I recently read Macbeth and I looked up its history, and apparently there is such a thing as "The Curse of Macbeth". The story is as follows:

Shakespeare, in writing the play, included a lot of details about witchcraftery, and their methods i.e. The excerpt below:

Round around the cauldron go;
In the poison'd entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Swelter'd venum sleeping got.
Boil thou first i' the charmed pot…

The story then goes on to say that, the witches of the day, and the socerors were furious with the publicising of their deeds, so they cast a curse on the play.

The uncanny thing is, there have been an abnormal amount of incidences for this play in history:

  • 1st performance,1606 -- Shakespeare himself was forced to play Lady Macbeth when Hal Berridge, the boy designated to play the lady with a peculiar notion of hospitality, became inexplicably feverish and died. Moreover, the bloody play so displeased King James I that he banned it for five years.
  • Amsterdam, 1672 -- the actor playing Macbeth substituted a real dagger for the blunted stage one and with it killed Duncan in full view of the entranced audience.
  • London, 1703 -- on the day the production opened, England was hit with one of the most violent storms in its history.
  • 1721 – during a performance, a nobleman who was watching the show from the stage decided to get up in the middle of a scene, walk across the stage, and talk to a friend. The actors, upset by this, drew their swords and drove the nobleman and his friends from the theatre. Unfortunately for them, the noblemen returned with the militia and burned the theatre down.
  • 1775 -- As Lady Macbeth, Sarah Siddons was nearly ravaged by a disapproving audience.
  • New York’s Astor Place, 1849 -- a riot broke out when a crowd of more than 10,000 New Yorkers gathered to protest the appearance of British actor William Charles Macready, who was engaged in a bitter public feud with an American actor, Edwin Forrest. The protest escalated into a riot, leading the militia to fire into the crowd. Twenty-three people were killed, 36 were wounded, and hundreds were injured.
  • April 9, 1865 -- Abraham Lincoln chose to take Macbeth with him on board the River Queen on the Potomac River. The president was reading passages, which happened to follow the scene in which Duncan is assassinated, aloud to a party of friends. Within a week, Lincoln himself was dead by a murderer's hand.
  • 1882 -- on the closing night of one production, an actor named J. H. Barnes was engaged in a scene of swordplay with an actor named William Rignold when Barnes accidentally thrust his sword directly into Rignold's chest. Fortunately a doctor was in attendance, but the wound was supposedly rather serious.
  • 1926 -- Sybil Thorndike was almost strangled by a burly actor.
  • Royal Court Theatre, London, 1928 -- during the first modern-dress production at the, a large set fell down, injuring some members of the cast seriously, and a fire broke out in the dress circle.

There are more here: http://www.getemreading.com/thecurseofmacbeth.doc

So, my question is, is this document a hoax, or are there any studies or investigations into this that confirms its evidence. Does this then prove that The Curse of Macbeth is true or false?


3 Answers 3


I'll just go ahead and start with: no. Unfortunately, this can't really be backed up scientifically... but that's because it's not being put forth scientifically. It could theoretically be backed up statistically, by showing the proportion of Macbeth performances with issues compared to those without, and then by comparing that to the amount of other plays with issues to those without globally, but... that's... well, just too much data. And as far as I can tell (and as far as Skeptoid can tell), it doesn't exist. It would be a huge time investment to disprove something that there's no scientific evidence of in the first place.

The problem is that you're asking about... well, a curse. There's a big presumption here, and it's that curses exist. To prove something does or doesn't exist, one must be able to point at an observable phenomenon and attribute it to a natural mechanism. We have neither an observable phenomenon here nor a mechanism with which to understand it. It's the same problem with questions on God or other deities: we can have faith and believe, but there is no scientific, empirical study or experiment that can be done to prove or disprove their existence. Something like this is a proof by tautology: it is because it is.

Related is the assumption that witches of the time--in whatever form they did or didn't exist--could actually cast such a curse. Again, we have no way of proving this (or knowing that there were witches present, or that Shakespeare got his info from witches, or whatever story one wants to believe. Very few of these earlier tales can be cited, as Skeptoid explains above). There's a good question here on Skeptics about black magic that concludes it's not real, but again for this kind of claim, it's nearly impossible to "really" disprove it since one is disproving not-phenomona with more not-phenomena.

If this is really a curse, though, let's call it what it is: a curse of bad luck (both of which are pretty synonymous anyway). But luck is just a human construct that we create to try to find patterns and order between otherwise unrelated events. And in the end, that's what all of these are: unrelated events.

