“Double, double toil and trouble,/Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”


Act Four, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


Why is Macbeth seemingly cursed?  Why do people in (and out) of the theater refer to it as “The Scottish Play?”

David Garrick as Macbeth and Hannah Pritchard as Lady Macbeth (1760)

David Garrick as Macbeth and Hannah Pritchard as Lady Macbeth (1760)

It is, perhaps, inevitable that a tragedy that lends witchcraft such an important role (let alone one that takes place almost entirely at night), Macbeth has long been associated with malign theatrical forces. Legend has it that that the curse began during an early run when a  boy actor named Hal Berridge died while playing Lady Macbeth.  Although the story is probably apocryphal – no Berridge appears in any theatrical records – his ghost has proved exceedingly difficult to exorcise: scholars have recently discovered a child who was christened “Henry Berredge” in July 1593 – making him, at least according to some, just the right age for the part.

Even so, it seems unlikely that Macbeth earned its reputation for woeful luck until 1772 and the great Irish actor Charles Macklin.  Macklin’s at the time innovative approach to the play – stripping out comic roles and using “authentic” Scottish costume – caused friction in rehearsals, and early performance were anxious and hesitant.  They became even more so during the fourth performance, when the audience, stoked by supporters of Macklin’s acting rival David Garrick, began to riot.  Although he gamely played through to the end, Macklin was fired soon afterwards.  An even worse riot – in fact one of the worst in New York’s history – occurred in 1849 when the English tragedian, William Charles Macready, attempted (for the second time) to appear as Macbeth at the Astor Place Opera House.  Opposing him were the supporters of his former friend, but now arch-rival actor, Edwin Forrest.  Whipped into a frenzy by rabble-rousing nationalists, an estimated 20,000 people hit the streets and, as the play began, threw paving stones and other debris at the theater. Eventually the National Guard had to be called in, and in the ensuing chaos, more than 30 people were shot dead and close to 200 were injured.

In the twentieth century, the curse gained a number of high-profile victims. An early casualty was the Russian pioneer of “method” acting, Konstantin Stanislavsky: when his Macbeth had a memory lapse during the dress rehearsal, the prompter failed to deliver his cue – and was discovered dead in his box – a grim omen that actually closed the show.  Laurence Olivier’s 1937 staging at the Old Vic was also beset by a long list of woes including sets that didn’t fit, a director who had to be replaced at the last minute after a car crash, and a near-miss for Olivier himself, who narrowly escaped being crushed by a stage weight. And when Lillian Baylis, the Old Vic’s founder died during the final preparations, it seemed that the curse had truly taken hold.

Thirty years later, when Peter Hall was staging the play with Paul Scofield and Vivien Merchant, he urged his actors to ignore the superstitions – and was promptly awarded with a vicious case of shingles. The show had to be postponed, and when it finally opened, was judged a failure despite its cast. But, even those disasters pale in comparison to Oldham Rep’s 1947 production.  A few nights into the run, the climactic fight between Antony Oakley’s Macduff and Harold Norman’s Macbeth seemed more realistic than usual, and as the curtain fell, it became painfully clear why – Norman had been stabbed in the chest, and died soon afterwards.

So perhaps naturally unwilling to take on the curse, most actors simply obey the rules.  They never refer to Macbeth by name in a theater or quote from the text, except, of course when performing it (acceptable euphemisms include “The Scottish Play”). If the rules are broken, the offender must leave the building, turn around three times, then spit or swear.  But, as I’ve read, the curse sometimes surfaces in the oddest of places, as actor-manager Donald Wolfit discovered during a touring version of Macbeth in the 1940s.  Angry about his low wages, a young actor playing a Messenger decided to make a few last minute changes to the script in order to make his feelings known.  So instead of announcing Lady Macbeth’s sudden death to Wolfit’s King, he walked on stage and declared, “My lord, the Queen is much better…and even is now at dinner.”  It might well have been the only time in his career that Wolfit was at a loss for words.


