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The Collation

Exit, Pursued by a Polar? Bear

Illustration of a bear peering over a rock at an older man standing over a baby in a basket and regarding the bear with distress.
Winter's tale, act 3, scene 3, a desert country near the sea, Antigonus, Child, & bear [graphic] / painted by J. Opie, R.A. ; engraved by J. Hall. 1794. Folger Shakespeare Library: ART File S528w1 no.21 (size M).

“Exit pursued by a Beare”

Arguably Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction, Antigonus’s dramatic exit and untimely demise at the hands of a vicious beast in The Winter’s Tale has led to countless interpretations over its centuries of performance. Edward Hall’s Propeller used a teddy bear in 2005. A 2009 Royal Shakespeare Company production directed by David Farr featured a giant puppet created from book pages; four years later Lucy Bailey would use a CGI projection for the same company. More recently and closer to home, Aaron Posner’s 2018 Folger Theatre production made use of shadows projected on a sheet and a deadpan delivery of the stage direction itself. But what about when the play was first staged? What would Shakespeare’s audiences have seen?

Writing in 1611, astrologer Simon Forman provides us with one of our few first-hand glimpses into early modern stagecraft. Incredibly, he talks about seeing The Winter’s Tale, but fails to mention the bear at all, focusing instead on the main action of the play and on Autolycus, a roguish peddler in the play’s second half.1

Thanks for nothing, Simon.

Of course, in fairness, he may not have been surprised to see a bear represented on stage. Bear-baiting, a cruel practice wherein a bear would be chained to a stake and set upon by dogs for a fight to the death, was immensely popular during Shakespeare’s time. The Bear Garden, which hosted such animal blood sports, was quite close to the Globe Theatre, part of the entertainment hub found on London’s Bankside in the late 16th and early 17th century.

17th-century image of London along the Thames with The Bear Garden and Globe marked labelled in the foreground.
Londinum florentissima Britanniae urbs. Claes Jansz Visscher, 1625. Folger Shakespeare Library: GA795.L6 V5 1625 Cage.

This leaves the curious amongst us the grizzly task of sorting through evidence to try and piece together the most accurate picture we can. I do not profess to be able to conclusively solve this mystery within this blog post, but if you bear with me, I’ll offer two possibilities.

The first is the more obvious and also most likely: an actor could have dressed as a bear and performed the role. Kiki Lindell makes the observation that Shakespeare chose “the most humanoid of animals : a bear – virtually the only beast that a man in an animal skin can get away with imitating convincingly,” backing her observation up by referring to the “j beares skyne” listed in theatrical manager Philip Henslowe’s 1598 inventory of stage properties. 2  This could have been lent to Shakespeare’s acting company if they did not possess their own.

An illustration of a brown bear. The page has been rotated so the bear is on all fours but text is shown written vertically, bottom to top, on the left hand side.
The historie of foure-footed beastes, Edward Topsell. 1607. Folger Shakespeare Library: STC 24123 copy 2.

Moreover, Shakespeare’s bear was not the only one gracing the English stage at this time. In 1610, a revised version of the anonymous c. 1590 play Mucedorus was printed with the addition of a comical interlude wherein a Clown is scared off the stage by a white she-bear. 3  In 1611, the court masque Oberon, The Fairy Prince, included Prince Henry entering while flanked by two white bears. The Winter’s Tale completes this trilogy of ursine theater, making it possible the Bohemian bear may also have been white, both because there seemed to be a trend but also because there seems to have been a costume in circulation.

However, the specificity of the white bear leads to a tantalizing second option. What if the bear was real?

While largely rejected in contemporary scholarship, the idea of real bears nonetheless has had its supporters.4 Key to the argument is the documented existence of two young polar bears in London during this time, presented to King James and kept by Philip Henslowe (yes, him again). Unlike other royal animals, these cubs were not kept in the Tower of London but instead housed in the aforementioned Bear Garden. 5 Teresa Grant argues the cubs were young enough when captured to be susceptible to training, making them safe for performance, and Lindell points to Olaus Magnus’s 1555 writings that paint a picture of bear as highly trainable and docile enough to play with children. 6

Personally, I find it unlikely that Prince Henry’s safety would have been risked by having him appear with live bears, regardless of how well-trained they were thought to be. Yet there is something so delightful about imagining an early modern audience being surprised with the appearance of a live bear during a performance that I can’t quite give up the notion.

What is certain is that the infamous stage direction has opened up countless creative approaches to portraying a bear on-stage through costumes, actor embodiment, puppetry, and scenic effects. It is always one of my favorite moments of any Winter’s Tale production and I can’t wait to see how it’s brought to life when Folger Theatre’s new staging begins performances on November 4.

  1. Forman, Simon. The Bocke of Plaies and Notes therof per forman for Common Pollicie. 1611. Bodleian Library, Oxford University, Oxford, UK. MS Ashmole 208, fol. 200-207v .
  2. Lindell, Kiki. “Exit Pursued by a Bugbear : Stage Renderings of Mythical Moments in The Winter’s Tale.” Shakespeare en devenir. April 22, 2015.
  3. Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale: Third Series, ed. John Pitcher. India: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010. 143, Footnote 34.
  4. Reynolds, George F. ‘Mucedorus, Most Popular Elizabethan Play’, Studies in the English Renaissance Drama, ed. Josephine W. Bennett, Oscar Cargill, and Vernon Hall Jr (London, 1959), 248-68; Grant, Teresa . ‘White Bears in Mucedorus, The Winter’s Tale and Oberon, The Fairy Prince‘, Notes and Queries 48.3 (2001): pp. 311-13; Ravelhofer, Barbara. “‘Beasts of Recreacion’ : Henslowe’s White Bears.” English Literary Renaissance 32, no. 2 (2002): 287–323.
  5. Ravelhofer, 287.
  6. Grant, 312; Lindell also offers counter evidence that describes bears as dangerous creatures.