Welcome to Episode #038 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

I believe that if you want to understand Shakespeare's plays, then understanding the life of William Shakespeare, the man, is essential. This podcast is designed to help you explore early modern England as Shakespeare would have lived it by interviewing the historians, performers, authors, and experts that know him best.

In Shakespeare’s play, The Winter’s Tale, there is a famous stage direction where the character Antigonus exits the stage but the written directions in the play state that he is to “exit, pursued by a bear.” So in performance, this character exits as a bear, seemingly from nowhere, arrives to chase him off the stage and into Shakespeare legend. Here to help us look at the history and context of this famous stage direction, is Aubrey Whitlock.

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Aubrey Whitlock is the Education Associate and Camp Life Coordinator with the ASC and the co-host of the podcast The Hurly Burly Shakespeare Show! Aubrey holds a BA in Theatre Arts from UC Santa Cruz, an MA in Teaching from Chapman University, and an MLitt and an MFA in Shakespeare and Performance from Mary Baldwin University.

Learn more about Aubrey on the American Shakespeare Center staff page here.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Aubrey about :

  • What is happening in the play that causes Antigonus to be chased off stage by a bear?
  • Was it common for a bear to appear in Renaissance plays?
  • In 1609, which is when we estimate The Winter’s Tale was written by Shakespeare, King James was gifted a pair of polar bear cubs that had been captured on a voyage to the arctic. Since The Winter’s Tale was staged before King James this same year, would Shakespeare have used the actual polar bears in his play?

    …and more!

Science Labs for History

Digital history activity kits based on games, recipes, and crafts from Shakespeare's plays. Each one is full of tutorials, supply lists, and step by step instructions so you can cook, play, and create your way through the life of William Shakespeare.

Learn Shakespeare history the fun way--with hands on activities you can do at home or in your classroom. 

An 1807 print of Act III, Scene iii: Exit Antigonus chased by a bear
by Thomas Bragg (printmaker) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Bear

In Shakespeare's, A Winter's Tale, the character Antigonus is chased off stage by a bear in what has become a legendary stage direction:

Exit, pursued by a bear

A Winter's Tale, III.3

Exactly how the bear devours Antigonus is explained away by a line spoken by the Clown following the swift exit:

And then for the
land-service, to see how the bear tore out his
shoulder-bone; how he cried to me for help and said
his name was Antigonus, a nobleman. But to make an
end of the ship, to see how the sea flap-dragoned
it: but, first, how the poor souls roared, and the
sea mocked them; and how the poor gentleman roared
and the bear mocked him, both roaring louder than
the sea or weather.

Clown, A Winter's Tale, III.3

We know about Poole's polar bear cargo 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)

By 1611, Philip Henslowe and Edward Alleyn had, as Aubrey notes in today's episode, 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.

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.

Stage design for a production of Mozart's opera The Magic Flute in Brno in 1793. The triumphal arrival of the high priest Sarastro on a chariot pulled by several lions is depicted (near end of Act I) by Joseph and Peter Schaffer (1793) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Dutch explorer William Barents was exploring the north of Russia near what is now the Barents Sea. During that 1595 expedition, Barents lost two of his men to a ferocious polar bear attack. In his diary, Gerrit de Veer recounts the episode by saying the bear pursued the first man, before he  “bit his head in sunder, and suckt out his blood” (Source). The rest of the crew takes off running, and the bear chases them, grabbing his second victim “which she tare in peeces” (Source). The story was written down close to 15 years later, and published in English in 1609, the same year Jonas Poole returned to England with two polar bear cubs for King James, and the same year William Shakespeare wrote A Winter's Tale and included the not only famous, but curiously unique “exit, pursued by a bear” stage direction.

Gruesome illustrations that accompanied the Latin and Dutch editions of 1598 Source

Keeper of the Bears

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. (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.

Detail of a cityscape of London from 1616 by Nicholas Visscher / Detail of Nicholas Visscher's map of the City of London (1616), showing the Globe Theater and Bear Gardens on Bankside. Just outside the Bear Gardens, in the bottom left of this image, you can see someone holding a large animal on a leash. Source

Master of the Bears

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.

Bears at The Globe

While A Winter's Tale was first performed at court, meaning conditions before King James might not match exactly what happened inside The Globe or Fortune Theater, it is incredibly interesting to the tale of Shakespeare's exiting bear, to consider that bear baiting was a hugely popular sport in Elizabethan, and later Jacobean, England often taking place right inside The Globe itself.

Theaters, as a rule, were an excellent location for bear baiting competitions, both because of their open pit where the fighting could easily be held, but also because theaters already held a reputation for the housing of spectacles. In this image from 1647, you can see The Hope theater blazened across the side with “bear baiting” declaring that the sport takes place there.

Wenceslaus Hollarderivative work: Old Moonraker [Public domain or Public domain]
via Wikimedia Commons From Hollar's View of London, 1647

“Bear-baiting as practised in the time of Queen Elizabeth” John Cassell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

BOOK III. OF THE PEOPLE OF ENGLAND. 215 CHAP. VI. Animals, how tutored by the Jugglers.—Tricks performed by Bears,—by Apes andMonkeys,—by Horses.—Origin of the Exhibitions at Astleys and at the Circus.—Dancing Dogs.—The Hare beating a Tabor.—The Learned Pig.—A Dancing Cock.•—The Deserter Bird.—Imitations of Animals.—Mummings and Masquerades,whence derived.—Baiting of Bulls, Bears, Horses, &c. fashionable Sports—howperformed.—Prize Fighting..—Challenge and Answer of Two Prize Fighters.—Quarter Staff.—Extraordinary Trial of Strength. I. One great part of the joculators profession was the teaching ofbears, apes, horses, dogs, and other animals, to imitate the actions ofmen, to tumble, to dance, and to perform a variety of tricks contraryto their nature; and sometimes he learned himself to counterfeit thegestures and articulations of the brutes. (Source
Strutt, Joseph, 1749-1802 [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

17th Century engraving of bear baiting. Source

Science Labs for History

Digital history activity kits based on games, recipes, and crafts from Shakespeare's plays. Each one is full of tutorials, supply lists, and step by step instructions so you can cook, play, and create your way through the life of William Shakespeare.

Learn Shakespeare history the fun way--with hands on activities you can do at home or in your classroom. 

Books & Resources Aubrey Recommends:

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