50. “Exit Pursued by a Bear:” The Nobleman Antigonus, the Banishment to Sicily, Being Eaten Alive by A Bear, the Sky-Darkening Storm that Kills the Mariners, and the Clamors, Cries, and Roars

Perhaps, the most famous stage direction in the Shakespeare canon occurs in The Winter’s Tale and involves the doomed character Antigonus. He leaves the play abruptly after abandoning the banished baby Perdita on the shores of a distant land: “Exit pursued by a bear,” reads the stage-direction. We soon discover that Antigonus doesn’t survive, and the grisly details of his being devoured alive are recounted on stage by a witness.

This moment in the play has been testing the creativity of directors for centuries as they struggle to stage the dramatic chase. Some project the image of a large bear on a backdrop, as in the pic above, while others use an actor dressed in a costume. In Tudor theater, it is possible they often worked with a real, trained bear. The use of bears in live entertainments predates Shakespeare.

But the history of the scene dates back further. Indeed, as noted in our book, Thomas North’s 1555 Travel Journal: From Italy to Shakespeare, the name, language, and elements of the storyline of the banished-Antigonus, actually derive from a similar scene involving North’s Dial of Princes. And North marked those passages on pages 452-3 of his Dial:

When we first meet with Antigonus in the translation, we are not made privy to his whole story. Still, it is startling to see that his plight is compared to being eaten alive by a bear:

The wretched Antigonus wrote Emperor Marcus Aurelius complaining about the injustice of his banishment. The emperor responded with letters of sympathy about the cruelty of the judgment against him, lamenting that “Judges are so greedy to tear men’s flesh, as if they were bears and man’s flesh were nointed with honey” (238v/ 381).

Thomas North’s 1555 Travel Journal: From Italy to Shakespeare

Later in in the translation, we learn the full history of Antigonus’s fate, which includes a great number of parallels with the tale of Antigonus in The Winter’s Tale. Again quoting our book on North’s diary, Thomas North’s 1555 Travel Journal.

These elements of the story of Antigonus [in The Dial] are reflected in the Antigonus subplot of The Winter’s Tale. That subplot also includes fear and stress leading to a premature delivery; the furious judgment against Antigonus and baby Perdita; the banishment to the coast of Sicily; a focus on the ominous darkening of the skies; the fear that this was punishment by angry gods; the loud and riotous storm that killed all the Mariners; and the raging and roaring of the bear, which eats Antigonus alive

Thomas North’s 1555 Travel Journal: From Italy to Shakespeare
Antigonus and the Dual Story of the Dark Storm and Roaring Bears on the Coast of Sicily in The Dial of PrincesAntigonus and the Dual Story of the Dark Storm and Roaring Bear on the Coast of Sicily in The Winter’s Tale
And all the people … with doleful clamors and cries, making their importunate prayers.  
the Lions with terrible voices roaring, the bears with no less fearful cries raging …   there appeared in the element a marvelous dark cloud, which seemed to darken the whole earth, and therewith it began to thunder and lightning so terrible …   At the same time when this woeful chance happened in the Isle, there dwelled a Roman in the same City called Antigonus, a man of a noble blood, and well stricken in age, who with his wife and daughter were banished two years before from Rome…. The Censors … banished him unto the Isle of Sicily Antigonus was not only deprived of his honor, goods, and country, but also by an Earth-quake, his house fell down to the ground, and slew his dearly beloved daughter. –728-30            
Antigonus: Thou art perfect then, our ship hath touched upon/ The deserts of Bohemia [i.e., Sicily]?
Mariner:   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….
Besides, this place is famous for the creatures
Of prey that keep upon’t.
Antigonus The storm begins
The day frowns more and more. Thou’rt like to have
A lullaby too rough. I never saw
The heavens so dim by day. A savage clamor! …
[Exit, pursued by a bear…]
Clown: I would you did but see how it chafes, how it rages Oh, the most piteous cry of the poor souls!   … how he cried to me for help and said his name was Antigonus, a nobleman. But to make an end of the ship: to see how the sea flapdragoned it! But first, how the poor souls roared and the sea mocked them, and how the poor gentleman roared and the bear mocked him, both roaring louder than the sea or weather. –3.3.106, 1-7, 11-12, 48, 53-55, 86-88, 93-99  
Element … darkheavens so dim
called Antigonus, a man of a noble bloodhis name was Antigonus, a nobleman
roaring, the bearsthe bear mocked him, both roaring
clamors, doleful-cries, ragingclamor, piteous cry, rages
the Isle of SicilyThe deserts of Bohemia [i.e., Sicily]

This is of course unique. Indeed, an EEBO search for just two of the shared elements — the noble Antigonus and the roaring bear–yields only North’s Dial of Princes and The Winter’s Tale:[1]

Notice in North’s Dial, the banishment of Antigonus is to Sicily, while in Shakespeare’s extant version of The Winter’s Tale, Antignous is sent from Sicily to Bohemia. But as is well known, when Shakespeare was writing the work (the story of which had also appeared in Greene’s Pandosto) he actually switched the kingdoms — and did so for political reasons (see Thomas North’s 1555 Travel Journal: From Italy to Shakespeare). Thus, in North’s original, Antigonus was sent with Perdita to Sicily — just like his namesake and his doomed daughter in The Dial.

Finally, investigative journalist Michael Blanding (author of North by Shakespeare: A Rogue Scholar’s Quest for the Truth Behind the Bard’s Work) was the one who first noticed resemblances between the stories of Antigonus in North’s Dial of Princes and Antigonus in The Winter’s Tale. His attention had first been drawn to the story because of North’s marginal notes.


[1] An EEBO-ProQuest search for Antigonus NEAR Noble* AND roaring NEAR the PRE/0 bears yields only The Dial and The Winter’s Tale.

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