When a rumor goes on this long, as Lagerbaer said in the comments, it creates a pretty powerful self-fulfilling prophecy. People are going to look in one place for problems, ignore them elsewhere, and cry loudly when they arise. What really needs to be asked is, "Are these events, true or false, atypical?" We're talking about one of the most popular plays/stories in the world, one that's been performed for over 400 years now. How many thousands, hundreds of thousands of performances is that? Google "Macbeth performances" and find almost nine million hits. Of course they're not all unique or useful, but this is an exercise in massive scale. Let's say Macbeth is only performed once per year. Your source document has 27 instances noted, but even 27 terrible incidents out of 400 is just 6.75%. Is the margin for accidents in stage performances so drastically less than 6.75% worldwide that this deserves to be considered bad luck?

Furthermore, in looking for a curse, one finds oneself attaching mishaps to an event that would otherwise have no relevant place in that event's context (and are certainly in no way provably causal). England was hit with an extremely violent storm on the day production opened. So? What other billions of actions were taken that day, and why didn't they cause the storm? Lincoln was reading Macbeth a week before he was killed... and? That's not even talking about stage productions, that's implying any one of us could be stricken down for a 9th grade reading assignment.

We're looking for a pattern that's not there, that's all.

In more fun news, in searching for the curse of Macbeth, I first accidentally looked for the "curse of hamlet," and came upon this little gem, which seems appropriate here in name (given the asker's name), though certainly not in meaning (though if one does choose to believe in curses, it certainly helps in setting a very old precedent of sorts).

  • Note: This answer was submitted very early in the life of Skeptic.SE, before we had established our current community standards. If it was submitted today, it would likely be removed or downvoted for being a theoretical answer, rather than empirically based.
    – Oddthinking
    Mar 11, 2015 at 12:33

Here is a link to a Skeptoid episode that investigates this. As @Lagerbaer mentioned in a comment on the question, if you look into any play that's been performed as many times as Macbeth has over the last 400 years, you're bound to find a long list of accidents and problems.


The play is cursed by tradition not by labor statistics.
Not that I could find any labor statistics or peer reviewed studies on the subject.

The curse in a nutshell...

Theater people are superstitious. There are lists of things that are prohibited when you are in a theater, things you must not do, otherwise the performance will go terribly wrong. For example, no actor would ever say the word Macbeth in a theater – it would bring certain disaster. Actors, instead, call it “The Scottish Play” and the title character “the Scottish Lord” in order to avoid pronouncing the word.
-Theatre Superstitions

Why are theatre people superstitious?

... on why it shouldn't surprise anyone that actors hold superstitious beliefs. In the best case, when you put on a show you choose to place yourself on the knife-edge between life and death. Yes, the death is metaphoric (nearly always), but that changes nothing. People who exist on a knife-edge are bound to pay close heed to anything they think will tip them one way or the other. Put that together with an innate organizing faculty and what results? A belief in gods. So actors follow a simple religion: Don't piss off the theater gods. (emphasis mine)
- Review of Supernatural on Stage: Ghosts and Superstitions of the Theatre.

Probably the best explanation...

Nonbelievers in the curse hold that aspects of the tragedy make it accident-prone. The chief culprits are dim lighting and stage combat, especially when performed with heavy, unwieldy broadswords. Also, since Macbeth is a popular and comparatively short play, it has frequently served as a late addition to a theater season if the company is struggling financially. Therefore, productions are under-rehearsed, resulting in on-stage calamity, and the curse gets blamed for an already-failing company’s subsequent closing.
-Why You Shouldn’t Say “Macbeth” in a Theatre

see also: What's the story on the curse of Macbeth?

Macbeth in a nutshell...

The Tragedy of Macbeth (commonly called Macbeth) is a play by William Shakespeare about a regicide and its aftermath. It is Shakespeare's shortest tragedy* and is believed to have been written sometime between 1603 and 1607. - Wikipedia

The summary of the synopsis in a nutshell...

  • Three witches hatch a plan.
  • Macbeth and a buddy talk about the weather.
  • The witches tell Macbeth he will be king and stuff.
  • Macbeth writes a letter to his wife about the king idea.
  • Lady Macbeth comes up with a plan to murder the king.
  • Macbeth doesn't think it's such a hot idea.
  • Lady Macbeth calls him a chicken.
  • Macbeth murders the king and promptly freaks out.
  • Macbeth murders some guards and acts freaky.
  • Macbeth becomes king.
  • Macbeth talks with a ghost.
  • The witches tell Macbeth "beware Macduff" and other stuff.
  • Macduff goes on holiday.
  • Macbeth stops by Macduff's castle and murders everyone: wife, kids, farm animals, etc.
  • Lady Macbeth totally loses it and kills herself.
  • Macduff comes back from holiday with an army.
  • There is a battle with lots of blood.
  • Macduff cuts off Macbeth's head.

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. - Macbeth, Act V, scene v.

*Tragedy: A dramatic form (structure) first defined in Aristotle's Poetics (c.335 BCE).

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