‘Something Wicked this Way Comes’: Witchcraft in Scotland and the Curse of Macbeth
The theatre world is filled with superstitions: always turn the ghost light on before leaving an empty theatre, never whistle backstage, tell an actor to ‘break a leg’ instead of ‘good luck’, keep peacock feathers off the stage, and never — under any circumstance — utter the name ‘Macbeth’ inside a theatre. While other theatre superstitions have their own stories (ghost lights keeps the theatre spirits at bay and peacock feathers have an ‘evil eye’ on them) the fact that the name of an incredibly famous play could be cursed seems pretty inconvenient… especially if Macbeth is the play being performed.
Macbeth, in a Nutshell
William Shakespeare’s beloved play Macbeth is believed to have been composed sometime during the first decade of the seventeenth-century, possibly 1606. It was originally published in the so-called ‘First Folio’ in 1623 alongside a collection of Shakespeare’s other plays, though some scholars argue there was the possibility of an earlier version of the manuscript.
The theme of Macbeth focuses on the consequences of achieving one’s ambitions at any cost, particularly when it comes to feelings of guilt. Macbeth, formally a Scottish general, ascends the throne as King of Scotland after receiving a prophecy from three witches that foresaw him as the future king. However, his journey to gain and maintain his status as King of Scotland was plagued with murders committed by Macbeth under the initial influence of his cunning and manipulative wife Lady Macbeth. In the end Lady Macbeth loses her mind and kills herself (famously, she thinks her hands have been stained with blood that she can’t wash off) and Macbeth himself is beheaded on the battlefield.
The story is timeless, the characters are complex and memorable, and the play revered throughout the world. But what about Macbeth makes the play cursed?
Double, double toil and trouble…
Legend says a coven of witches is responsible for the curse on Shakespeare’s play. Allegedly, the witches’ chants throughout Macbeth along with the list of unpleasant ingredients being thrown in their cauldron (eye of newt, toe of frog) are thought to be ‘real spells’ that Shakespeare appropriated for the sake of accuracy and drama. The following stanzas from Act IV Scene I contain the allegedly stolen spells:
Round about the cauldron go;
In the poison’d entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter’d venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver’d in the moon’s eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.
O well done! I commend your pains;
And every one shall share i’ the gains;
And now about the cauldron sing,
Live elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
It’s said that the coven objected so strongly to the inclusion of their spells that they put a curse on the play, bringing misfortune to anyone who named the murderous king or quoted any lines from Macbeth (outside of rehearsal or performance) for the next few hundred years. A very… specific and weirdly considerate curse. Some believe the coven was also upset that the spells included were not complete. Whether or not this represented a form of sacrilege isn’t clear.
In a Penguin article from 2018 David Bellwood, Access Manager at Shakespeare’s Globe, proposed that the superstition surrounding these verses could be explained by the spells being written in tetrameter (four ‘feet’) instead of Shakespeare’s usual pentameter (five ‘feet’), making these particular lines sound “a bit witchy”. However, there hasn’t been any tangible evidence that Shakespeare stole the spells from witches, and it’s instead likely that he was influenced by interactions with individuals who “dabbled in herbal treatments and medicine,” according to Dr. Anjna Chouhan of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
Nevertheless, including witchcraft in Macbeth during a period saturated with witch hunts and general supernatural paranoia was a bold choice. Between the 15th and 18th centuries, Shakespeare’s native England saw between 500 and 1000 individuals put to death for suspected witchcraft. Ninety-percent of the accused were female. The Witchcraft Act 1563 had only just been reformed in 1604 to include individuals who made a pact with the Devil, keeping fears surrounding witchcraft ever present in the minds of public, including those who attended stage productions of Macbeth. In Macbeth‘s setting of Scotland, witch trials were held during the same period as England. But it was the actions of particular individual that may have also influenced the cursed nature of Macbeth.
