So although the riots were technically touched off by performances of Macbeth, the play itself had nothing to do with them. The riots were due, and would have happened whether Macbeth existed or not. If the three witches had chosen this particular performance to cast spells and cause trouble, they would have been well advised to hide under a table.
Many people have tried to put forth rational explanations for the events attributed to the curse. Often cited is that Macbeth has a lot of dim lighting and fight scenes using stage weapons. Such weapons are still dangerous, just not very sharp; and you're bound to have statistically more injuries in any play that has weapon fights than in plays that don't. Statistically, we should also expect more falls and other onstage accidents in plays with dim lighting. Even in brightly lit plays, it's hard enough to see what you're doing onstage because of the stage lights shining in your eyes; in a dimly lit scene, you could easily be practically blind. I don't really buy the dim lighting explanation. Granted my own stage experience is fairly limited, but when I'm brightly lit is when I have the hardest time seeing. Dim lighting, even no lighting, lets my eyes adjust and I can see my way around much better than when I'm blinded by spotlights. Other stage performers' experiences may vary.
But let's stop here and think back to the skeptical process. One of our fundamental rules is that before trying to explain a strange event, you must first establish whether that strange event ever actually happened. In this case, we need not bother looking into the validity of the curse, or any other such thing, unless and until we've established that there is in fact a history of mysterious accidents associated with the performance of Macbeth that deviates beyond the range of what typically happens in plays.
I was inspired by an earlier success I had when researching
https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4106the curse of King Tut, when I discovered that a doctor had performed a retrospective cohort study on the people who were alleged to have fallen victim to that curse. He discovered that, when analyzed properly, the curse (if it existed) was not a terribly effective one. The lifespans of those who were exposed to the curse did not significantly differ from those who were not exposed. Encouraged by the publication of this study (it was in the British Medical Journal), I turned to all the scholarly sources to see if anyone had performed a proper statistical analysis of theater accidents, ideally involving Macbeth. I even assigned this task to my backup research team, a
https://skeptoid.com/research.phpGoogle Groups list to whom I'll throw a question or two on occasion when I have trouble tracking something down. It's a heck of a list; hundreds of scientists and researchers in virtually every discipline, but even this mighty team came up short. We couldn't find any such research published anywhere. There is no end to scholarly articles discussing the curse: Lists of tragic events, Shakespeare's history with King James and the witches, and how to combat the curse (leave the theater, spin around, spout some profanity); but not a whisper inquiring into the proving curse's existence.
So, college students, there's a research project for you. This would not be easy. First you'd have to eliminate things like natural disasters that can't reasonably be attributed to the performance, and things like accidents striking people weeks after the play. To include these would require you to also correlate any other plays the victim may have attended, since it makes just as much sense to blame the accident on a different play he may have also seen in the same time period. Theaters may have records of accidents occurring on their premises, and those dates could certainly be matched with whatever was being performed. The number of cast and crew required would likely impact the chances of an accident for any given show, as would the use of dangerous equipment like lights, trap doors, flying harnesses, trickery scenery, and stage weapons. All of these things would need to be taken into account. It's little wonder that we couldn't find a record of such a study being performed.
Even the longest of the published lists of tragedies associated with Macbeth performances does not seem surprising, considering that we're talking about one of the world's most popular plays that has been performed constantly worldwide for more than 400 years. But since it appears that no analysis has been done, we can't conclude for certain that Macbeth is any more or less dangerous to perform than any other play.
The longest lists I've seen include perhaps twenty or thirty tragedies. Considering that there have been unknown tens of thousands (possibly hundreds of thousands) of Macbeth performances, the curse (if it exists at all) appears to be decidedly impotent. An actor probably stands a greater chance of having a car accident on his way to the theater than he has of being struck by the curse of Macbeth — that's another research project for a student.
Therefore, since we can't establish that the curse exists, we don't yet have a confirmed phenomenon to explain. We have a tall tale, told and retold over the centuries, and sufficient reason to suspect that wizened veteran actors may enjoy having a little fun at the expense of the newbies, perpetuating the story of a curse regardless of whether the actual number of associated accidents deviates from the norm.
Let's also keep in mind that the legend of the curse began almost right away when Shakespeare originally opened the play. Shakespeare was probably not a fool and knew that there's no such thing as bad publicity. What show's ticket sales would suffer if word got out that one of the actors might be accidentally killed during the performance? A little curse never hurt anybody (well, maybe a few).
