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