TABLE WORK: Why Do Actors Call It ‘The Scottish Play’?

“Macbeth” Art by Andrew Kleidon.

“Double, double toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble” may be two of Shakespeare’s most famous lines. So famous, in fact, that they’re more often quoted by accident because most people probably know them as a generic magical spell, rather than lines from The Tragedy of Macbeth

Likewise, many are aware of the superstition that the play is cursed – that you’re not allowed to say its name aloud in a theater – but few know that it’s the “toil and trouble” line in particular that has caused all the brouhaha.

The legend goes that a coven of witches had discovered that Shakespeare used “real” spells in his play – namely, “Double, double toil and trouble” – and they were so upset that they cast a hex on the play for all time. From then on, if anyone were to speak “Macbeth” aloud in a theater, tragedy would surely befall the production.

Now, when you hear actors refer to “The Scottish Play,” it’s to get around this curse. However, should someone slip up by speaking the name of the play aloud, each theater has a specific counter curse one must perform, many of which include some form of spinning around, reciting something and spitting. Failure to do so will have dire consequences.

A headline in a 1947 issue of the Cairns Times read, “Dies after Stage Battle: Accidentally Stabbed as Macbeth.” It went on: “Harold Norman, the Repertory Theatre actor of Oldham, who was wounded with a dagger in a stage battle on January 30, has died at the Oldham Royal Infirmary. Norman, who was playing as Macbeth, was wounded in the fight between Macbeth and Macduff.”

Perhaps the most obvious effects of the curse come in the form of theaters closing their doors permanently after productions of Macbeth, though it’s here that I think we can see the true cause of all the misfortune surrounding the play. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, and because all of his works are in the public domain and are therefore free to perform, it’s often selected by theaters with smaller budgets – often ones that are struggling. When those theaters’ financial situations don’t improve, Macbeth might just be the final show they present.