Welcome to week 2 of our series on Exotic Animals in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Last week we talked about Ostriches, and you can find the link to Part 1 of this 4 part series in the show notes right below this video. As a quick add on from last week, I wanted to mention that Ostrich feathers were extremely popular for the 16th century as decorations as well as quill pens. I’ve added links to the show notes to include places where you can explore costuming with ostrich feathers, as well as how they were developed into quill pens. I did not have time to fully explore ostrich farms in England, or the sourcing side of costuming with ostrich feathers, but I wanted to make sure that was included, so you can find links for that below this video. 

For this week, we continue our series on exotic animals by exploring Bears in Elizabethan England, when we ask “Did Shakespeare Know About Bears?”

According to an article by the BBC written by Helen Briggs and published in July of 2018, if bears were native to England, they died out millenia before Shakespeare. In fact, to quote the article, “After the end of medieval times, the only evidence for bears was found in London – because of bear-baiting arenas on the south bank of the Thames – and in Edinburgh, where specimens were kept at a medical school, possibly for teaching students.” 

Which means that, for Shakespeare, bears were a novelty item. The best comparison for you I can draw in modern times is the idea of a giraffe. We know what they are because we see them on display at zoos in our area, but they aren’t something you will see casually walking across your yard or find while out hunting. 

We know Shakespeare would have come into contact with bears, not only because of his history but because they are mentioned in his plays. In fact, in our episode with Aubrey Whitlock at the American Shakespeare Center, we discuss the famous stage direction where Shakespeare writes “exit, pursued by a bear” in A Winter’s Tale, there are some theories which suggest it could have been an actual bear that was used on stage. 


How is that possible, you ask?

Three polar bears approach the ship. In the background, two bears are about to help themselves to meat that is soaking in water. A third bear is being shot in the foreground. September 1596. Source: Engraving from the diary of Gerrit de Veer, 1596. Image is public domain. Source. | More information

Well, it happens that at the same time Shakespeare was writing, and staging, A Winter’s Tale, two polar bears had arrived in England as a gift to the King. And who was in charge of taking care of this living gift? Well, that would be Shakespeare’s good friend, Philip Henslowe. 

In 1611, a man named Poole brought polar bears back to England. We know this happened because Samuel Purchas writes about it in Pilgrimes (1625).

we slue 26. Seales, and espied three white Beares: wee went aboord for Shot and Powder, and comming to the Ice againe, we found a shee-Beare and two young ones: Master Thomas Welden shot and killed her: after shee was slayne, wee got the young ones, and brought them home into England, where they are aliue in Paris Garden. (Source)

The Bear garden, Bankside, sometime before 1616 | “The Bear Garden, Bankside, London from Visscher’s Map of London, published in 1616, but representing the city as it was several years earlier.” | From Visscher’s Map of London – The Project Gutenberg eBook, Shakespearean Playhouses, by Joseph Quincy Adams – http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22397/22397-h/22397-h.htm | Original Source | Public Domain | Photo has been slightly enlarged for posting here.

Paris Garden was a popular bear baiting arena in London during Shakespeare’s lifetime. It was located on the same side of the Thames as The Globe, in Southwark, but it was apparently, either mobile and could be setup and taken down in a fashion similar to circus tents today, or it could have been moved like The Globe was relocated across the river. The reason for the uncertainty there is that different records from the 16th century place Paris Garden in different spots. In 1583, John Stowe calls it “The Beare-garden, commonly called the Paris garden.”(Source)  There are two late 16th century maps: the Speculum Britanniae map of 1593, and the Civitas Londini map of 1600 that show the Beargarden in the Clink (which was the location of a famous prison, hence the phrase “thrown in the Clink”), which is close to the Rose theater. 

John Norden – John Norden. (1594). Speculi Brinanniæ Pars: an Historical and Chorographical Description of the County of Essex. | “First published in 1840 by the Camden Society, London. Image of John Norden’s map of south east essex in 1594. The map shows the geographical status of the Canvey group of islands before the unifying reclamation project of 1622.” | Source

Irregardless of exactly where it was in London, we know it was there, and it was the most popular bear baiting arena. Since Samuel Purchas’ record indicates the bears were taken to Paris Garden, it is apparent that they were intended to be used for games.

By 1611, Philip Henslowe and Edward Alleyn had received the royal warrant from King James to be in charge of the various bears, bulls, and mastiffs in the King’s care. Which means they were specfically in charge of the polar bear cubs which Poole had gifted the King. King James loved animal blood sports and is reported to have kept quite the zoo inside the Tower of London. As shareholders in the Fortune Theater and investors in Bear Garden, Henslowe and Alleyn bought their own zoo, and several critics have pointed out that the young bears could have performed in playhouses as well as baiting rings. (Details on Alleyn and Henslowe as Shareholders at The Fortune here)

The “Business” of Shareholding, the Fortune Playhouses, and Francis Grace’s Will
Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England
Vol. 2 (1985), pp. 231-251 (21 pages)
Published by: Rosemont Publishing & Printing Corp DBA Associated University Presses

Bankside, London – from William Smith’s MS. of the Description of England, c. 1580 | Source

Notably, Ben Jonson includes two white bears pulling a chariot in his court masque Oberon from 1611. Additionally, a white bear makes an appearance in Mucedorus from 1598. When we add those references to Shakespeare’s famous line from A Winter’s Tale, coinciding with Poole’s delivery of just such white bears to England at the exact same time, it seems that white bears were playing at least a minor role, if not a pop culture surge, when it came to the 17th century entertainment industry.

