Exit, Pursued by Bear: The Implications of an Infamous Stage Direction
In 1611, William Shakespeare, tired of convention and determined to write a play that was both new and bold, wrote A Winter’s Tale. Today the show is most famous not for its dialogue or story, but for a single stage direction in Act III Scene iii that has baffled critics and scholars for centuries: “Exit, pursued by a bear” (III.iii.64). This stage direction is not only strange, and like most of Shakespeare’s writing, it’s subject to a great deal of scrutiny and debate. Scholars wonder if Shakespeare used a real bear, critics have widely differing opinions on how the bear should be treated, and audiences can’t figure out why a man in a bear costume just killed Antigonus. The only matter that everyone can agree upon is that the line is, in many ways, atypical – and they’re right. What happens on stage during in Act III Scene iii is not normal. It is extraordinary. Act III Scene iii not only marks a tonal shift from tragedy to comedy rarely seen in 17th century play writing, but also does away with the categories of tragedy and comedy altogether and breaks with convention in a way that is truly revolutionary.
The scene opens tragically, as the Delphic oracle has just revealed that Hermione is chaste, but Antigonus has no way of knowing this information and is about to kill Perdita. The tragic scene is set by the Mariner, who describes their surroundings and says to Antigonus, “Ay, my lord, and fear / We have landed in ill time. The skies look grimly / And threaten present blusters. In my conscience, / The heavens with that we have in hand are angry / And frown upon ’s” (III.iii.3-7). This series of lines serves a couple purposes. It chiefly sets up the physical surroundings of the characters on stage as Shakespeare’s plays often could not have actual sets. More importantly however, the lines convey a general air of negativity that is emblematic of the entire first three acts. The skies are gray, the heavens are angry, and life frowns upon them on the island as much as it does back at the castle with the false accusations of infidelity against Hermione. The entire show up to this point is relentlessly depressing, and the audience now has to prepare to watch a baby be murdered. The traditional tone one would expect to see in a tragedy is firmly established by Act III Scene iii, but Shakespeare works even harder to convey a sense of tragedy through the rest of the first half of the scene. As Act III Scene iii continues, Antigonus recounts a dream he had which seems to be prophetic and certainly spells bad news. He begins the retelling of his dream by describing his encounter with Hermione: “To me comes a creature, / Sometimes her head on one side, some another. / I never saw a vessel of like sorrow” (23-25). Through these lines, Hermione is described as being absolutely miserable, and understandably so. What’s noteworthy is that the audience is already very aware of how sad Hermione is. There really isn’t a need for Shakespeare to recount her sadness, and as a masterful playwright, he would know this.
That being the case, it seems as if the description of Hermione is inserted into Antigonus’ dream specifically to push the level of tragedy over the edge, or to be melodramatic. Melodrama is evident later on as well as Antigonus talks about the part of the vision that pertains to him: “‘There weep, and leave it crying. And, for the babe / Is counted lost forever, Perdita / I prithee call ’t. For this ungentle business / Put on thee by my lord, thou ne’er shalt see / Thy wife Paulina more’” (III.iii.36-40). As if it wasn’t already bad enough that Perdita is supposedly about to die and Hermione is in prison because of false accusations of infidelity, the dream says that the person tasked with abandoning the child will never see his wife again. This is again an unnecessary amount of tragedy for one play, and seems to indicate that Shakespeare was being purposefully melodramatic. However, the melodrama in Act III Scene iii makes sense because it allows Shakespeare to make the shift from tragedy to comedy seem much more significant. By playing up the tragic events of the first three acts, the shift to comedy that follows becomes more sudden, more powerful, and more true to life. After Antigonus’ abrupt and admittedly humorous demise, the tone of the scene, and the play itself, shifts to comedy. A Shepherd and his son (a clown) enter the scene, and the clown sees a ship on the horizon and makes a comment to the effect that it isn’t faring well.
Before Antigonus’ death, the state of the ship would have probably been dwelled upon and bemoaned, but instead the Shepherd comments, “Heavy matters, heavy matters. But look / thee here, boy. Now bless thyself. Thou met’st with / things dying, I with things newborn” (III.iii.118-120). Through these lines, the Shepherd not only brushes off what his son said about the boat, trivializing it as “heavy matters” but he also takes the focus off of the dead and onto the newborn. The change in the Shepherd’s focus is symbolic of the change in tone occurring within the play, and the fact that the tragedy on the horizon is going largely ignored serves to show the tragedy is no longer the focal point of the show as well. The focal point shifts further away from tragedy as the two talk about where to bury Antigonus’ body. Instead of dwelling on the body, or weeping over the man’s death, the Clown simply says “Marry, will I, and you shall help to / put him i’ th’ ground” (III.iii.142-143), and happily goes about his business of burying a body. The scene could easily be played as tragedy, but it is instead used to evoke laughter from the audience. The scene concludes with the shepherd telling his son “’Tis a lucky day, boy, and we’ll do good / deeds on ’t” (III.iii.144-145), which is a refreshing spot of optimism in a play that has been otherwise dour, signifying that not only will the Shepherd’s fortunes improve, but the tone of the play will become more positive as well. The stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear” marks a shift in tone so great it is still talked about to this day. To many, the transition is odd, as typically in plays the audience doesn’t suffer whiplash from the abrupt transition from tragedy to comedy; but though the transition may seem odd from a theatrical convention point of view, it is in fact more realistic than people give it credit for, because life works exactly the same way.
Historians and critics may argue over the interpretation of the stage direction, but the tonal shift is about so much more than the stage direction itself. The bear is random and scary just as life can be random and scary. One moment all seems stable, but in the very next moment it may seem like everything has been turned upside down. It’s silly to even begin to categorize events into tragedy and comedy as they blend together so often. It’s difficult for the bereaved not to laugh in a funeral home when recalling a fond memory with a loved one, and it can be difficult not to weep at a joke that rings particularly true. In life, there is horror, there is laughter, and there is sorrow, but they seldom travel alone. They come together as a package deal in nearly every situation, and it is up to the individual to devote time and energy to the emotion of their choosing. There is no event or emotion that can be put into a box unless the label on the box simply reads “life.”
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