Garry Wills, in Witches & Jesuits:  Shakespeare’s Macbeth, had more to say about the curse.  I strongly disagree with his explanation of what the curse actually is, but it’s still well worth reading:

“If Macbeth is such a great tragedy, why do performances of it so often fail? Its unhappy stage history has created a legendary curse on the drama. Superstitious actors try to evade the curse by circumlocution, using ‘the Scottish play’ at rehearsals to avoid naming it, Macbeth. Even great actors and actresses – John Gielgud and Glenda Jackson, to name just two – have been unable to make the play work. Some have hesitated to direct the play, or refused roles in it, from a knowledge of its dismal record. Adaptations of it can be more successful than the original – Verdi’s opera, Kurosawa’s movie (Throne of Blood), Orson Welles’s abbreviated film phantasmagoria.

lady macbeth throne of bloodJust what is the curse on Macbeth? Anecdotes accumulate about mishaps in the staging. But accidents plague all forms of theater. Heavy scenery is moved hastily in cramped and ill-lit spaces Actors fight careful but risky duels, often half-blinded by spotlights or atmospheric murk. Sniffles are passed around in the confluence of backstage, onstage, and auditorium airs, variously cooled or heated (or both at the same time). Actors get laryngitis; stand-ins forget stage business and confuse their fellows. Cues are mistaken. Props break.

Since many people, from stage technicians to financial backers, spend their whole careers in the theater, they are bound to die at some time – and on one notices what play they were connected with tat the moment. But when Lilian Baylis, the legendary manager of the Old Vic Theatre in the 1930s, died, her troupe was putting on Macbeth, so people talked of the curse. Laurence Olivier twisted his ankle on the opening night of his 1955 Macbeth and had to restrain the leaps essential to his interpretation. But he injured himself in several other plays, notably Coriolanus, and nobody called those plays cursed.

The inevitable problems of any production have taken on special menace with Macbeth because actor after actor is frustrated by the seemingly unplayability of the piece. Elizabeth Nielsen claimed: ‘No actor since Shakespeare’s time seems to have made a name for himself playing the part of Macbeth.’ Kenneth Tynan agreed: ‘Nobody has ever succeeded as Macbeth.’ By critical consensus there seems to have been only one entirely successful modern performance of the play, Olivier’s in 1955. And even Olivier had failed to bring the play off in his first attempt (done in 1938, the ‘cursed’ Lilian Baylis production.)  [MY NOTE:  This book was written well after the McKellan/Densch production we’ve been watching, and, I hope, enjoying.)

Where failure is so common, it is important to see why the exception worked. Reviewers were disappointed, in 1955, during the play’s opening scenes, usually the most successful. Olivier seemed to lack some of his normal energy – his patented kinetic jolt – in the ‘surefire’ encounter with the witches, or in the scenes before and after Duncan’s murder. This is precisely where Macbeth and his wife fuel each other’s resolution in some of the most intense exchanges Shakespeare ever wrote.

macbeth olivierBut Olivier began to soar in the banquet scene, where the Macbeth of most productions starts falling apart. Olivier’s Macbeth, who made his low-intensity first choices of evil in a hesitating way, rouses himself to accept his fate heroically. Instead of cringing before the ghost’s repeated apparition, Olivier manned himself to leap on the banquet table and run at the ghost, sword drawn, in an exaltation of defiance. Some crazed enlargement of this Macbeth makes him grow toward his doom, climaxed with the frenzied duel that ends the play.

However one judges Olivier’s interpretation of the play as a whole, he had identified its real problem, the way it sputters toward anticlimax in most presentations of Acts Four and Five. Macbeth and his wife, whose interchanges are the best parts of most productions, are never seen together in those final acts. His wife, in fact, is seen only once, in the brief (but effective) sleepwalking scene. The play seems to dissipate its pent-in tensions as it wanders off to England, brings in new characters (Lady Macduff and her child, Hecate and her train), deals at tedious length with the question of genuine Scottish heirs, and substitutes the pallid moral struggle of Malcolm with Macduff for the crackling interplay of Macbeth and his Lady.

