Thursday, May 24, 2012

Theatre Thursday: Macbeth, Merry Wives, and the Business of Bear-baiting

"They have me tied to the stake; I cannot fly, but bearlike I must stay and fight the course."-Macbeth
A page of Macbeth from Shakespeare's First Folio, 1625. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

This line from Shakespeare's Scottish tragedy Macbeth captures the dreadful feeling of one's futile resistance against a vicious attack. All of us can probably relate to this feeling, having experienced it at one point of our lives or another. The phrase "They have tied me to the stake" and "bearlike" allude to the popular Elizabethan entertainment of bear-baiting. 

Bear-beating was a spectator sport that was also considered a theatrical affair. This "sport" was one in which a poor bear was chained to a stake in the center of an arena; then, a pack of dogs was unleashed to attack the bear. Spectators had placed bets before the match on the eventual outcome: would the dogs tear the bear to shreds, or would the bear, though tethered, be victorious? Shakespeare not only referenced the sport in Macbeth, but also covered it in The Merry Wives of Windsor. In Windsor, the bear Sackerson is inspired by some of the actual bears that lived long enough to develop a fan-following all their own..

By modern standards, the entertainment of bear-baiting or it's other variant, bull-baiting, is repulsive. Anyone caught facilitating or attending a sport of this nature today (like modern dog-fighting rings) would be arrested and prosecuted for animal cruelty and illegal gambling. But in the seedy areas of Elizabethan London (and the not so seedy areas, mind you) this was just par for the course. Bear-baiting is one of the more problematic realities of Elizabethan history that I have had to come to terms with. I have been raised by my mother to defend those who cannot speak for themselves, be it animals or children. And however hard it may be for me to do so, I know that to be a good historian I must judge historical figures and cultures by the standards of their own time, not my own, in order to make an fair assessment. The Roman's had their Gladiator games, and the Elizabethan's had their bear-baiting.

An illustration of a bear garden and bull-baiting ring on the banks of the Thames in London, c. 1560. From Agas's Map of London. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Queen Elizabeth herself is documented as having enjoyed the entertainment of bear-baiting on several occasions during her progresses, despite being particularly wary of any form of bloodshed in the political and military sectors of her world. Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester organized a bear-baiting, among many other over-the-top entertainments for Elizabeth when she visited him at his Kenilworth Castle in 1575. Coincidentally the Earl's crest was a bear and ragged staff, or a bear chained to a staff. 

A bear and ragged staff statue at Kenilworth Castle. The display is part of the recreated Elizabethan Gardens that Leicester assembled for Queen Elizabeth as a grand gesture for her visit to Kenilworth in 1575. Most historians agree that this was Leicester's last attempt to persuade Elizabeth I to marry him. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons courtesy Richard Croft. Image public domain.
There was no shame in participating in bear-baiting, and reputable figures in 16th and 17th century England owned and operated "bear gardens", the venue's in which the sport was held. Edward "Ned" Alleyn, who was one of the two most successful Elizabethan actors (along with Richard Burbage) went on to run a bear garden after his retirement from the stage. In the 17th century, he personally facilitated a bear-baiting for King James I.

A 17th century portrait of Edward Alleyn in old age. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
Bear-baiting is tragically still in practice in many parts of the world today, from Pakistan to South Carolina in the United States. I find it necessary to include links (see below) that will provide you with more information on the sport, and how you can help to stop it. Be mindful that some of the images and video footage may be disturbing to younger readers.

From The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA):

From The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS:

From The Alaska Wildlife Alliance: