Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Shakespeare: Sample Writing

Terry Nyquist
English 306
Dr. Delahoyde
2 December 2003

The Bear Understanding: The Presence and Meaning of the Bear in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale

Upon first encounter, the startling stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear” (III.iii.57), denoting the demise of old Antigonus in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, seems oddly, comically to drop out of thin air. With closer scrutiny, however, we see that Shakespeare leaves artfully crafted hints earlier in the play that bears and wolves may figure in Antigonus’ future, and most certainly in Perdita’s. Lamenting Leontes’ order to abandon “This female bastard hence, and that thou bear it / To some remote and desert place quite out / Of our dominions” (II.iii.175-176), Antigonus prays, “Come on, poor babe. / Some powerful spirit instruct the kites and ravens / To be thy nurses. Wolves and bears, they say, / Casting their savageness aside, have done / Like offices of pity” (II.ii.185-188). And later, disembarked on the shore of Bohemia, the Mariner warns Antigonus: “Besides, this place is famous for the creatures / Of prey that keep upon’t” (III.iii.11-12). Furthermore, before the appearance of the bear in the third act, Hermione laments during her trial that her father, the deceased emperor of Russia, cannot come to her aid (III.ii.118-122). By any token, this is a strange bit of information not obviously germane to plot thus far, and can only be construed by this reader as another foreshadowing of the bear. Bears and Russia have long been associated with one another. Astrologers assert that Mother Russia, The Great Bear, is ruled by the Ursa Major constellation (Wright). And Shakespeare and the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts were quite familiar with Russia, Ivan the Terrible, and horrific stories of his exploits with bears. Indeed, political references to bears were often synonymous with Ivan IV’s Russia, and Shakespeare may have modeled Leontes’ delusional rage and temper on Ivan and his reign (Palmer 332). Finally, after Leontes sees the error of his ways, and both Mamillius and Hermione are dead, Leontes utters a very obtuse hint of the bear: “So long as nature / Will bear up with this exercise, so long / I daily vow to use it” (III,ii.238-240).

Based on these clues or foreshadowing, we can assume that the appearance of the bear (and Antigonus’ ensuing dismemberment) is not just a quick entertainment gimmick popular at the time (Biggins 3), nor just a way to quickly and most finally dispatch Antigonus “in the most unprincipled and reckless fashion” as Sir Walter Raleigh surmised (Biggins 5). If the latter were true, Antigonus could have easily gone down with the others on the ship, severing all ties to Perdita just as effectively. So why the bear? Why, indeed. A fair amount of literature has emerged over the centuries regarding the introduction of the bear to The Winter’s Tale with a variety of plausible and colorful interpretations, including the bear as traditional figure in pastoral and oral tales, as a theatrical device, as a symbol, and as an allegory.

Bear As Traditional Figure in Oral Winter’s Tales, European Festival Folklore, and Pastoral Drama

Taking the cue from the play’s title, as well as numerous textual references to winter’s and old tales, such as wee Mamillius’ line: “A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one / Of sprites and goblins” (II.i.23-24), and “Like an old tale still, which will have matter to rehearse, though credit be asleep and not an ear open” (V.ii.59-61), and “That she is living, / Were it but told you, should be hooted at / Like an old tale” (V.iii.116-118), some critics believe the bear’s raison d’être–at least to some degree–lies in source material from oral, “winter” or “wives” tales told around a fireside, when it was cold, dark, and no work could be done (Newcomb 768). During the Middle Ages–and perhaps during and after Shakespeare’s time–a winter’s tale was told of a bear who emerged from her cave after Candlemas “to devour the souls of evil men” (Bristol 158, Ladurie 309). Moreover, the association of a bear with the Winter Festival permeates European folklore:

The carnivalesque bear-man is connected with a range of practices and observances that mark the end of Christmastide leisure and thebeginning of the agricultural work year. Like the ground hog in North America, the bear is a prognosticator who appears on 2 February to forecast the end of winter weather. When the bear appears during a storm, winter will be shorter and the arrival of spring earlier than in years when the weather is fine. (Bristol 159)

Bristol goes on to point out how well this fits with The Winter’s Tale. We surmise that Mamillius’ sad tale of spirits and goblins is a Halloween story, that Hermione gives birth to Perdita a short time later, and Antigonus arrives on Bohemia’s shores in the dead of winter just minutes ahead of a terrible storm. “The skies look grimly / And threaten present blusters,” frets the Mariner (III.iii.3-4). And just as Antigonus remarks, “I never saw / The heavens so dim by day” (III.iii.54-55), the devouring bear emerges, and along comes the jolly Shepherd bemoaning lusty teenagers and errant sheep.