Even Olivier did not make most of these later scenes interesting in themselves. But people sat through them with a sense of purpose, waiting to see what new mad heights Macbeth would reach in his climb toward heroic criminality. Olivier solved the play’s problem by turning Macbeth into Tamburlaine. It was a very Marlovian reading of Shakespeare. It had the advantage of keeping the hero alive outside the claustrophobic whispering scenes of the first act. Better a cosmic hero than a closet drama. Even Tamburlaine is preferable to Raskolnikov. Actors like Gielgud or Paul Scofield turned the first half of the play into Crime and Punishment, and then had nowhere to go with the second half.

This explains why the adaptations of Macbeth succeed, in our time, better than the original play. They cut away or cut down all the inert stuff toward the end. Verdi’s opera spends less time on both the final acts than on Act One alone (the murder of Duncan). Verdi excised the Lady Macduff scene, Malcolm’s testing of Macduff, the dealings with the English court (with its king who heals by touching), and the Siwards (father and son). Kurosawa and Welles observe roughly the same proportion between a lingered-on first half of the play and a drastically reduced second half.

The effect of thus ‘frontloading’ Macbeth is to shear away any larger social context for the protagonist’s strugglings. Verdi was explicit about the intimacy he desired for the Macbeths, even in the extrovert form of opera. He chose to do the opera when he did because he lacked the singers for a larger dramatic ensemble. None of his music drama has so much sung whispering, to be done in a ‘hollow’ voice (voce cupa). The whole play is absorbed, so far as possible, into Macbeth’s inner state – as it is in Welles’ film, where surreal stones and caves are projections of his own anfractuous mental scenery. ‘The inner truth is that these [witches’] shapes are himself – his own desires, his own ambition.’ Inner truth – mainly Macbeth’s but also his wife’s – is what many people want or expect from the play. ‘Outer truths’ fall away; they distract when they do not detract from the inner quest.

The result is a lopsided play, dead in the most embarrassing places, toward the end, where the action should accelerate and the interest be intensified. A frontloaded play is a back-crippled play. That is the real curse. Olivier overcame this structural defect by a personal tour de force. He wrenched the audience’s attention out of its old patterns, redistributing the emphases, achieving equilibrium by making the first scenes less absorbing than they can be. He made the ‘crippled’ part of the play scramble and skip, overcoming its inertia with his own prodigious energies, harbored for this late explosion. When that individual feat is removed, all the faults of the play remain.

But are they faults? I shall adopt, as a working hypothesis in this book, the view that Shakespeare was not a bungler, that he did not fill the second half of his play with matter of no interest to his audience…the first thing is to ask what effects Shakespeare was aiming at for his own audience.”


For Wills, the play can only truly be understood in its historical context, when looked at other plays written in the same year, all in reaction to The Gunpowder Plot.  I don’t quite buy it, but the book is still of interest.  You can purchase a copy  here.


From Garber, continuing from her point that as the play continues, “Blood is now a river in which [Macbeth] wades, ‘[s]tepped in so far,’ not a sea in which he might wash. The bloody hands have become an abstract concept – ‘these hangman’s hands’ – and Macbeth  moves downward toward the spectacle of the painted monster on the pole.”

ladymacbeth“But not so Lady Macbeth. Where Macbeth leaves off the language of blood, she picks it up. Where Macbeth forgets to worry about his bloody hands, which will the ‘multitudinous seas incarndarine,’ Lady Macbeth becomes for the first time obsessed with her own ‘filthy witness.’ Gilt has turned to guilt, and with the guilt and the blood she catches, as well, Macbeth’s sleeplessness, so that the audience finds her at the beginning of act 5 wandering, like the ghost of old Hamlet, three nights in her chamber. ‘Out, damned spot; out, I say…Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?…Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.’ Her feverish and poignant hand-washing, onstage, has several powerful effects: reminding the audience of Macbeth’s futile hand-washing gestures immediately after the murder; indicating for the first time an interior dimension of feeling – we could call it conscience – in the previously obdurate Lady Macbeth; and evoking not only Shakespeare’s earlier play Julius Caesar, but also the biblical scene of hand-washing in which Pontius Pilate attempts to wash his hands of the blood of Christ (Matthew 27:24).