Wrath of the Scottish King
King James VI and I, who reigned in Scotland from 1567 and England and Ireland from 1603 until his death in 1625, had a particularly strong distaste for witches. In August of 1589 James, then 23, married 14 year old Anne of Denmark by proxy. On 1 September 1589 a Danish fleet set sail to bring the Queen consort to her new home in Scotland. However, the trip was cut short when they were hit by a storm so terrifying that the commander of the fleet believed witchcraft was to blame for the gale force winds and torrential downpour. The fleet turned back, separating the newlyweds until James crossed the sea to retrieve Anne himself. In spring of 1590 after spending time in Copenhagen, James and Anne returned to Scotland after another dangerous and stormy journey across the North Sea… also allegedly blamed on witchcraft. To King James, witches were personally trying to end his life and the life of his young queen. And they were going to pay.
His vendetta against the alleged Scottish witch community peaked with the witch trials in the Scottish town of North Berwick where between 70-200 accused witches were tried, tortured, and executed for their apparent crimes between 1590 and 1592. The torture endured by the so-called witches was said to be nothing short of horrific, including devices such as ‘breast rippers’, which were used as a means to extract a confession, and forcing the accused to wear a Scold’s Bridle while awaiting their trial as a way of removing their ability to speak. Keep in mind that these women were not witches, but completely innocent individuals being mangled and murdered for simply existing under a superstitious monarch.
And at the centre of these barbaric trials was King James himself, who was said to personally supervise the horrific torture endured by the women. The group of ‘witches’ convicted of causing the storms that nearly sunk James and Anne’s ships were among those on trial and included a midwife named Agnes Sampson. Agnes was also accused of sinking a ship carrying Jane Kennedy, companion of James’ late mother Mary, Queen of Scots on September 1589. It was said that Agnes performed the spell with a number of other ‘witches’ by submerging a dead cat attached to pieces of a dead man into the sea near Leith, repeating this same ritual in an attempt to sink of ships of James and Anne.
Agnes was said to confess her crimes to King James himself, claiming that the Devil had visited her and took the forms of a black man, a dog, and sometimes a haystack and that he offered to help her and her fatherless children. She also confessed to attempting to steal clothing owned by the king for a spell, to attending a witch’s convent in North Berwick, and to collecting powdering bones to be used for soothing pain during childbirth. While James was sceptical at first, Agnes allegedly narrated a private conversation he had with his wife the night of their wedding. This was enough proof for the king that everything Agnes confessed to was true. She was charged with witchcraft and taken to Castlehill where she was strangled and burnt at the stake on 28 January 1591. Agnes is said to haunt King James’ former residence Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh… and honestly who can blame her.
In 1597, the King published his Daemonologie, a book on black magic and an endorsement of the practice of the witch hunt. Topics included necromancy, comparisons between God and the Devil, curses, astrology, and the four categories of demonic entities (‘spectra’, ‘obsession’ aka succubae and incubi, ‘possession’, and ‘fairies’). Daemonologie was published the same year as the Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1597 that saw at least 400 accused witches put on trial, around 200 of which were executed. Three additional nationwide witch hunts commenced in Scotland during the seventeenth-century: one from 1628-1631, another from 1649-1650, and a final (and especially devastating) witch hunt between 1661-1662.
Overall, a very grim chapter of Scottish history… but how does this all connect with The Scottish Play?
King James’ obsession with witches didn’t go unnoticed by Shakespeare (or anyone, for that matter). It’s said that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth with King James in mind and that the witches are portrayed in such a grotesque and frightening way in order to align with the King’s own views of witchcraft in his Daemonologie. The witches in Macbeth are also shown inducing violent weather, which alludes back to the accusations James made against Agnes and Co. when stormy seas threatened to sink his and Anne’s ships. In the play, Macbeth’s downfall can be attributed to his association with the three witches, which aligns with James’ belief that failing to persecute those who dabble in the devilish arts will lead to regicide, much like it did for Macbeth. So in a way, the story of Macbeth justifies the witch trials by showing what could happen if someone like the King allowed witchcraft and dark magic to flourish unchecked throughout the country. And an audience under his reign would have recognised these themes and warnings when watching the play during the seventeenth-century.