Jerry Bryant makes the argument that The Winter’s Tale is a solid example of English pastoral drama wherein “the famous bear that eats up poor Antigonus has its counterparts in both the romance and pastoral drama” (387). Bryant does admit, however, that it is usually the animal who fairs worse than humans in pastoral tradition, but the bear does succeed in severing Perdita’s ties with her origins, a fundamental pastoral criterion. He suspects the Clown’s raucous and comically grisly account of the roaring, mocking, flap-dragoning destruction of Antigonus and his ship (III.iii.92-96) is not a departure, but Shakespeare “spoofing the clichés of storms and wild animals” in pastoral and romance drama (393).

Bear As Theatrical Device

Many critics believe that Shakespeare uses the bear in The Winter’s Tale as device to shift the play from the tragedy of the first three acts to the pastoral comedy of the final two. Nevill Coghill (34-35, Biggins 5) sees the bear scene as a “tour de force, calculated to create a unique and particular effects “evoking a sort of nervous “frisson of horror instantly succeeded by a shout of laughter” as the bear, “in a well-timed knock-about,” grapples with and carries off an “elderly man to a dreadful death,” thus linking the two halves of the play. Hilarious. Biggins (6) agrees that the bear is a vital catalyst from tragic to comic, but thinks that the true humor, as Shakespeare intends, in his “laconic wording of that stage-direction,” not seeing the mauling, but first hearing the “savage clamour” and Antigonus scampering off the stage. He sees the scene played seriously, with the bear nuzzling the Perdita bundle, then tearing after the old man.

In her article, Joan Hartwig asserts that those who would play the scene either comically or seriously, miss the boat:

Speed is part of the tragiccomic effect. The surpriseof the bear’s appearance and the quick shift in Antigonus’ prospects from life to death are the points which cause laughter, and prolonging the action between Antigonus and the bear…violates the effect. If the scene is played quickly, the immediate appearances of the Shepherd, who finds Perdita, and of the Clown, who describes in such a comic way the shipwreck and the sounds of the bear’s dining on Antigonus, dictate the response the audience must make to the event. Shakespeare leaves little to chance, carefully directing audience response into the appropriate channel. (28-29)

Andrew Gurr theorizes that the bear as a theatrical device does more than signal the end of tragedy and the beginning of comedy (421). The bear, he posits, initiates transitions of contrast between the two halves of The Winter’s Tale–from Leontes’ tragic court to Bohemia’s comic pastoral, from harsh winter and death (Mamillius, Hermione, the ship’s crew, and Antigonus) to lush spring and rebirth (love and a new life for all those who can be reconstituted), from Leontes’ faulty illusion to Autolycus’ truthful reality, from Leontes’ tyrannical anger to everyone’s boundless joy, from Leontes’ distrust and condemnation to his renewed faith and redemption.

Bear As Symbol

Everyone loves a symbol, and the bear in The Winter’s Tale provides fertile ground for sprouting all manner of interpretation. Probably the broadest, most obvious symbolic meaning of the bear would be Nature’s divine retribution for the unnatural, evil business Antigonus is undertaking for Leontes. As noted earlier, Hermione invokes the spirit of her deceased father, the emperor of Russia, of which the bear is a well-known symbol, calling for pity, not revenge (III.ii.118-122). As Biggins (12) notes, the employment of bears as an instrument of divine wrath to avenge wrongs has biblical precedent in the story of Elisha (II Kings 2:23-24). Leontes is spared in some degree because of his repentance (III.ii.231-241), but not Antigonus, who with strange blind loyalty, and contrary to his good, kind nature, continues on his cruel mission, even believing, however falsely, in Hermione’s guilt. “Poor wretch, / That for thy mother’s fault art thus exposed / To loss and what may follow. Weep I cannot, / But my heart bleeds” (III.iii.48-51). An interesting, arcane aside is the cryptography of Antigonus’ name; in Greek, the word “anti” means “instead, lieu.” His name could be construed as meaning “gone instead of us.” Also worth noting perhaps is that Antigonus, The One-Eyed (Britannica Concise Encyclopedia) is a historical figure–a great general under Alexander the Great, indeed “his right-hand man,” sent out to wage his wars. He was Alexander’s successor, at least for a brief time, something we know Shakespeare knew because of Paulina’s words to Leontes. “Care not for issue; / The crown will find an heir. Great Alexander / Left his to th’ worthiest; so his successor / Was like to be the best” (IV.iv.46-49). In any case, Shakespeare’s loyalty-blind Antigonus, the corrupted representative of unnatural tyranny (Biggins 11), is slain sacrificially in place of the now penitent and redeemed Leontes.