Duncan’s principal symbols were light and fertility. In the sleepwalking scene these are reversed, so that we have not fertile blood, progeny, but spilt blood, death; not day but night; not sleep but wakefulness; not natural light but artificial light. Banquo has said of a starless night sky, ‘There’s husbandry in heaven,/Their candles are all out.’ By contrast Lady Macbeth ‘has light by her continually. ‘Tis her command.’ She cannot bear the darkness. Shortly we will hear her husband compare human life to a ‘brief candle,’ echoing Othello’s ‘Put out the light, and put out the light.’ This is the light that Lady Macbeth clutches as she moves restlessly through the night, confessing to her horrified onstage audience, the Doctor, and the waiting gentlewoman, truths we already know, but which will be brought home to us anew by their visible horror. This is another dramatic function of the play-within-the-play; it enables the audience in the theater to participate in an emotion that prior knowledge would otherwise have dulled or diminished. The characters onstage are shocked; in response, we are shocked all over again. As the Doctor says, ‘I think, but dare not speak,’ just as Malcolm and Donalbain did not dare to speak, just as the offstage audience, by convention, is mute.

Lady Macbeth’s doctor is, as well, part of another overarching pattern in this brilliantly designed play, for he is one of two doctors in Macbeth, and the other doctor serves the English court. Written and performed for a king whose political project was to unify Scotland and England, Shakespeare’s play increasingly undertakes to distinguish between the two landscapes and polities. As the play progresses, England begins to appear as a redemptive land different both from the barren heath of the witches and the unnatural blood-drenched Scotland of the usurping Macbeth. If Duncan is an Edenic figure who projects his own innocence onto others and is thus vulnerable to attack, England’s king, Edward the Confessor, is a patently holy personage who cures evil. In historical fact, he was the first to cure a disease described as the ‘king’s evil,’ scrofula (swollen glands in the neck). ‘[A]t his touch,’ says the English Doctor, ‘Such sanctity hath Heaven given his hand,/They presently amend.’ ‘Presently’ means ‘immediately,’ right away; the sick are RoyalGiftofHealinginstantly cured by the royal touch. (This practice of curing the king’s evil by the laying on of hands continued for centuries. James did it; Charles II was said to have touched ninety-two thousand persons; the last person supposedly ‘touched’ in England was Samuel Johnson, the great Shakespeare editor and dictionary maker, touched by Queen Anne in 1712, when he was only thirty months old.) By framing his play about medieval Scotland with a mention of the healing touch of the English king, the playwright is able to underscore a crucial opposition. Macbeth’s bloody hand brings death; Edward’s holy hand brings life and health. Scotland is a land diseased and sick, needing a physic to purge it. ‘Bleed, bleed, poor country!’ cries Macduff, and Malcolm adds: ‘[E]ach day a gash/Is added to her wounds.’

In the fifth act of the play the language of disease is everywhere. Macbeth asks the Scottish doctor to ‘cast the water of my land’ and ‘purge it.’ Lady Macbeth is ill, and her husband demands, impatiently, ‘Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased…?’ But the ‘king’s evil’ that afflicts Macbeth is not so easily cured, because he is himself the sickness in the state, the disease that must be purged. And the physicians to whom he takes his questions and requests are finally not doctors, but witches, brewing their own infernal medicines – once again, the literal counterparts of the metaphorical poison administered by Lady Macbeth (‘Hie thee hither,/That I may pour my spirits in thine ear.’)  [MY NOTE:  Not unlike Claudius pouring the poison into Hamlet’s father’s ear…]

