"'Or mention the Scottish play,"

The theatrical superstition about the ‘Scottish Play’, otherwise known as Shakespeare’s Macbeth, is one of the most enduring superstitions. Even today, many actors believe it unlucky to mention the name Macbeth whilst backstage.

There are a number of suggestions as to how this superstition came into existence; a popular theory tells the tale of an actor called Hal Berridge, who died of a fever before the opening night in August 1606. Berridge was meant to have played Lady Macbeth and Shakespeare himself was apparently forced to  play the role himself, but modern day researchers have struggled to find any records of such an actor.

Another theory suggests that Shakespeare used real incantations, when writing the lines for the three Weird Sisters in the play (and therefore could have lead to the death of Hal Berridge, if he existed at all).

Whether the three sisters incantations were real or not, stories of death followed the production, a fake dagger switched for the real thing and used with fatal consequences in 1672 in Amsterdam. Violent storms on the play’s reopening in London in 1703. Many more accidents during the fight scenes within the play (although some would argue that it is just because the play has fight scenes, that makes the play more accident prone and it was possible just as many actors died or were injured during the fight scenes in Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear). There were fires, accidents with stage scenery and many more illnesses.

Another theory suggests that Macbeth is considered unlucky because it was often the last play performed by a theatrical troupe before the troupe went out of business. This was not because the play in itself was unlucky but because it was a popular play and therefore the play they would put on when they were making a last ditch attempt to attract customers. Another theory, linked the play’s popularity with the public suggests that because it was so popular, it was therefore performed for longer runs and therefore, statistically, accidents and illness were more likely to happen.

Sources

The early seventeenth-century origin of the Macbeth superstition Gabriel Egan http://hdl.handle.net/2134/266

The Curse of the Play by Robert Fairies http://www.austinchronicle.com/gyrobase/Issue/story?oid=oid:78882

Angels and Ministers of Grace: Theatrical Superstitions Through the Ages by Kristen McDermott http://www.endicott-studio.com/rdrm/theatricalSuperstitions1.html