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Exit Pursued by a Bugbear : Stage Renderings of Mythical Moments in The Winter’s Tale

frPublié en ligne le 22 avril 2015



This paper takes as its starting‑point three particular moments in The Winter’s Tale (Exit pursued by a bear (3.1), Time (4.1) and the Statue scene (5.3) – moments that have become famous, or infamous, even mythical, by being so difficult to stage1. Having worked intensively with The Winter’s Tale throughout the academic year 2012/13 (among other things directing it with two consecutive groups of students of English here at Lund University, Sweden), the present writer has had ample reason to reflect on the problems of stagecraft, in theory as well as in practice. It seems natural to base this paper on some professional productions that provided the inspiration for our stagings, and also show something of the creative, emotional and intellectual process behind them for director and students ; how the choices we made bore a relation to previous, professional productions, and to what extent we chose to (or chose not to) align ourselves with their treatment of some mythical moments.

1As I began chasing mythical bears for this paper on « Mythical Performance and its Afterlife », I had ample reason to contemplate the ephemeral quality of the art of the theatre. An example : a present‑day Royal Shakespeare Company production will be recorded in its entirety and subsequently made available for viewing on video or DVD in the RSC Archive Collection in Stratford‑upon‑Avon ; it will be extensively reviewed in newspapers, magazines and scholarly journals, and analysed in articles and books as well as remembered and retold by members of the audience. But the film in the Archive is at best a pale and partial rendition of the stage‑production ; audience memories will fade and be replaced by (or muddled up with) those of more recent shows. And if this is what applies to RSC productions, it is easy to imagine what happens to less well documented shows : if a particular production detail (like the bear in The Winter’s Tale) has not made it into the reviews, it is to all intents and purposes gone forever. Having strutted and fretted its moment upon the stage, it is heard no more, simply.

2Most bears do seem to make it into the reviews, though. Exit pursued by a bear is the most famous stage direction in the Shakespeare canon – a truly mythical moment – and many directors have described the pressure of « trying to stage this moment that everybody’s waiting for, to see how you do the bear2 ». If you do it successfully, you may be the creator of another mythical moment in theatre history ; if you do not, your version may still become famous, but for all the wrong reasons. Shakespeare’s bear is the director’s bugbear ; hence the title of this paper.

3Having worked intensively with The Winter’s Tale throughout the academic year 2012/13 – abridging the text, working out possible doublings, sewing costumes, making props, researching music, preparing lectures and choosing relevant subjects for student papers, then directing it with two consecutive groups of students of English here at Lund University, Sweden (the actual productions serving as the students’ « viva »)  – it seems natural to base my paper on productions that I have been inspired by, and also show something of the process behind the student productions I directed : how the choices I as director suggested to the groups bore a relation to previous, professional productions, and to what extent we chose to (or chose not to) align ourselves with their treatment of some mythical moments.

4Nevill Coghill wrote, in 1958, about six difficult points of stagecraft in The Winter’s Tale – defining stagecraft as « the mechanics in the art of telling a story, through actors, on some sort of stage, with a certain effect3 ». I will look at three of the points brought up by him, concentrating on the Bear (3.3), but also touching upon Time (4.1), and the Statue scene (5.3).

I. « Exit pursued by a bear » : the bear on stage

5The early history of the bear is a fascinating jumble of fact and conjecture. Dr Simon Forman’s famous eyewitness account of the performance of The Winter’s Tale at the Globe Theatre on 15May, 1611 frustratingly makes no mention of the bear (this is one review, then, into which the bear did not make it) ; hence we are left to speculate as to the nature of the beast. Could Shakespeare possibly have used a real bear at the Globe, hired, perhaps, from the bear‑pit next door ?

6Opinions (based on certain well‑established pieces of circumstantial evidence) vary as to the feasibility of such a device. On the one hand, Ben Jonson’s court masque Oberon from that same year, 1611, does call for two white bears (possibly the two polar‑bear cubs captured on Greenland in1609 and owned by Philip Henslowe) to draw a chariot on stage. If so, this would seem to indicate that natural ferocity can be curbed or at least controlled through training – an opinion previously voiced by, for instance, my countryman Olaus Magnus, who in1555 described performing bears as versatile, pliable and playful : according to him, they can be made to draw water from a well, carry logs and transport heavy carts, and « [w]hile they are young, it gives great joy to see them play with the children of the house without harming them4 ». On the other hand, Howes’ Chronicle speaks of King James I attending, in 1608, the baiting of « a great fierce Beare which had kild a child that was negligently left in the beare‑house5 » ; and the Puritan Philip Stubbes describes bear‑baiting, not just as a generally loathsome game, but also as « a daungerous & perilous exercise […] wherein a man is in daunger of his life euery minute of an houre6 ». A further complication is that an unchained bear deliberately set to chase a man on stage would be a very different thing from both a chained bear in a bear‑pit (of whom ferocious behaviour would be expected, indeed required) and, say, a trained dancing bear (who would be expected to interact tolerably peacefully with its audience). Whether it would in fact be possible to combine these two behaviours and train a bear in the duplicitousness of the acting profession – to make it show ferociousness without being ferocious (as it were, be like the innocent flower but look like the serpent under’t) – is not for me to say. But to my mind, it cannot be a coincidence that as his Bohemian predator Shakespeare has chosen, not a dragon or griffin (as the fairy‑tale element might have warranted), nor a snake or lion (as he had done in As You Like It), but the most humanoid of animals : a bear – virtually the only beast that a man in an animal skin can get away with imitating convincingly (it is not impossible to imagine that the bear skin listed among the properties of the Lord Admiral’s Men may have served just such a purpose7). And if by creating a part for such a « manimal », Shakespeare was able to yoke for his purpose a delicious frisson, provoked by the proximity of the bear‑pit – has it escaped from next door, is it real ?  – then, he did not actually need to bring in a real bear to achieve the same purpose.