When Macbeth comes to the witches’ cave, where fire burns and cauldron bubbles, he is a figure very like Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, seeking forbidden knowledge and demanding answers to the secrets of the future. ‘How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags,’ he salutes them imperiously. ‘What is’t you do?’ And they reply, ‘A deed without a name.’ That Macbeth wants to know its name is part of his vaulting ambition. ‘Seek to know no more,’ they caution, and his replay is ‘I will be satisfied. Deny me this,/And an eternal curse fall on you!’ This is a familiar sin, wishing to know a sacred name that cannot be pronounced. And the curse falls – the curse has in fact already fallen – on Macbeth.

This remarkable scene recalls another preoccupation of the court of James I, for not only was James a descendant of Banquo and a scholar of witchcraft, he was also, with the rest of the royal family, an aficionado of the contemporary art form known as the court masque. These aristocratic entertainments included elements of dance and spectacle, and often turned on a contrast between the antimasque, representing disorder, and the masque proper, emblematic of renewed order. Ben Jonson’s Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue (1618) featured an antimasque of pygmies and a masque of knights; the same author’s The Masque of Queens (1609) presented an antimasque of witches and other Vice characters, and a second masque of the audience, nobility that would banish the witches. The principle actors and dancers in the masque proper were often noble or royal personages; James wife, Queen Anne, and his son Prince Henry were frequent participants. At the end of the masque came the dance known as the revels, in which (noble) actors and (noble) audience danced together in an image of harmony, breaking down the barriers of ‘fiction’ and ‘reality.’ The King himself, when in the audience, was a key figure, seated on a raised platform known as ‘the state,’ his viewpoint always the dominant axis. We should recall, too, that the play Macbeth was presented in front of James and his brother-in-law, King Christian IV of Denmark (Queen Anne’s brother). The embedded antimasque of witches, singing songs and chanting spells and recipes as they dance around the cauldron, ushers in the element of spectacle so central to the structure of the masque, in this case the three apparitions: the armed head, the bloody child, and the child crowned, with a tree in his hand. Each apparition, though it seems to connote disorder and thus to confirm Macbeth’s designs, ultimately will be revealed as an aspect of order. Macbeth, trapped by the apparitions’ riddles, fails to comprehend their messages, and the final demonstration, the show of eight kings and Banquo, the last king carrying a mirror or magic glass, brings the spectacle out to the audience, reflecting the face of King James as the lineal successor of Banquo’s blood. This mirror trick performs a kind of visual ‘revels,’ uniting onstage and offstage performers. (Notice that the line is all-male, and does not include James’ mother, Mary, Queen of Scots.)

The Apparition of Ghosts Giving Gifts to Macbeth in the Witches' Cave, by Francesco HayezIn one way, then, the final scene of the witches, ending in a dance described as an ‘antic round,’ is a fragment of, or a quotation from, a court masque, a pattern predicting order. In another, however, it is closely tied to the central tension between good blood and bad blood, lineage and murder. Consider again the nature of the three apparitions that constitute the magic spectacle. The armed head is Macbeth’s bloody head, which will be cut off by Macduff and offered in the final scene to Malcolm: ‘Behold where stands/Th’usurper’s cursed head.’  The bloody child is Macduff, untimely ripped from his mother’s womb. And the crowned child with a tree in his hand is Malcolm, Duncan’s elder son – soon to be the new King – at whose instructions the soldiers hew down branches and bring Birnam Wood, a ‘moving grove,’ to Dunsinane. In fact, these images of apparent unnaturalism turn out to be natural after all, symbols of health rather than sickness, temporary and necessary inversions of nature brought about so that order may be restored.  But in them we have, as well, a visual summary of both kinds of ‘blood.’ The images of children that clustered at the play’s beginning return here in a different form, and these fruitful ‘men-children,’ Malcolm and Macduff, are figures that defeat and replace the tragic images of slaughtered infants, including the horrific murder of Macduff’s ‘pretty chickens and their dam.’ The play suggests that we have been witnessing a kind of massacre of the innocents, like the slaughter by Herod of all the newborn boys in Bethlehem to prevent one of them from becoming the Messiah. Macbeth, likewise fearing for his throne, tries to bring about the murders of the men-children Malcolm and Donalbain, and of Banquo’s son Fleance. But the crowned child, Malcolm, the Prince of Cumberland, survives and rules. As if to give further support to this victory of the child, the play presents near its close two more brief images of heroic children, both slaughtered, but in a noble cause. Lady Macduff’s unfortunate son, who dies trying to protect his mother, and Young Siward, whose father welcomes his death in battle as a ‘fair death’ that makes the son ‘God’s soldier.’ These are yet more slaughtered innocents, and their deaths can be traced back, in the teleology of unfolding dramatic action, to Lady Macbeth’s opening boast that she would have ‘dashed the brains out’ of her nursing infant to fulfill a vow of single-minded ambition.

