12 Pages

Conclusion: Exit, Pursued by a Bear

In the reception and scholarship of The Winter’s Tale, the exchange of Bohemia for Sicilia from Greene’s Pandosto and the resulting coastline of Bohemia are not the only mysteries found in the play. Shakespeare’s decision to include the stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear” has posed serious questions of interpretation for centuries. Directors staging the play have struggled with what John Pitcher in a recent edition calls “nearly unstageable but the best pantomime around.”1 In the early nineteenth century, John Philip Kemble felt the need to explain literally the bear’s presence and staged a hunt in the background of the scene, while in the 1976 Barton and Nunn production at Stratford-upon-Avon, the bear was symbolic and ever-present, from a bearskin rug that was wrapped around Hermione’s shoulders to the doubling of John Nettles as both Time and the Bear.2 Like the switching of Bohemia and Sicilia, the sudden appearance of the bear is unnecessary for the action of the play and so it has caused scholars and audiences to wonder what Shakespeare intended by it. Because Antigonus could so easily just have been drowned in the ship along with the rest of his crew, critic Arthur Quiller-Couch has labeled the bear a “naughty superfluity.”3