So the curse of Macbeth: fact or fiction? I'm going to remain unconvinced that there's anything extraordinary going on, but will eagerly take a look at any good research that emerges. A list of anecdotes on the Internet is insufficient to prove that a supernatural force must be in effect.
Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in 1606. It is important to understand the political context in which it was written, as that is the key to the main theme of the play, which is that excessive ambition will have terrible consequences. Shakespeare was writing for the theatre during the reigns of two monarchs, Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. The plays he wrote during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, such as A Midsummer Night's Dream, are often seen to embody the generally happy, confident and optimistic mood of the Elizabethans. However, those he wrote during James's reign, such as Macbeth and Hamlet, are darker and more cynical, reflecting the insecurities of the Jacobean period. Macbeth was written the year after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603, she had no children, or even nephews or nieces. The throne was offered to James Stuart, James VI of Scotland, who then became James I of Britain. He was a distant cousin of Elizabeth, being descended from Margaret Tudor, the sister of Elizabeth's grandfather, Henry the Eighth. James was the son of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, who had been deposed and imprisoned when he was a baby, and later executed on Elizabeth's orders. Brought up by Protestant regents, James maintained a Protestant regime in Scotland when he came of age, and so was an acceptable choice for England which had become firmly Protestant under Elizabeth. However, his accession was by no means a popular choice with everyone. Since he was not a direct descendant of Elizabeth, there were other relatives who believed they also had a strong claim and James feared that discontented factions might gather around them. At first the Catholics had hoped James might support them, since his mother had been such a staunch Catholic, but when they realised this would not happen conspiracies developed, one of which was the Gunpowder Plot. Guy Fawkes and his men tried to blow up James and his parliament in 1605. The conspirators were betrayed, and horribly tortured on the rack until they confessed. They were then executed in the most brutal fashion as a warning to other would-be traitors. Shakespeare's play Macbeth is to some extent a cautionary tale, warning any
Guy Fawkes—look familiar?!
The rack was used throughout Europe for centuries. It came in many forms, but here's the basic idea: The victim is tied down while some mechanical device, usually a crank or turning wheel, tightens the ropes, stretching the victim's body until the joints are dislocated. Continued pressure could cause the limbs to be torn right off. Such
http://science.howstuffworks.com/legal-torture.htmtorture was known as being "broken on the rack," "racked," or "stretched on the rack." It could be combined with other forms of torture to make things even more painful. In one story, a Christian youth was tied to a wheel and his joints destroyed by the stretching. A fire was lit beneath the wheel, adding to the torture. Eventually, the fire was extinguished by the downpour of blood as the victim's limbs were torn free [source:
http://history.howstuffworks.com/10-medieval-torture-devices11.htmGallonio].other potential regicides (king-killers) of the awful fate that will inevitably overtake them.
Religious thinkers in the Middle Ages had upheld the idea of 'The Great Chain of Being'. This was the belief that God had designed an ordered system for both nature and humankind within which every creature and person had an allotted place. It was considered an offence against God for anyone to try to alter their station in life. After death, however, all would be raised in the kingdom of heaven, if they respected God's will. Since royal rank was bestowed by God, it was a sin to aspire to it. This doctrine – a convenient one for King James – was still widely held in Shakespeare's day.
Mary Queen of Scots
Although his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, was a beautiful and charming woman, James I was aware he was ugly and lacking in the charisma which inspired loyalty. But he was an intelligent and well-educated man, and espoused various beliefs which he felt would keep his position secure. One of these was the so-called 'divine right of kings'. This was the belief that the power of monarchs was given directly by God, and thus monarchs were answerable only to God. Any opposition to the King was an attack on God himself, and therefore sacrilege, the most heinous of sins. The anointing ceremony at the coronation made the King virtually divine. All the Stuart kings strongly supported the belief in their 'divine right' to rule as it was an effective safeguard of their position. They even claimed Christ-like powers of healing. In Macbeth, Shakespeare alludes to King Edward of England successfully healing the sick: 'such sanctity hath heaven given his hand'. Queen Anne was the last British monarch who used 'the Queen's touch' in this way.
