How did they (get a bear on stage) in The Winter’s Tale

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The Winter’s tale is one of the few plays most remembered for a stage direction.  The direction in question is one in which Antigonus  must ‘Exit pursued by a bear’. Despite the apparent comedy of the line things don’t go well for Antigonus as the next we hear of him he has been eaten (apparently with relish) by the bear.  In the modern theatre this direction is still challenging to stage, despite the fact that the obvious fakeness of the bear can be obscured in darkness, dry ice, sound effects or even metaphor all to avoid the naked inadequacy of a man in a bear suit. One of the most effective versions of this scene that I have seen myself was in a promenade production in which the theatre was plunged into almost total darkness as the bear made his way through the audience brushing against people and lit occasionally with strobe lighting. Standing in that audience one felt some of the fear of Antigonus pursued by the bear.

But the immediate drama of darkness was not an option for Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s bear must have stood up to the clarity of full daylight.  So how  and why did Shakespeare do this?

The line reminds us all of the proximity of the bear baiting pit and the theatre. The bear pit was literally next door to the theatre, they would have been in direct competition for the punters pennies. In fact they charged the very same amount for the cheap tickets of one penny even though the entertainment they offered was of a very different nature. Even their physical set up was similar with the bear’s ‘on stage’ with the audience around them.

The unlucky bear in the bear baiting pit


Because of the physical proximity of the two venues some people have suggested that Antigonus was chased off stage by a real bear, but I think this is unlikely.  I think it far more likely that a bear skin was obtained from an unlucky bear – the turnover must have been relatively high as bets were placed on whether a chained bear or dogs would win a fight – and an actor in the bear skin was used to chase Antigonus from the stage.  A frisson of alarm may have been provided by the proximity of the bear pit as stories abounded about escapee bears chasing people through the streets. Thus there may have been just a split second when the possibility of a real bear was entertained by the audience.  Again Shakespeare’s plays incorporate easily achievable effects which make the most of the resources to hand.



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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Humphrey

    If you need evidence of how obtuse you are being, simply look at the length of your replies. What a joke. Here was a perfectly nice article about The Bear and you had to go and spoil it with delusions of conspiracy. Hey man, the movie came out and guess what… no one swallowed that bull! In fact, I think it’s safe to say, it might just have sqaushed the theory once and for all. Don’t be such a bad loser

  • Humphrey

    Can I ever get enough of The Bear in Winter’s Tale? No. Thanks for shedding some light on it’s majestic nature and mysterious origin. Classic article

  • Wjray4

    Concerning Henry VIII, read the response to the previous uninformed charge.

    As far as the Tempest being written after de Vere died, I assume that is part of your point?– it had a predecessor, The Spanish Maze, which was played in 1604-5 at the Jacobean court, in a tribute to “Shakespeare”, i.e., after the death of Edward de Vere in June. Way before 1611. There was a maze on the Island. It was a barren island in the Medterranean with yellow sand. Vulcano off Sicily is a barren island and has yellow sand. It was under the political hegemony of Spain.

    The play shows indications of having been finished, in-between Oxford’s death and the First Folio publication, by Jonson (see Marie Merkel’s work). As a cue to its earlier writing, it contains such 1570’s-’80’s Italian play influences as the conjuror renouncing his Art.

    Nothing at all ties The Tempest to the (1625) Stratchey Letter about a Burmuda shipwreck in 1609. Stratchey was a notorious plagiarer anyway, and copied from The Tempest rather than the other way around. His 25,000-word “letter” was not published until after the First Folio edition published The Tempest. The play has nothing to do with the Carribean. (See Stritmatter and Kositsky’s article in Review of English Studies, April 2007) So the traditional 1609-1611 insisted-upon-written-date has no basis in either the claimed late-source or in Jacobean theatrical history.

    You can fool some of the people all the time, and all the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time. I think Abraham Lincoln said that.  Maybe hit the books a little harder.  I said that.

  • Wjray4

    Is an analogy with Itsy Bitsy Spider your concept of ‘serious’? My discussion of The Winter’s Tale (relying on Chiljan’s Shakespeare Suppressed) explicates the allegorical elements of the play by comparison with historical and personal events centering on Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, and his arch-antagonists, and brother in law, Robert Cecil. If you think it is fanciful, prove it with contrary reasoning. An empty sneer is not an argument.

    As for the inference that de Vere couldn’t have written Henry VIII, because it was written after he died in 1604–Henry VIII “can be dated to any time between 1583 (the last definite source was Foxes’s ‘Actes and Monuments of Martyrs’) and 1613 when the play was performed.” (Gilvary, Dating Shakespeare’s Plays’, 2010).

    Therefore, there is no defensible chronological reason that Henry VIII was written after Oxford’s death, or the commonly estimated 1612, i.e., just before the 1613 performance date. Logic tells us that when a play was written and when it was performed are not tied together with a stop-watch.

    The play was never considered significant or popular enough to put into print, that is not until the First Folio in 1623, a commemorative complilation. The Globe was burned down when it was staged. It gives evidence of being doctored by Fletcher–who was known for comedy playwrighting, not historical chronicles. Like Two Noble Kinsmen, it has the look of an inferior, early play that was taken up much later by another playwright, to see if it would go commercially.  Neither play did (TNK in 1634) and neither is played today for similar reasons.

    Concerning Two Gentlemen of Verona, you seem to have your history wrong. It wasn’t written after 1604. A scene (2.5) alludes to Tarleton amusing the Queen with a dog, and Tarleton died in 1588. So the play pre-dated even when Shakspere was supposed to have arrived in London.

    These discussions would be more productive of worthwhile conclusions, if you weren’t relying on faulty cliches for your arguments.

  • Beyond Thunderdome

    Historian’s got a point there.  “Give up your art!  Oh, wait, can you write Henry VIII, too?  Maybe work with this other guy on Two Gentlemen of Verona while you’re at it?”  Seriously, you can extract a 2012 Apocalypse prediction from “Itsy Bitsy Spider” if you tried hard enough.

  • Historian

    And said nobleman was still commissioned, even after wanting to retire after The Tempest, to write Henry VIII because…?

  • Wjray4

    Such a comedy is The Winter’s Tale.  Any idea why the character who gets eaten by the bear is named Antigonus, not too far off Antigone, who was buried alive?  Could it be that the King of Sicillia (just co-incidentally a homonym of Robert Cecil) ordered a nobleman (de Vere) to bury himself alive morally and take his own flesh and blood, his Art, (Perdita, i.e., lost) out to the wastes and abandon her.  He also called her ‘Blossom’.

    Dropping the allegory, Cecil told de Vere to give up his blossomed child, Art, as a quid pro quo in a devil’s bargain with Authority. And what happens to Antigonus for agreeing?  He is consumed by the bear, the mob that believes what Authority dictates and hungrily eats what is in front of them. Gulielmus Shakspere’s counterpart, the Clown says what has become the history of the Shakespeare identity issue, “If there be any of him left, I’ll bury it.”

    Here the artist shows he knows what is to become of his identity and his work. The Clown (buffoon) has an alter-ego, Shepherd, who assists the dirty deed.  Shepherd doesn’t have any reference to the WOOL trade, does it?

    Sure enough, in the course of History, somebody did get buried, and somebody else believed just what they were told to. Us.

    If you enjoy puns, le Conte d’hiver (tale of winter) is a nearly exact pun of le Comte de Vere (the Count/Earl of Vere).

    How long will the Shakespeare establishment play the airy-fairy and be satisfied with empty-headed interpretations of tragedy? A good long while, evidently.

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