7Another bone of contention, continuously gnawed on by commentators of the stage and the page, has to do with the fact that the bear moment occurs at the precise intersection where the tragic first part meets the chiefly comical second part. Do we want to see the bear scene as the culmination of the frightening, dramatic and tragic events of the first half – or should we perceive it as (grotesquely) humorous, even comical ? It is interesting to see how differently scholars and practitioners respectively have dealt with this issue. Scholars tend to align themselves with the way a Renaissance audience inured to blood‑sports may have reacted to this scene and construe it as grotesquely tragicomical (« the Bear is terrible and ridiculously funny, its explosive entry nearly unstageable but the best pantomime around8 » ; « [a] certain ‘pantomime’ spirit reigns over the removal of Antigonus9 »). At times, the scholarly impulse to study the plays as text rather than as action completely takes over : « Surely much of the humor of the bear lies in the comically laconic wording of the stage‑direction10 ? »

8 However, audiences do not read stage directions ; they see plays, and a director preparing a stage‑production has to approach the problem from a different angle. For him or her, it cannot merely be a question of sense or logic, or tracing or proving historical facts – it must be, pragmatically, about what works on the stage, and works today. Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night and Slender in The Merry Wives of Windsor may have been amused by bear‑baiting and the like, but a present‑day audience is not ; what was perceived as exciting or funny then would nowadays generally elicit pity (for bear, dogs and man alike) and revulsion. Consequently, directors tend to choose non‑humorous ways of dealing with the bear – using every aspect of modern stage‑craft to make it frighteningly life‑like and real, or stylized, symbolical, powerful, impressive and altogether larger than life.

9In doing so, directors face another problematic change in audience mindset. While the bear in The Winter’s Tale is such stuff as mythical stagings are made on, the present‑day absence of mythical quality in the animal itself complicates matters. To Shakespeare’s contemporaries, a bear was simultaneously an exotic rarity, a fierce creature well worth gaping at (from a safe distance), and a frightening part of the facts of a life where predators still posed a genuine threat, and rumours told of escaped bears in the street killing people11. To later audiences, authenticity and realism in the execution of the bear was still enough to give delight that the thing could be done at all ; in 1856 The Times praised Charles Kean’s treatment of the bear as « a masterpiece of zoological art » (although even then, Punch, unimpressed, claimed to have it on Kean’s own authority that his bear was « an archaeological copy from the original bear of Noah’s Ark12 »). But nowadays, a bear is no longer either particularly exotic or very frightening, but familiar and de‑mystified ; we are less impressed by picturesque detail and verisimilitude, for we have seen bears on countless images ; we have visited their winter lair in the company of the likes of David Attenborough ; we have taken part in name‑giving contests for the adorable new cubs at the local Zoo. And along with the absence of fear and mystery has come cuddliness. Literary bears do not eat people anymore –they eat honey, toast and marmalade. In a world post Pooh, Baloo and Paddington Bear, frightening audiences with bears is as difficult as frightening them with witches in Macbeth.

10So how, in the modern world, do you create a frightening and dramatically convincing bear ? One important element seems to be not to reveal too much : Antigonus’s worried comment about the storm beginning is often taken as the cue for covering the stage in darkness and/or clouds of dry ice, with only the occasional thunderbolt and flash revealing the beast. The most convincingly and chillingly realistic bear I ever saw was the one in Dominic Cooke’s RSC production from 2006‑7. It was a promenade performance ; all the seats had been removed from the stalls, and at this point in the play, the promenade audience was milling around in complete darkness. Suddenly those standing at the back felt something large and hairy brushing against them –stroboscope flashes subsequently revealing it to be a huge and very real‑looking bear following Antigonus who, matador‑like, was luring it away from baby Perdita. This bear was not evil, just very real– and exactly because of that, it was genuinely frightening. Later in the play the Young Shepherd claims, clearly with some insight into matters ursine, that « they are never curst but when they are hungry » ; but this was, equally clearly, a hungry beast, bound to do the bare/bear necessities to survive. A sudden, sinister wall of sound helped cut the audience off from the normality of shuffling feet, rustling clothes, whispers and intakes of breath –we lost our bearings in a world that consisted solely of intermittent darkness, threatening sound, and hungry predator. Some of the reviews complained that many of the promenaders were school‑children with no idea of what was going on, their confusion distracting the (presumably more well‑versed) audience in the galleries13, but I disagree ; in the performances I saw, it was riveting to see those unsuspecting youngsters –probably the only people in the room who did not know about the bear beforehand– having the living daylights scared out of them as the beast appeared from behind, and clearly loving the experience. To them, the play (and the bear) were as new and fresh as they would have been to Shakespeare’s first audiences. Those children will no doubt remember and talk of that experience for a long time as a truly mythical moment.