Shakespeare's plot is only partly based on fact. Macbeth was a real eleventh century Scottish king, but the historical Macbeth, who had a valid right to the throne, reigned capably in Scotland from 1040 till 1057. He succeeded Duncan, whom he had defeated in battle, but the real Duncan was a weak man, around Macbeth's own age, not the respected elderly figure we meet in the play. In reality, Macbeth was succeeded by his own stepson, not by Duncan's son, Malcolm, who came to the throne later. The Stuart kings claimed descent from Banquo, but Banquo is a mythical figure who never really existed. Shakespeare found his version of the story of Macbeth in the Chronicles of Holinshed, a historian of his own time. Holinshed does include a Banquo in his version, but he is also a traitor who assists Macbeth in the murder. As a tribute to the Stuarts, and James in particular, Shakespeare presents Banquo as a wise, noble and regal figure who arouses jealousy in Macbeth as much for his own good qualities as for the promise the witches make to him of founding a dynasty.
Shakespeare and the Court
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare's acting company was called the 'Chamberlain's Men', and it is known that they performed for the court. After the accession of James they changed their name to the 'King's Men' as a tribute to him. The patronage of the King and court was obviously valuable to Shakespeare. In Macbeth, Shakespeare seeks to flatter and please the King in various ways. Macbeth, the character who usurps the place of a lawful King, is shown as losing everything as a result – he becomes hated and demonised by all his subjects, as does his wife, who supports him in his crime. Banquo, whom the Stuarts claimed as their ancestor, is presented in a completely positive light. When the witches show Macbeth the future, he sees a line of kings descended from Banquo that seems to 'stretch out to the crack of doom'. This flatters King James with the promise of a long-standing dynasty, although in fact James's father, Charles I, would be executed, and the Stuart line was to die out with Queen Anne in 1714.
Shakespeare also included other enthusiasms of the King in the play. James had written a book called Basilikon Doron, which looks at the theme of kingship. In the book, James identifies the ideal king as one who does his duty to God and to his country and who is also a man of spotless personal integrity. In the play, Shakespeare, too, explores this topic, with the character of Malcolm representing the template of the ideal king. In addition, the idealised portrait of Edward the Confessor, the 'holy king' who has the power literally to heal his people, would come across to a contemporary audience as an indirect tribute to James himself. James was also very interested in the supernatural, and had written a paper called Daemonologie on the subject. During his reign as King of Scotland, James is known to have been directly involved in some witch trials at North Berwick. Women were regularly burnt as witches, and Shakespeare presents his witches unequivocally as powerful and evil emissaries of the devil. In his day, the majority of the general public, too, believed in witches and the power of the supernatural, and the witch scenes would have been taken very seriously.
Guided Reading Questions
What is the theme of Macbeth?
Explain what the Gunpowder Plot is, and include Guy Fawkes.
How were the conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot tortured and eventually killed?
Explain the Great Chain of Being.
What is the Divine Right of Kings?
Using context clues in the following sentence, define sacrilege: “Any opposition to the King was an attack on God himself, and therefore sacrilege, the most heinous of sins.”
What magic power did kings believe they received from the Divine Right?
Compare and contrast the real Macbeth, Duncan, and Banquo to Shakespeare’s.
Why did Shakespeare write Banquo as such a wise, noble figure?
List three ways in which Shakespeare attempts to flatter King James in the play:
In the phrase, “…Shakespeare presents his witches unequivocally as powerful and evil emissaries of the devil,” define emissaries using context clues.
What do people call Macbeth to avoid saying the name of the play?
According to urban legend, how does the curse of Macbeth start?
List three types of disasters that people attribute to the curse.
What are two rational explanations for the supposed curse?
Why was the Astor Place Theater built in New York?
What did the rival support of William Macready (who performed at the Astor) and Edwin Forrest (who performed at the Bowery) symbolize?hical figure who never really existed. Shakespeare found his version of the story of Macbeth in the Chronicles of Holinshed, a historian of his own time. Holinshed does include a Banquo in his version, but he is also a traitor who assists Macbeth in the murder. As a tribute to the Stuarts, and James in particular, Shakespeare presents Banquo as a wise, noble and regal figure who arouses jealousy in Macbeth as much for his own good qualities as for the promise the witches make to him of founding a dynasty.
What did the rival support of William Macready (who performed at the Astor) and Edwin Forrest (who performed