While Harry Potter fans flock to see the final battle between Harry and You Know Who, Montreal audiences are preparing to face their own dark lord whose name cannot be said. Next week, Repercussion Theatre will premiere Shakespeare’s Scottish play, a work so cursed that just by speaking its name (or writing it, as the case may be), I would risk bringing forth grave harm and ill-fortune. The most clear-headed actors I know tremble before the power of this curse, referring to the play as “Mackers” and spitting over their shoulders whenever someone inadvertently quotes from the text.
Over at Repercussion, Paul Hopkins and Co. are cautiously optimistic: although director Arianna Bardesono came down with the chicken pox during rehearsals, the rest of the production, according to publicist Greg Stone, has been blessed (that’s his word, not mine). Still, one can only hope the cast and crew are taking precautions to defeat the evil eye, which has loomed over the Scottish play for almost four centuries. Since its first production in 1606, those involved with Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy have been maimed, strangled, burnt, killed and / or crucified by the critics. The very first actor to portray the title character’s wife took fever on opening night and had to be replaced by Shakespeare himself. 350 years later, Diana Wynyard, in the same role, walked off the stage and fell fifteen feet.
...a heart attack. In another production, a set designer killed himself and in yet another, a sandbag nearly struck down Sir Laurence Olivier in his prime.
Then there’s Stanislavski, the famed acting teacher, who spoke of a rehearsal in which the line prompter suffered a heart attack. In another production, a set designer killed himself and in yet another, a sandbag nearly struck down Sir Laurence Olivier in his prime. But the most famous instance of the curse comes from the 19th century: Abraham Lincoln was heard to quote from the play the same day he was assassinated - by an actor who had recently played the Scottish lord, reportedly to great acclaim.
If you ask me, though, the worst impact of the curse is that it has ensured The Merchant of Venice has remained a part of our culture. I’ll save you the rant about why Merchant is the worst play Shakespeare ever wrote, but I credit its bizarre popularity to the fact that some wit decided it was a “lucky” play and that quoting from it was the only way to ward off the Scottish curse’s effects. For four hundred years we’ve been quoting Portia’s lines to save our necks, thus ensuring Merchant’s continued and undeserved success. After all, repetition, as any advertiser will tell you, breeds popularity.
King James I had a famous fascination with the black arts – he even penned a book on demonology...
At the risk of angering monarchists, I would suggest that, if a curse does exist, the likely culprit was King James I. He had a famous fascination with the black arts – he even penned a book on demonology - and whatever research he did probably gave him all the connections he ever needed to curse a play for over four hundred years. He is also one of the only people with a strong motive. The Scottish play, after all, was commissioned in honour of James’ brother-in-law, King Christian of Denmark - and Shakespeare, thinking himself bold, wrote a thinly veiled account of the death of James and Christian’s father. Further, the play contains many allusions to the Gunpowder Plot, something which James I may have felt struck too close to home.
The Gunpowder Plot, of course, was the attempt by Catholics to destroy Parliament in 1605. It is no accident that less then a year after Catholics tried to take down the King, Shakespeare should write a play about assassination and ambition – many playwrights did the same (such as Thomas Dekker, who premiered The Whore of Babylon, a play about a papal plot against the Queen). This is much in the same way post 9/11 art has dealt with terrorism and the re-enforcement of western ideals.
The Scottish Play, then, implies that there is a demonic world parallel to our own...
But rather than reinforce his society’s ideals, Shakespeare’s Scottish play reveals an uncomfortable pessimism about the future. His inclusion of witchcraft was an allusion to the sacrilege of conspirators working to thwart the King, who is the head of both the Church and the State. The Scottish Play, then, implies that there is a demonic world parallel to our own and that it is working to destroy us – and, given the fates of the characters, the play is not all that optimistic about our abilities to withstand the assault. Perhaps this is why James I reacted with such vehemence – imagine a post 9/11 play which proposed the idea that we cannot ever hope to prevail against our enemies.
Of course, a reasonable person would suggest that Abraham Lincoln was killed because of the Civil War and Diana Wynyard walked off the stage during the sleepwalking scene because she decided to close her eyes (for verisimilitude). But after four centuries, reason no longer matters. The real curse of the Scottish play is that no one knows whether or not it’s cursed, a fact which means that artists, always a superstitious bunch, will probably continue to tread carefully for years to come.
Just please, stop quoting The Merchant of Venice. To ward off the chicken pox induced by the Scottish curse, Arianna Bardesono quoted Hamlet. Let’s hope that works just as well.