But if some children die, others survive. One reason Malcolm survives is that he both resembles his father, Duncan, and differs crucially from him. Duncan – Shakespeare’s Duncan, if not history’s – was innocent and unwary, willing to find the mind’s construction in the face. Malcolm will be cagier, more watchful, like Prince Hal in the Henry IV plays. In the scene that presents his supposed confession of sins to Macduff, Malcolm tests his listener, showing a ‘false face’ not to deceive but to adjudicate and to prove. His claims of lechery and avarice are false, but they serve a purpose, showing a young king more capable of perceiving evil than his father was – or, indeed, than is Macduff, whose response to the quick reversals of the scene is surely one of the most bathetic in Shakespeare: ‘Such welcome and unwelcome things at once/’Tis hard to reconcile.’ The scene is crucial for the play, even if its tone is sometimes awkward. Malcolm will be a better king than Duncan, at least according to the ground rules of early modern statecraft.”


So I’m curious…who do you think is right?  Do the last acts of the play suffer in comparison to the earlier ones as Wills argues?  Or, as Garber insists, do the scenes play a crucial role in the structure and meaning of the play?  Share your thoughts!


Our next reading:  Macbeth, Act Five

My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning


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5 Responses to “Double, double toil and trouble,/Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”

  1. Mahood says:

    Should have posted this earlier: the very funny ‘Don’t mention Macbeth’ scene from Blackadder, featuring Rowan Atkinson and Hugh Laurie.

  2. Carole Heath says:

    I notice in this article regarding Shakespeare’s Macbeth photographs of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. When LO first played Macbeth at the Old Vic theatre London in the 1930’s the production had some problems. Lillian Baylis who run the theatre died suddenly from a stroke or a heart attack when she was only in her 60’s. i also think the original actress playing Lady Macbeth died in strange circumstances. And Olivier was nearly badly hurt by falling scenery. The play is said to be cursed because of the witches chant and actors try not to refer the play as Macbeth but the Scottish play. The 1950’s production with LO and VL was said to be brilliant and I have heard it said VL was one of best Lady Macbeth they had ever seen. LO wanted to make the film of the play but I believe was unable to raise the capital to do so. I would have loved to have seen that film as I am an admirer of LO his Shakespeare films where I think really well done and such great acting from LO.

    • I quite agree Carole good comment Olivier’s Shakespeare films where brilliant. Orson Welles did a great Macbeth and Othello. Some people say the American’s can’t do Shakespeare Welles proved them wrong I think.

  3. Agree with both of you — I admire Olivier’s versions, but, to be honest, I love Welles’ — and have you ever seen his Chimes at Midnight?

    • Carole Heath says:

      Thanks Rosanna for your comment. Yes Dennis I also have Welles in the Chimes at Midnight on DVD his Falstaff was very good. He to me was the Olivier of the American acting profession.

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