Something Nameless This Way Comes

Here, from the safety of the outside world, we can say it. Macbeth. But step into a theatre. and you’re unlikely to hear anyone uttering the name of Shakespeare’s 30thplay outside of the script. How did Macbeth’s name become so feared in theatrical circles?


“The Scottish Tragedy”. ” The Unmentionable”. That play about he who must also not be named. How did we get here?

Some say that real witches, enraged by the curses in the play, cursed the play itself. The name Macbeth does of course rhyme with… And look at all the mishaps that have followed the play since its first performance:

  1. Opening night – August, 1606 – young Hal Berridge, scheduled to play Lady Macbeth, fell ill with a fever and died. The Bard himself had to step into the role.
  2. In 1672, the actor playing Duncan died when his Macbeth came into the murder scene with a real dagger.
  3. An 1845 riot grew out of a dispute between an American actor, Edwin Forrest and William Charles Macready, a British actor brought into play Macbeth. 10,000 took to the New York streets; the military brought in their guns. Hundreds of people were injured and 23 died.
  4. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by actor John Wilkes Booth at a theatre five days after he read the Duncan murder scene aloud to friends.
  5. In 1937, Laurence Olivier narrowly avoided being being hit by a 25 pound weight in his production of Macbeth. That same theatre team also faced car accidents and untimely deaths.

And we’re not even at 1940.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth 1889. John Singer Sargent. 1856-1925

Decade after decade, the Macbeth mishaps continued. How to ward off the curse?

Well, one thing is clear: Don’t Say The Name. Should one be so foolish as to name the Scottish King whilst in the theatre and not mid-scene, an immediate, historically validated counter-curse is required.

  1. Try leaving the room, spinning three times and spitting on the floor, before knocking on the door and pleading to be re-admitted.
  2. Exit the theatre, spin, then offer particularly juicy swear words before begging re-entry.
  3. Toss salt over your left shoulder instead of spitting or swearing.
  4. Chant: ‘Thrice around the circle bound, Evil sink into the ground.’
  5. Bring in the Danes. Fight the naming curse by reciting Act 1, Scene 4 from Hamlet, when the tortured Prince calls out to the ghost of his father.

Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee.


It’s a lot to remember. Best just: 🤐

Header Art: Thomas Beech. Sarah Siddons and John Philip Kemble, in Macbeth. 1786



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Elizabeth Newton

Elizabeth Newton