The Scottish Play: Did Chris Rock Curse Himself When He Invoked Macbeth? - Arts & Culture

Out, damned spot; out, I say

Unless you have been living under a rock (forgive the pun), by now you will have seen what happened at the Oscars: comedian Chris Rock made an ill-advised joke about Jada Pinkett-Smith’s lack of hair (unknown, or maybe known to him, due to her alopecia). Will Smith stormed the stage in a fit of fury to defend his wife, and in front of everyone at the Dolby Theater (and those of us at home), punched Rock in the face.

He then proceeded to win an Oscar for Best Actor in his role as Richard Williams in King Richard. During his speech, Smith apologized for his actions, saying, “Love will make you do crazy things.” He has since released a more nuanced apology towards Rock, the Williams family, and the cast and crew of his movie.

READ MORE: Quick Review: In ‘King Richard,’ Tennis is All About Blood, Sweat, Tears, and, yes, Love

Lost amidst the media hysteria that followed (with celebrities and Twitter users releasing some truly bad hot takes) is what Chris Rock actually said before the bit. Praising the actor Denzel Washington for his starring role in 2021’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, he said, “Denzel—Macbeth—loved it.”

In theater parlance, this is a no-go. Anyone connected to the world of the stage, from theater actors, writers, and stagehands, to theater kids who are now theater adults, gasped. Everyone knows you’re not supposed to say the name of the play when talking about the character of Macbeth while in a theater (aka, the Dolby). It’s a curse (you can, however, talk about the character, which Rock didn’t do. It’s an important distinction).

In case you need a refresher, here’s what happens in one of William Shakespeare’s most enduring plays: Macbeth wins an important battle and is bestowed a new title. Three witches prophesize that he is due for more power and will be the King someday. The prophecy and his ambitious wife Lady Macbeth nurture a thirst for power in Macbeth.

This thirst culminates in his killing of Duncan, the King of Scotland. Things descend into madness soon after with Macbeth wracked with guilt and paranoia, turning into a despotic king. There’s a civil war and his tyrannical rule ends after he is deposed.

According to the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare’s use of real chants in the play (“Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble”) and real ingredients angered a set of real witches so much they put a curse on the play.

It’s hard to parse through the legend and find out what’s true versus what’s apocryphal, but the RSC says that the play’s first performance in around 1606 was mired in tragedy. The actor playing Lady Macbeth (remember, in this era only men were allowed on stage, so it was always a man playing all the famous women roles in Shakespeare) died in mysterious circumstances. Instead of stage daggers, the actor playing King Duncan was stabbed with real daggers, which caused his death.

The myth has only grown since then. Other productions have seen accidents such as actors falling off the stage, a riot, mysterious deaths, and most famously, Laurence Olivier narrowly missing a falling stage weight at the Old Vic in 1937. To get around saying the name of the play, those in it or who work on it say “The Scottish Play,” when in the theater.

Fact or Fiction?

I spoke with theater actor Audie Gemora, asking him about the validity of these claims. The actor tells me he merely sees it as a theater superstition, akin to not saying “Good luck,” and instead “Break a leg,” or not eating peanuts or bringing peacock feathers on stage. Gemora is not given to believe any of these, including the Macbeth curse. “In fact, I’ve said “Macbeth” intentionally just to disprove the belief,” he says.

Avid theatergoer Philip Cu-unjieng, whose partner Issa Litton starred as Lady Macbeth at the 2019 Theatre Titas production of Macbeth agrees, saying that it’s really just more about building a lot of mystique around theater life. “What’s funny is how for every curse, there will be a remedy – even for those who do say, Macbeth, they’re supposed to leave the theater, spit or turn in a circle,” he says, laughing. “Theater people [are] superstitious and forgiving.”

My mom, the actress and writer Bibeth Orteza doesn’t believe in the curse (any of them) either. Like Cu-unjieng, she says it’s just talked about to shroud the concept of theater in mystery, to make wanting to be part of it more appealing. “I never believed in any of the supposed theater curses, not even as a student, as actor and Chairman of the UP Repertory Company, and later on as a professional,” she says.

It seems no theater luminary in the Philippines believes in it, which is surprising, considering the Philippines is chock-full of people who believe in all sorts of other superstitions. My dad, the film and theater director (and occasional actor) Carlos Siguion-Reyna says it’s absurd. “In fact, when we were mounting Stage Kiss in 2020, I just kept blurting out Macbeth, Macbeth, Macbeth!” he says.

I am inclined to believe my dad. Stage Kiss was one of the last plays in 2020 before COVID-19 took down the theater industry, and along with fellow non-believer Gemora’s Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, the run was not shortened. So perhaps it really isn’t bad luck at all.

For what it’s worth, my brother (when you have a family like ours, you mine them for resources) the actor Rafa Siguion-Reyna says “Only lame people believe this.” (In the interest of not wanting to be punched in the face, I won’t name these people he told me about).

The Question of Agency

So, what happened with Will Smith and Chris Rock at the Oscars? It’s probably not the fault of a curse that isn’t even real. It might be useful to think of this from the point of view of Shakespeare himself. Emma Smith, professor of Shakespeare Studies at Oxford University released a collection of essays on the Bard’s plays. The book is called This is Shakespeare, and the chapter on Macbeth talks about the question of agency. Who is to blame here? Is it the witches? Lady Macbeth? Or is it all in the swirling maelstrom brewing in Macbeth himself?

According to Smith, this is one of the great ambiguities in Shakespeare. “[this] confusion of agency was always part of the play: the murder of Duncan becomes overdetermined, in that it has too many, rather than too few, causes and agents.”

Did Will Smith direct his own actions that night, or was he, as Emma Smith says of Macbeth, “acted upon by other people?” At the end of the play, Macbeth is barricaded alone in a castle, hearing of his wife’s death:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale 

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing

This is of course a marked difference from how Will Smith ended his night. But on his hour upon the stage, he strutted and fretted. He won the Oscar but time will tell how history sees him after this.

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