Exit, pursued by a bear’: The Winter’s Tale pushing the limits of dramatic representation

I think it’s fair to say that Shakespeare likes a good narrative. And when it comes to Shakespeare’s ‘last play’, sometimes literary scholars are guilty of preferring a good narrative over the facts. The Tempest is often seen as the perfect swan song for the sweet swan of Avon. However, The Winter’s Tale was written in and around the same time, and arguably has just as much to tell us about Shakespeare’s later theatrical career.

Where The Tempest takes place over a single day on Prospero’s island (thus conforming to Aristotle’s so-called “unities”), The Winter’s Tale could not be more different. The action shifts from Sicilia, to Bohemia, and back again, and Shakespeare thinks nothing of leaping over an interval of sixteen years. He even introduces the figure of Time to inform us of the change! This is Shakespeare in full flow, as he lets the story carry the action to wherever it needs to be.

In terms of genre, The Winter’s Tale does not sit easily in any of the categories we have for Shakespearean drama. The play ends in marriage but it is not a comedy; there are deaths along the way but it is not a tragedy. This has led scholars to call it a romance, although even this doesn’t do justice to all that happens. We have trial scenes, sheep-shearing festivals, a dance of satyrs, and of course, the most famous stage direction of all time – ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’. Can the discovery of a bear’s skull at the site of the Hope theatre shed new light on how Shakespeare staged this pivotal moment?[1]

Taken from the first folio.

Even more significant for our understanding of Shakespeare is the final scene, where Hermione’s statue is brought back to life before our very eyes. This is a scene that is about the transformative power of theatre – ‘Awake your faith’, Paulina tells us. In asking his audience to take that imaginative leap of faith as a group, Shakespeare shows his supreme confidence in his dramatic abilities. After all, isn’t that what theatre is all about – the possibility of bringing people back from the dead?

Learn more…
There are several opportunities to further again with The Winter’s Tale this month.

Study Day – Saturday 2 March, 10 am-5.30 pm
This study day will discuss the influence of Indoor playing on Shakespeare’s writing and how the change in performance conditions affected Shakespeare’s late plays. Dr Derek Dunne will lead an explorative seminar so if this blog post has brought up any questions you can discuss them in person.  Other activities inclukde a guided tour of the theatre and workshop with actor Colin Hurley, most recently seen in Twelfth Night, 2012.

For booking details and full schedule please click here

Our Theatre performance- Thursday 7 March, 1pm
The Our Theatre project celebrates the creativity of the local community. Southwark schools have worked with Globe Education Practitioners to create, and present their shared vision of the play in an ensemble production on the Globe stage.

To book your free ticket or access The Winter’s Tale Web resources please click here.


[1] Julian Bowsher, Shakespeare’s London Theatreland (Museum of London Archaeology, 2012), p. 157.

By Doctor Derek Dunne