I am 100% convinced that “exit, pursued by a bear” is a reference to some popular 1590s meme that we’ll never be able to understand because that one play is the only surviving example of it.
Seriously, we’ll never figure it out. I’ll wager trying to understand “exit, pursued by a bear” with the text of The Winter’s Tale as our primary source is like trying to understand loss.jpg when all you have access to is a single overcompressed JPEG of a third-generation memetic mutation that mashes it up with YMCA and “gun” - there’s this whole twitching Frankensteinian mass of cultural context we just don’t have any way of getting at.
no, but this is why people do the boring archival work! because we think we do know why “exit, pursued by a bear” exists, now, and we figured it out by looking at ships manifests of the era -
it’s also why there was a revival of the unattributed and at the time probably rather out of fashion mucedorus at the globe in 1610 (the same year as the winter’s tale), and why ben jonson wrote a chariot pulled by bears into his court masque oberon, performed on new year’s day of 1611.
we think the answer is polar bears.
no, seriously! in late 1609 the explorer jonas poole captured two polar bear cubs in greenland and brought them home to england, where they were purchased by the beargarden, the go-to place in elizabethan london for bear-baiting and other ‘animal sports.’ it was at the time run by edward alleyn (yes, the actor) and his father-in-law philip henslowe (him of the admiral’s men and that diary we are all so very grateful for), and would have been very close, if not next to, the globe theatre.
of course, polar bear cubs are too little and adorable for baiting, even to the bloodthirsty tudor audience, aren’t they? so, what to do with the little bundles of fur until they’re too big to be harmless? well, if there’s anything we know about the playwrights and theatre professionals of the time, it’s that they knew how to make money and draw in audiences. and the spectacle of a too-small-to-be-dangerous-yet-but-still-real-live-and-totally-WHITE-bear? what good entertainment businessman is going to turn down that opportunity?
and, voila, we have a death-by-bear for the unfortunate antigonus, thereby freeing up paulina to be coupled off with camillo in the final scene, just as the comedic conventions of the time would expect.
you’re telling me it was an ACTUAL BEAR
every time I think to myself “history can’t possibly get any more bananas” I realize or am made to realize that I am badly mistaken
Not just an actual bear. A polar bear cub.
Imagine a fully grown man running offstage to be “killed” by a baby polar bear.
exit, pursued by bear. i.e. THE BEST STAGE DIRECTION OF ALL FUCKING TIME
[Image description: an animated GIF of a tiny baby polar bear and their human keeper. The human places the bear cub on the floor and it waddles, very unsteadily toward the camera. Description ends]
This post has lived in my head since it was first posted almost 5 years ago.
The thing is: for modern audiences and theater producers The Winter’s Tale is something of a mess. Because most of the action immediately after “Exit, Pursued by bear” is a harvest/shepherd’s feast, with the guests breaking into random songs, and then stopping to watch a troupe of dancers perform, rinse and repeat, for a full half hour or so, and doesn’t seem to do much to move the story forward at all.
But Shakespeare wasn’t writing the play for us. He was writing for an audience with a whole bunch of people who didn’t usually go to hear a play, and only showed up to catch a glimpse of this bear everyone’s been talking about. That moment happens in the middle of the story. So how do you keep a whole chunk of the audience from leaving, after the cute white fluff ball has waddled his way across the stage?
You give them a musical concert and acrobat show – get them singing along to favorite songs they already know, get them to feel like they’re actually guests at a real feast, instead of just watching one. And then, at the height of the fun, when everyone’s laughing and having a grand ol’ time, you bring the plot back, and threaten the young heroine and her family with death by hanging.
Brilliant audience wrangling, if you ask me.
If I were going to do a revival/retelling, I might make it a Space Opera, and instead of a polar bear, promise a spectacle of a Jim Henson Workshop monster. And turn the shepherd’s feast scene into a rock concert with wild dancing and songs. I don’t know enough about current music to know who I’d try to get as Autolycus (pickpocket and song-leader at the party) though.
…Theater, amirite? 😏