Welcome to Episode #55 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

 Elephants being given as gifts, lions being tamed in theaters, and bears chasing characters off stage in Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale. Where were these animals coming from? and what about exhibits? Were they on display for people like Shakespeare to witness? To help us explore the story of exotic animals in England is our guest, Peta Tait. 

Join the conversation below.

Itunes | Stitcher | TuneIn | GooglePlay | iHeartRadio

Professor Peta Tait FAHA is an academic scholar and playwright with an extensive background in theatre, dramatic literature, performance theory and creative arts practice. She is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities and her interdisciplinary fields include emotion, body theory and gender and cultural identity. Professor Tait has authored 6 scholarly books, and edited and co-edited 5 anthologies, with pver 60 other publications including articles in Theatre Journal, Modern Drama and Performance Research. She is writer of 5 produced plays, co-writer of 2, and writer for 3 contemporary performances. Professor Tait came to LTU in 1996 and was awarded a personal chair 2004. She was elected to the Executive Board of Performance Studies International 2005-2009, and her visiting professorships include NYU Performance Studies in 2000 and the University of Helsinki in 2010. She regularly receives international invitations to present on the phenomenology of circus bodies. Connect with Professor Tait here.


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

  • How did exotic, and obviously not-native animals, like lions or elephants, get to England in the first place?

  • What about London’s Bartholomew Fair? This was a type of pre-World’s Fair exhibition, and a large event for the city of London, certainly, but also for England. Peta, would William Shakespeare have attended this fair? Do you think that event, and it’s exhibition of animals like elephants, could have inspired some of the animals in Shakespeare’s plays?

  • Would these actual living lions have been used on stage during performance?

    …. and more!

Sometimes we see a cloud that's dragonish; 
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion. 


Antony and Cleopatra, IV.14

Oil on Panel ; From Act III, Scene 4 of William Shakespeare's Othello;
Othello and Desdemona by Henri Jean-Baptiste Victoire Fradelle Source

Polar Bears Tower of London

When explorers would return to England, they often brought animals from the lands they found in order to demonstrate both their strength in conquest but also examples of the wildlife which was in the foreign places. Polar bears were captured on one particular expedition under King James where a group took a boat to the arctic and they recount their story of killing the mom but brought the bear's two babies back as a gift to King James. Who was responsible for caring for those polar bears? Well, that would be the keeper of the bears for the crown, Philip Henslowe and James Burbage. That's right, Shakespeare's friends. Which is why many historians believe it might have been these two bears that were used on stage in plays like A Winter's Tale and Mucedorous, but the research is not conclusive. (pretty intriguing, though, right?) There's explore more links at the bottom of today's show notes.

A sketch done in 1514 to copy Raffael's sketch of an elephant. Source

…he is as valiant as the lion, 
churlish as the bear, slow as the elephant:


Troilus and Cressida, I.2

Mid 16th century woodcut of an elephant, in Conrad Gessner's ‘Historiae animalium'. The woodcut was widely reproduced, reaching English readers in the early 17th century with the publication of ‘The Historie of Foure-Footed Beasts' by Edmund Topsell. Source

Elephants in England

Elephants, lions, and polar bears were all given as gifts to English monarchs well before William Shakespeare was alive. Under King Henry III, who received three lions, a polar bear, and an elephant, keeping these exoctic animals in the Tower of London became known as The Royal Menagerie. 

The polar bear kept there under Henry III was allowed to hunt and fish in the Thames.

Under Elizabeth I, in the 16th century, was the first time this menagerie was opened to the public. Later in Shakespeare's lifetime, James I had the lion's den refurbished to include a better environment for being able to see them walking around and according to Historical Palaces, he specifically wanted visitors to be able to see ‘the great cisterne  … for the Lyons to drink and wash themselfes in’. Source

Even the currently reigning Elizabeth II was given a gift of an elephant in 1972 by the King of Cameroon. She did what her predecessors did, and donated the elephant to the London Zoo.

Rage must be withstood:
Give me his gage: lions make leopards tame.

King Richard II

Richard II , I.1

The Beargarden and the Rose Theatre depicted in Norden's Map of London, 1593 Source

Philip Henslowe and the Bear Garden

The exact location of the Bear Garden remains somewhat of a mystery due to various historical records placing it at different spots along the River Thames. It does seem to have been located near The Globe, in Southwark, and it was used for the purpose of bear baiting primarily. We know it was in existence by 1560, because it shows up on a woodcut map of the city. You can see the Bear Garden and the Rose Theater depicted in the above woodcut map from 1593. 

In charge of the monarch's “bears, bulls, and mastiff dogs” was the official bearward. In 1573, Queen Elizabeth I appointed Ralph Bowes as her Master of Her Majesty's Game.” Queen Elizabeth was a passionate fan of bear baiting. Philip Henslowe and Edward Alleyn purchased the office of Mastership in 1604, and ran a business of animal baiting in addition to their theater production. The Beargarden was torn down in 1614 to be replaced by The Hope Theater, but the Hope would become known locally as the Bear Garden, for the original purpose it was known for. Source

The other lords, like lions wanting food, 
Do rush upon us as their hungry prey.


Henry VI Part 1, I.2

Advertisement: “John Harris’s booth, Bartholemew-fair … is to be seen, The court of King Henry the Second; and the death of fair Rosamond …” [ca. 1700], with additional notes in pencil. TS 555.1, Houghton Library, Harvard University 

…for maids, well 
summered and warm kept, are like flies at 
Bartholomew-tide, blind, though they have their 
eyes; and then they will endure handling, which 
before would not abide looking on.

Duke of Burgundy

Henry V, V.2

Bartholomew Fair

Held every year on August 24 from 1133 to 1855, this even was one of London's biggest attractions. Started by Henry I, and continued even after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by moving to the Liberty area of London, where it was allowed to participate in things like theaters and public displays. It was a pleasure fair, with events including ” ‘jongleurs, jugglers, tumblers, minstrels, “histriones,” “mimi,” “ioculatores,” “pleyers,” [and] “beare or bull bayters”’.” All classes of English society were in attendance. Shakespeare references Bartholomew Fair in Henry V, with a line about Bartholomew-tide. That's the day before St. Bartholomew's day, the traditional day for the Lord Mayor of London to open the fair.  Source (Canton,58).

Shakespeare's Place in History

A timeline showing Shakespeare's life, when he wrote his plays, and what was going on in England.

Join the email list.
Subscribers get artwork like this one free once a month.

Books Recommended by Peta:

These are affiliate links, every purchase supports the show. 

Comment and Share

Please consider rating the podcast with 5 stars and leaving a one- or two-sentence review in iTunes or on Stitcher.  Rating the podcast helps tremendously with bringing the podcast to the attention of others.

We encourage you to join the That Shakespeare Girl community on Facebook. It’s a community of professional Shakespeareans and Shakespeare enthusiasts, as well as fans of That Shakespeare Life.

You can tell your friends on Twitter about your love of Shakespeare and our new podcast by simply clicking this link and sharing the tweet you’ll find at the other end.

And, by all means, if you know someone you think would love to learn about the life of William Shakespeare, please spread the word by using the share buttons on this page.

And remember: In order to really know William Shakespeare, you have to go behind the curtain, and into That Shakespeare Life.