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Exit, pursued by a bear

  Explore the history behind Shakespeare’s notorious stage direction in The Winter’s Tale

3 minute read

Perhaps one of the most famous, or infamous of Shakespeare’s stage directions, ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ in Act III of The Winter’s Tale, sees Antigonus meet death in the most unlikely of ways: at the hands – or rather the claws – of a bear.

An illustration of bear baiting in Elizabethan England.

In Early Modern England, captive bears provided ‘amusement’ by being chained to a post and attacked by packs of dogs. Illustration: Bear-baiting as practised in the time of Queen Elizabeth in Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, Volume 2 via Wikimedia Commons.

Unsurprisingly this stage direction frequently mystifies modern readers. But bears entered and exited the lives of Elizabethan and Jacobean Londoners on a daily basis. Kept in kennels on the south bank of the Thames, captive bears provided ‘amusement’ by being chained to a post and attacked by packs of dogs – spectators would bet on the outcome of this very unequal fight. Zealous Puritans objected to bear-baiting, but not for reasons of animal welfare. They believed bearbaiting to be ‘idle, scurrilous, obscene, profane, and heathenish’. Nonetheless, the entertainment attracted throngs of people. When the Thames froze solid, baiting rings were even set up on the ice.

A panorama view of London with St Pauls, the City of London to the North, and the theatre and bear-baiting pits to the south of the river, from the early 1600s.

Bear Gardens located on the Southbank of the Thames in Panorama of London by Claes Van Visscher 1616 via Wikimedia Commons.

Although scholars now agree that real bears weren’t used in early productions of The Winter’s Tale, the audience’s knowledge of bear baiting certainly required companies to make a conscientious effort at creating a convincing illusion of the animal. We know that Shakespeare’s competitors, the Lord Admiral’s Men, owned bearskins and may have used these to disguise actors as bears. But beyond this, no evidence survives on how Shakespeare intended Antigonus to meet his end.

More recent productions have taken both realistic and conceptual directions. In the nineteenth century, directors were wary of offending contemporary sensibilities with stage violence, but still wanted to put on a convincing show. The bear in Charles Kean’s production was hailed as a ‘masterpiece of zoological art’.

An immense bear skull prop sits on the Globe Theatre stage.

A bear skull prop used in our 2018 production of The Winter’s Tale, designed by James Perkins. Photographer: Marc Brenner.

In the twentieth century, directors shied away from realistic depictions of the bear, perhaps conscious that audiences in the age of film were used to cinematic naturalism and special effects, and live theatre had to offer something different. In John Barton and Trevor Nunn’s 1976 Royal Shakespeare Company production, the choric figure of Time doubled with the bear, thus re-conceptualising the beast as a devouring force of nature. Similarly conceptual was the large puppet made of pages torn from books in David Farr’s 2009 production that unsettled audiences with its scale and impact.

An immense bear puppet made of books enters shrouded in smoke.

The Bear in the RSC’s 2009 production was a puppet made of pages from torn books, designed by Jon Bausor. Photographer: Alessandra Evangelista © RSC.

In March 2009, YouTube viewers were confronted with clips of a bear sighting in Ipswich. In what turned out to be a hoax designed to promote the Red Rose Chain Theatre Company’s production of The Winter’s Tale, people were perhaps most vividly confronted with the strange duality of this enigmatic stage direction. Both realistic and fantastical, the footage conveyed elements of the terror instilled by this formidable predator and the undeniably perplexing and humorous nature of its sudden appearance – and exit.

A green exit sign depicting a man running away from a bear.

Exit, pursued by a bear.