Edward Alleyn and Philip Henslowe are listed in the Calendar of State Papers as having received a warrant for the care of two white bears just weeks before the staging of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale.

Warrant to pay Phil.Henslow and Ed.Allen, Musters of the Game at Paris Garden, 42I.10s, and 12d per diem, in future for keeping two white bears and a young lion.

(Originally, I found this record at this website http://www.shakespearesengland.co.uk/2012/01/04/for-keeping-two-white-bears/ but today, that link appears to be taken down. I am also able to cite this quotation inside the ‘James 1 – volume 62: March 1611’, in Calendar of State Papers Domestic: James I, 1611-18, ed. Mary Anne Everett Green (London, 1858), pp. 14-20. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/jas1/1611-18/pp14-20 [accessed 27 November 2020].) Should those links fail, look up the “Calendar of State Papers” by Mary Anne Everett Green 1858. It’s on page 17. 

Bankside – the Bear Garden and the Rose Theatre – Norden’s Map of London, 1593 | Norden’s Map of London, 1593, – The Project Gutenberg eBook, Shakespearean Playhouses, by Joseph Quincy Adams – http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22397/22397-h/22397-h.htm | Source

According to historians like Barbara Ravelhofer, who researched and has a published article called “Beasts of Recreacion” on JSTOR, it is entirely plausible that animals, like bears and lions, might have appeared on the Jacobean stage, since it was people like Henslowe who ran theaters, and ran a zoo at Bear Gardens in Bankside.

According to the Tellers of the Exchequer, Philip Henslowe was issued a warrant for payment that amounted to close to a year or 18 months of care for the animals. In her article, Beasts of Recreacion, Barbara Ravelhofer describes the way historians calculated how long it must have been that Henslowe had the animals. According to their calculations, and estimating the annual cost of care, the payment Henslowe was given coincides with the bears coming to his care exactly after Poole returned to England with them in 1609. Additionally, the records show that Henslowe and Alleyn experienced significant financial trouble and were rather constantly trying to eek out money from James for the care of the animals. That fact adds credence to the theory that Henslowe might have rented them out for performance to Shakespeare for A Winter’s Tale or Jonson for both or either Mucedorus, or Oberon.

Henslowe’s polar bears were hardly the only the bears in Elizabethan England, however. Bear baiting was hugely popular. 

The crowds were amused at the whipping of the old blind bear “Harry Hunks” until the blood ran down his shoulders. (At least some bears — perhaps the fiercest, longest-enduring ones — were given names: “George Stone,” “Ned Whiting,” and the most famous, “Sackerson.”) Sackerson actually gets his own place in Shakespeare’s plays, having been written into Merry Wives of Windsor. 

Slender says “ I have seen Sackerson loose twenty times, and have taken him by the chain” (Act I Scene 1) 

 Bear and bull-baiting rings, Bankside, London c.1560 | The Agas Map of London | The Project Gutenberg eBook, Shakespearean Playhouses, by Joseph Quincy Adams – http://www.gutenberg.org/files/22397/22397-h/22397-h.htm | Original Source

There are surviving written descriptions of horses with apes tied to their backs set upon by dogs. One account by the Duke of Najera, who visited London in 1544, writes, 

“…a pony with an ape fastened on its back, and to see the animal kicking among the dogs, with the screams of the ape, beholding the curs hanging from the ears and neck of the pony, is very laughable.” (Chambers, E. K. The Elizabethan Stage. 4 Volumes, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923.)

Samuel Pepys describes a bull tossing a dog into a spectators’ box. Other records tell of the bulls tossing dogs into the air and then catching the falling dogs on their horns again. Apparently, it was a point of pride among dog owners to raise a dog that could defeat these large animals. On a few rare occasions, lions were baited.

In 1613, Henslowe and new partner Jacob Meade tore down the Beargarden, and in 1614 replaced it with the Hope Theater. (Excellent article here that talks about the history of bear baiting at The Hope Theater | If that link doesn’t work, visit British History Online. That’s a paid subscription website to access their records but this article was free Nov 27 2020; The paper version can be found on pages 66-77 Survey of London: Volume 22, Bankside (The Parishes of St. Saviour and Christchurch Southwark). Originally published by London County Council, London, 1950.”The Hope was equipped as a dual-purpose venue, hosting both stage plays and animal sports. Gradually, though, fewer plays were staged there, and the Hope was generally called the Beargarden after its primary use.

So bears were not native to England, and weren’t considered wild animals but they were profusely imported for the purpose of bear baiting. The images of bears suggest there were brown, black, and polar bears used for this purpose. 

So the answer to this week’s question is Yes, shakespeare absolutely knew what bears were and even profited from the bear baiting industry both tangentially as well as through the use of the theater spaces he owned as bear baiting arenas, as was the popular sport of the day during this lifetime. 

If you are a teacher or educator of Shakespeare history interested in unlimited access to hands on activities about the life of William Shakespeare, consider becoming a member of That Shakespeare Life. Membership gives you access to our collections of Shakespeare history activity kits that work like science labs for Shakespeare. Learn more and sign up at cassidycash.com/member

That’s it for this week! I’m Cassidy Cash and I hope you learn something new about the bard.

Support the show and continue the legacy of William Shakespeare. Become a patron to unlock exclusive extras, history guides, behind the scenes content, detailed show notes, and more!