Wordy Wednesday – “Break a leg”

There is just under one week to go before rehearsals for Romeo & Juliet and Macbeth start, and in honour of the coming performances this week’s Wordy Wednesday phrase is:

There are many superstitions in the theatre world, which I’m sure we’ll explore more as the opening of Macbeth gets closer, but one thing you should never say to an actor is “Good luck”. Instead, most people (myself included) stick to “Break a leg”.

Now, I’m fully aware that Shakespeare himself did not invent this phrase–however, no one truly knows where the modern meaning originated from.

Feeling a little sceptical about why this is a Wordy Wednesday segment? Don’t worry. I too was surprised to discover that there’s a couple theories linking ‘break a leg’ back to the Bard.

The first theory merely dates back to the time of Shakespeare’s players, the King’s Men. In those days, if a performance went well the audience would throw tips onstage for the actors to pick up. If the show was not well received, the actors were pelted with rotten produce instead. To collect the money on a good day, actors would ‘take a knee’ and thus, ‘break’ the line of their leg. So according to this theory, telling someone to break a leg translates into telling them to do so well in their role that the audience showered them with money. I wish that’s how the theatre still worked…

The second theory I’ll tell you about ties breaking a leg more to one of Shakespeare’s plays than the Bard himself. This theory relates to an 18th century performance of Richard III. Apparently an actor named David Garrick was so involved in his recitation of Shakespeare’s words that he didn’t notice his leg was fractured!  So if you ever break a leg literally, try reading some Shakespearean text aloud to distract yourself – it worked for David.

While Shakespeare may have been the phrase’s great uncle instead of grandfather, I had a good time exploring the evolution of the phrase and definitely believe that Billy S had a hand (or at least a finger) in determining its current meaning.

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