by Philippa Kelly
The Winter’s Tale has almost thirty references to the word, “bear,” the most famous of which is the stage direction for Antigonus, “Exit, pursued by a bear,” and the clown’s description of the scene thereafter: “the bear/Half-dined on the gentleman…” Why is the servant Antigonus pursued by a bear after he deposits the baby Perdita in the bullrushes? This is a question that has puzzled countless observers. It seems “un-Shakespearean” to have an unembedded stage direction at all, let alone such an odd one.
But this stage direction isn’t perhaps so strange in light of the many other instances of the word, “bear,” in the play. Shakespeare is notorious for his wordplay, to which “bear” bears (excuse the pun) witness: not only in the several references to the mighty, carnivorous animal, but also to “bear-baitings” (a much-relished sport in Shakespeare’s day). It also refers to the word’s philosophical connotations: “bear[ing] hence” to safety, “bear[ing] witness,” and, of course, Polixenes’ famous response to being told of the sickness Leontes expresses in his sudden fit of jealousy. Aware that he may not be able to cure his friend of his jealousy or amend his behavior, Polixenes knows that he must simply “bear” Leontes’ incomprehensible ill-will:
What incidency thou dost guess of harm
Is creeping toward me; how far off, how near;
Which way to be prevented, if to be;
If not, how best to bear it.
The Winter’s Tale embodies enormous contradictions—between brutality and tenderness; agency and endurance; fertility and brokenness (broken dreams, broken promises, and even the enormous 16-year break in time.) Leontes is like a hideously packaged “fardel” (listen for this word in our production) of all these contradictions – he has every reason to be happy, whole, and fulfilled, yet his mind is polluted and divided by doubt and suspicion. He encapsulates the flaws of Shakespeare’s post-1600 protagonists—Lear’s catastrophic misjudgment, the vanity that skews Antony and Cleopatra, Macbeth’s destructive fears, Othello’s paranoia and vulnerability, and Coriolanus’ fatal under-estimation of the “lower” orders. In his movement toward the play’s “comic” resolution, Leontes is offered the chance to atone for his sins and renew himself. But he can’t undo the sins that have resulted in his son Mamillius’ death; nor the mauling of the loyal Antigonus by the bear; nor the age and sadness etched into the lives (and marking the graves) of all those affected by his choleric actions. In his movement from a brutal emotional winter to repentance, and finally to redemption, Leontes learns that the seasons don’t make things new—rather, they carry a hope to heal plants injured by drought or flood, crops that are damaged, precious bruised blooms. In our ephemeral world, perhaps the greatest achievement is to survive, relishing the healing shaft of sunlight, the quenching drink of water, the promise of which helps us to bear what is brutal in the here-and-now and to believe that life can bloom again.
Dr. Philippa Kelly is Cal Shakes’ Resident Dramaturg and co-adapter of The Winter’s Tale, which runs September 1-26 at the Bruns Amphitheater. Learn more and get tickets today by visiting: calshakes.org/winters-tale.