Overall, Macbeth is deeply rooted in anxieties surrounding alleged witchcraft during the reign of King James. Along with the accusations that Shakespeare stole the witches’ spells from actual witches and the historical context surrounding the various witch hunts, not to mention the torture and execution of countless women… it’s no wonder the play is considered cursed.
Beware of the Cursed Play
Actors often refer to Macbeth as ‘The Scottish Play’ to avoid accidentally muttering the forbidden name, but there’s only so much that can be done when dealing with a play that’s so (allegedly) cursed. And strangely enough, Macbeth does have a real record of misfortune occurring during production. As outlined in The Guardian:
Even the toughest cynics must concede there have been a number of Macbeth-related mishaps over the years. In 1672, an actor playing Macbeth in Amsterdam committed a real murder on stage. In 1721 and 1722, riots broke out during runs of the play in London. And in 1849, a rivalry between the English actor-manager William Macready and American actor Edwin Forrest turned deadly when fans of Forrest stormed Macready’s production. Still not convinced? In 1937, Laurence Olivier’s production of Macbeth was thwarted by disaster: theatre manager Lilian Baylis died during dress rehearsals; the director and the actor playing Lady Macbeth were caught up in a car accident; and a falling weight narrowly missed crash-landing on Olivier.From ‘Is the word ‘Macbeth’ really cursed?’ in The Guardian 13 July 2020 (source)
Wikipedia has a few more modern examples, including the shocking moment at the 94th Academy Awards when Chris Rock was slapped across the face by Will Smith for making a joke about his wife. Some believe this particularly public example of the Curse of Macbeth was brought on because Chris Rock had just congratulated Denzel Washington on his performance in the film The Tragedy of Macbeth. No one is safe from the curse, even when standing in front of the entirety of Hollywood and being broadcasted on live television.
However, belief in the play’s curse can more realistically be attributed to the fact that Macbeth has always been an incredibly popular play and has often been performed in theatres that were on the brink of financial demise. Putting on Macbeth was a popular way to garner public interest and, in turn, increase profits. However, since these theatres often closed regardless of Macbeth‘s success, having that particular play as the doomed theatre’s final production hasn’t helped rumours of a curse.
Breaking the Curse
If you mess up and accidentally drop the ‘M Bomb’ within a theatre, how can the curse be broken? Apparently leaving the theatre, spinning around three times, spitting over your left shoulder, swearing (a cuss of your choice) or saying a line from a different Shakespeare play successfully cleanses you of the curse. You also have the option of chanting the name ‘Macbeth’ before returning inside, which gives the whole thing a bit of a Bloody Mary vibe. According to some production groups, it’s very important to be invited back into the theatre (like a vampire) by someone in your company and not to simply saunter back in when you’ve completed the cleansing ritual.
And if you’re an actor that’s terrified of accidentally uttering The Scottish King’s name in a theatre, Patrick Stewart has a loophole for you. According to Stewart, who played Macbeth in the West End beginning in 2007, “if you have played the role of the Scottish thane, then you are allowed to say the title, any time anywhere.” Who are we to question Professor X?
Sources and Additional Reading
BBC News – Nicola Sturgeon apologises to people accused of witchcraft (2022) / Witch apology would ‘send powerful signal’ (2022)
Broadway Direct – 13 Theater Superstitions (2020)
Historic UK – North Berwick Witch Trials
Penguin – The curse of Macbeth: is it more than superstition? (2018)
Royal Shakespeare Company – The Curse of the Scottish Play
Undiscovered Scotland – Anne of Denmark
Utah Shakespeare Festival – King James I and Macbeth (2019)
Wikipedia – Macbeth / The Scottish Play / Witch trials in England / Anne of Denmark and contrary winds / Agnes Sampson / Daemonologie / Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1597
Witches of Scotland