The bear also symbolizes the winter season, a time of dormancy, a harsh, bitter, and savage landscape, and death. For all intents and purposes, Leontes and his court are figuratively or actually dead (Biggins 8)–and Sicilia a loveless, barren, sorrowful wasteland. Cleomenes speaks of Leontes’ “saint-like sorrow” (V.i.2), and Leontes mourns the fact that his evil deeds have left his kingdom heirless (V.i.10). Leontes has lost everyone he has ever loved or who has ever loved him, as far as he knows. On another tack, the Winter Festival in Renaissance England was punctuated by the slaughter of livestock and the roasting of large joints as mandated by the culinary calendar (Bristol 157). Perhaps the Clown’s account of Antigonus’ slaughter, “to see how the bear tore out his shoulder-bone” (III.iii.90-91), and the bears ensuing feast, “the bear half-dined on the gentleman. He’s at it now” (III.iii.100-101), are merely oblique references to the winter season festivities.

Nonetheless, the bear as a symbol of regeneration, emerging from its death-like winter hibernation and hungrily devouring the death-agent Antigonus, alludes to hopeful rebirth in the spring. Surely this was artful preparation for Perdita’s re-emergence and particularly Hermione’s miraculous awakening from her death-like, sixteen-year slumber. In Shakespeare’s England, bears were as synonymous with savage cruelty and destruction as they were with nurture and creativity (Bristol 160). As cited earlier, Antigonus recalls stories of bears and wolves who nurtured helpless babes (II.iii.186-188). There was also a Renaissance belief that during hibernation the she-bear gives birth and licks her cub into his shape from a formless mass (Bristol 160, Gurr 423). Late in Act V two Gentlemen report the wondrous return and reunion of Perdita. They then report the existence of an amazingly life-like statue purportedly sculpted by the renowned Julio [sic] Romano. Discussing Paulina’s role in the matter, one Gentleman remarks, “I thought she had some great matter there in hand, for she hath privately twice or thrice a day, ever since the death of Hermione, visited that removed house” (V.ii.99-102). In light of this rather cryptic statement, I propose that Paulina is the nurturing she-bear, the mother of all mothers. As a character she is no one’s biological mother, but she assumes the role completely. She defends Hermione indefatigably, verbally assaults Leontes, and champions Perdita with a bear-like protective ferocity and without regard for her own safety (II.iii.113-120). She is the only character who blatantly lashes out and stands up to Leontes (perfect bear imagery), not only surviving his tyranny but later praised (V.iii.1-2) and rewarded for it (V.iii.136-139). (Polixenes and Camillo run away, Antigonus succumbs, Mamillius dies, and Hermione hibernates for sixteen years.) When she is not castigating Leontes, she advises and admonishes him with a kindly gruffness, constantly nudging, guiding, and instructing him on what to do and how to behave (V.i.77-83). Meanwhile, in her solitary den, her “removed house,” she nurtures Hermione, “licking and sculpting” her back to life to prepare her to emerge from the bear’s womb-like den:

As she lived peerless,
So her dead likeness, I do well believe,
Excels whatever yet you looked upon
Or hand of man hath done. Therefore I keep it
Lonely, apart. But here it is. Prepare
To see the life as lively mocked as ever
Still sleep mocked death. Behold, and say ’tis well.

Perhaps Shakespeare uses the bear to symbolize the duality of Nature as a agent of death and the mother of life, to illustrate the cycle of seasons from winter to spring, from death to life as the Shepherd points out to the Clown: “Heavy matters, heavy matters. But look thee here, boy. Now bless thyself! thou mettest with things dying, I with things new-born. Here’s a sight for thee. Look thee, a bearing-cloth for a squire’s child” (III.iii.105-108).

If Paulina is the creative, nurturing she-bear, then Leontes is the antithetical bear of explosive rage and destruction, often thought to symbolize Leontes’ tyrannical authority, anger, and sexual aggressiveness (Bristol 160). The more Leontes’ sexual jealousy grows, the more vicious he becomes, and Biggins points out that carnivores, especially bears, appear frequently in Shakespearean imagery and in other Elizabethan literature as exemplars of “hideousness, ferocity, and savage, remorseless cruelty” (10). Much like a enraged bear and without provocation Leontes savagely attacks his wife: “I am glad you did not nurse him. / Though he does bear some signs of me, yet you / Have too much blood in him” (II.i.54-57) and is the indirect cause of his son’s death. “Bear the boy hence. He shall not come about her” (II.i.59). He trumps up toxic jealous sexual fantasies about his childhood friend and plots to murder him (I.ii.307-317) and, suspecting she is not his own, condemns his own offspring to a cruel death (II.iii.92-95). Biggins also remarks that while Leontes is never compared directly with a bear within the play, there are subtle references. Even now we often associate a person’s surly nature with that of a bear, and in a subtle pun, Leontes refers to himself as being baited by Paulina (13). “A callet / Of boundless tongue, who late hath beat her husband / And now baits me!” (II.iii.90-92).

