Exit, pursued by a bear: Shakespeare’s Odd Stage Direction

Will this bad boy pursue you?

A Winter’s Tale is one of William Shakespeare’s weirdest plays. It wasn’t published until eight years after the playwright had died, and by then it was too late to ask the guy what on Earth he was playing at.

For you see, it meshes tragedy, drama, and comedy in a particularly unusual manner. Perhaps back in 1630, or whatever, it made perfect sense. In 2015 it looks really, really weird. One moment particularly stands out, which we shall cover today in all its glory.

Exit, pursued by a bear

In Act III, Scene 3 at Bohemia, a desert country near the sea, antagonist Antigonus is being an unpleasant git and causing a ruckus.

Narrative norms would suggest he would continue being a so-and-so until the play’s conclusion, but instead he is, without warning, attacked by a bear.

In Shakespeare’s plays everyone has time to launch into a vast speech if they’re dying (even whilst being attacked by a bear), and at the conclusion of this respective verbose death rant, the unfortunate Antigonus announces:

 “Well may I get aboard! This is the chase: I am gone for ever!”

After this Shakespeare’s only direction is:

“Exit, pursued by a bear”

It isn’t referred to again in the play. Nor is the bear seen or heard from again. In terms of fleeting moments of fame, this bear wins.

There’s a great deal of confusion amongst theatre companies about how to approach this moment. Everyone’s highly confused – even the Royal Opera House can’t figure it out.

A year ago they posted this article about how to approach the scene. Scholars suggest this is the moment the play turns from a tragedy into a comedy, but it’s kind of guesswork given the gulf in thyme between Shakespeare’s era and ours.

It’s believed, at the premiere of the play around 1623, the theatre might have used a real bear for this. It doesn’t really explain what was going on in Shakespeare’s brain, however, as Antigonus suddenly disappears with no warning from the plot.

Along with the bear. A modern equivalent is like the bit in 1999’s Deep Blue Sea where Samuel L. Jackson’s character is suddenly taken out by a shark. However, the shark’s remain in the film and don’t just clear off. Clearly this bear had some important stuff to get on with.

All we know is this is the perfect way to end any kind of correspondence you have with anyone. Friends? Family? Colleagues? Awkward bloke who keeps asking you out online? Press conference? Business meeting? Simply announce or write: Exit, pursued by a bear.


  1. Fans of Game of Thrones (read: Mostly people with minimal knowledge and understanding of literature) will say it was SURPRISING, UNPREDICTIBLE and therefore REALISTIC.

    It’s all about surprising, really, just like if I started writing in a foreign langauge את שאר התגובה שלי

    Liked by 1 person

    • Realism is overrated. It’s also underrated (I’m covering my hegemonic bases). I do wish Shakespeare had written similarly weird moments like this. An alien invasion, for instance. Macbeth could have done with one: “Macbeth exits, beamed up to the Mother Ship”. Indeed.


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