The notion of the bear as a symbol of tyrannical authority extends to allegory. Renaissance England was simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by Ivan the Terrible and stories of his atrocities, and Daryl Palmer asserts that the bear in The Winter’s Tale alludes to Ivan IV, that Shakespeare was well aware of the bear’s symbolic and cultural associations–“ideas of winter and tyranny mingled with his audience’s taste for bearbaitings” (332). Palmer goes on to explain that when Ivan died in 1584, succession disputes rocked the empire, due in part to the emperor’s violence against his own children. In 1674 a historian concluded that Ivan killed his son “upon no other provocation than that of his violent temper” (332).

The existence of Ivan and Muscovy allowed English writers to imagine authority as a wild, raging bear, a creature of spectacle that entertained both kings and commoners alike. The trope of Ivan as beast fable enabled the English audience to become fanciful when thinking about political exigencies, to imagine that courtly capacities for envy and cruelty belonged to old tales from faraway lands of winter. (Palmer 333)

This becomes evident in The Winter’s Tale as the report of tyranny is passed from the shrilly righteous Paulina (III.ii.174-211) to the comical, ballad-hawking Autolycus (IV.iv.760-780) as he sets out to manipulate the Clown (Palmer 333). The Clown’s response sells a much more palatable kind of ruling authority: “He seems to be of great authority. Close with him, give him gold; and though authority be a stubborn bear, yet he is oft led by the nose with gold” (IV.iv.786-788).

In the final analysis, what initially seems to be a quirky head-scratcher emerges as a complex, multifaceted, and significant element of The Winter’s Tale. Any and all of these interpretations of the meaning and presence of the bear seem valid, none exclusive of another, and quite possibly all active players in the playwright’s consciousness as he crafted his masterful, folksy tale about the tyranny of secular authority, popular culture, social change and self-transformation, and more. As I conclude, my mind wanders to other possibilities and interpretations–the biblical bear of the Four Beasts from the book of Daniel with the three ribs between its teeth crying, “Arise, devour much flesh” (Daniel 7:5), or the possible reinvention of Antigonus into Autolycus, from lord to rogue, from manipulated to manipulator, their similar shoulder wounds, and the link from Odysseus’ boar to Antigonus’ bear, from Odysseus to Antigonus to Autolycus (Shoptaw 229-230)–and I suspect I’ve just barely scratched the surface in understanding Shakespeare’s bear, much less his genius.

Work Cited

“Antigonus/Monophthalmus.” Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. Encyclopaedia Britannica Premium Service. http://www.britannica.com/ebc/article?eu=380807 (24 Nov. 2003).

Biggins, Dennis. “‘Exit Pursued by a Beare’: A Problem in The Winter’s Tale.” Shakespeare Quarterly 13.1 (Winter 1962): 3-13.

Bristol, Michael D. “In Search of the Bear: Spatialtemporal Form and the Heterogeneity of Economies in The Winter’s Tale.” Shakespeare Quarterly 42.2 (Summer 1991): 145-167.

Bryant, Jerry H. “The Winter’s Tale and the Pastoral Tradition.” Shakespeare Quarterly 14.4 (Autumn 1963): 387-398.

Coghill, Nevill. “Six Points of Stage-Craft in The Winter’s Tale.” Shakespeare Survey 11 (1958): 31-41.

Gurr, Andrew. “The Bear, the Statue, and Hysteria in The Winter’s Tale.” Shakespeare Quarterly 34.4 (Winter 1983): 420-425.

Hartwig, Joan. “The Tragicomic Perspective of The Winter’s Tale.” ELH 37.1 (March 1970): 12-36.

Ladurie, Emmanuel Le Roy. “The Winter Festival” in Carnival in Romans. Trans. Mary Feeney. New York: George Braziller, 1979. 305-324.

Lim, Walter S. H. “Knowledge and Belief in The Winter’s Tale.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.2 (2001): 317-334.

Newcomb, Lori Humphrey. “‘Social Things’: The Production of Popular Culture in the Reception of Robert Greene’s Pandosto.” ELH 61.4 (1994): 753-781.

Palmer, Daryl W. “Jacobean Muscovites: Winter, Tyranny, and Knowledge in The Winter’s Tale.” Shakespeare Quarterly 46.3 (Autumn 1995): 323-339.

Shoptaw, John. “Lyric Cryptography.” Poetics Today 21.1 (2000): 221-262.

The Winter’s Tale. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. The Pelican Text Revised. New York: The Viking Press, 1969. 1337-1368.

Wright, Anne. “Ursa Major: The Greater Bear.” http://www.winshop.com.au/annew/UrsaMajor (24 Nov. 2003).