11The partial vision, then, is important –leaving a gap which the viewer can fill with his own imagination. Henry James (for one) knew this, and put it better : « Make [the reader] think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications14. » Incidentally, most horror‑film directors seem to know it too : so long as you only get partial glimpses of the monster in Alien and have to imagine the rest yourself, the film is a masterpiece of suspense. But by the same token, the moment a fully‑grown Alien emerges from the boiler‑room, tentacled and drooling, the lurid becomes the ludicrous. Substitute Bear for Alien, and the problem is the same ; in the words of Greg Doran : « the problem [is] not Exit pursued by a bear ; it [is] Enter bear15 ».

12Doran himself chose to avoid that awkward moment by staging the bear as a non‑realistic, stylized threat which grew out of the landscape itself : his bear rose as a menacing but amorphous shape beneath the thin silk sheet covering the stage like so much snow. Other directors have made similar choices, making the bear manifestly non‑realistic in various ways. So, in the two most recent RSC productions of The Winter’s Tale, David Farr’s bear (2009) was an enormous puppet made of paper from disembowelled books (they « turned out to be copies of Hansard, so that was okay16 »), and Lucy Bailey’s production (2013) had a CGI sea monster, rearing out of a similarly computer‑generated, wild and foaming sea.

13Doran’s, Farr’s and Bailey’s bears all lumbered across the boards of the RSC. Closer to home, Ingmar Bergman’s 1995 production (which played at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, subsequently transferring to New York) chose a different path17, but achieved a similar distancing effect, making The Winter’s Tale a play within the play, an evening’s entertainment at a country‑house, and showing up the bear as not a bear at all :

The party‑charade spirit […] frees the dark story from both probability and pretension ; it’s a romp in which anything may happen : When the somber first half ends, with the clang of a dinner bell, the partyers thronging the feast include the bear that has just dined on Antigonus, still in furry costume, but now carrying his bear head, with a little girl who has danced earlier in the evening riding on his shoulders18.

14What about the bear for our student productions, then ? For the first group, the performance (scheduled for January) was to take place in the main hall of the Museum of Public Art, against a stunning backdrop of Matisses and Mondrians ; for the second group, it was to be an outdoor promenade performance in June, at Lund’s Open‑Air Museum of Cultural History19. In neither case would we have access to high‑tech solutions like CGI, dry ice or stroboscope flashes. Ergo, my gut feeling was that since we had no means to make it complicated, we had better keep it simple, and build the scene entirely on sound and Antigonus’s reaction. It seemed a sensible reticence was the most tasteful choice, in order to avoid the crashing bathos of a bear that tried to be literal and « real » without succeeding. A warning example is provided by the BBC Shakespeare version of The Winter’s Tale (1980) –a bear moment met with much baiting and berating, and mythologised for all the wrong reasons : « This embarrassing BBC bear is shabbily costumed, inappropriate for realistic or fantastic style20. » It appears in mercifully brief camera shots, but the unforgiving studio light reveals all : surely the only way that Antigonus could wind up dead as a result of encountering this beast (gaffer‑tape‑nosed, gap‑toothed and leering, looking very much like a drunken brawler outside a pub, unsteadily toeing the line between sentimental bear‑hugs and Nature red in tooth and claw) would be if he sniggered himself to death at the sight of it ? (Not an entirely unlikely scenario, I might add ; my students almost did when we watched the DVD together.) If this poor bear, with all the resources of the British Broadcasting Company behind it, could create such awful, unintentional comedy, how could we possibly hope to fare any better ?

15However, it soon became clear, in rehearsals and in the diaries (a series of response papers continuously written and handed in by the students, reflecting on the lectures and on our rehearsal work) that they madly wanted a « real » bear. They were not hampered by any of their lecturer‑cum‑director’s concerns, or by received ideas of « good taste » –in fact, they were driven by the same fresh spirit of adventurousness, both playful and pragmatic, that may have made Shakespeare, the theatre entrepreneur, put the bear there in the first place. It seemed to me that if they could react like this, the least I could do was to take a leap of faith and try it their way.

16« There is of course no difficulty making a bear costume21 » ; this pronouncement by Nevill Coghill had me laughing increasingly hollowly in the small hours of the following nights, but by help of some very authentic‑looking fur fabric, fimo clay, two sets of vampire teeth, an ice‑hockey helmet and a few other odds and ends, I managed to cobble together a bear that was fairly creditable (if erring slightly on the cuddly side). In spite of my harsh judgment of the BBC bear, one thing I had actually loved about it was the use of fur in Leontes’s costume, linking the two potential destroyers of baby Perdita. I copied that and trimmed Leontes’s robe and hat with some of the bear fur ; to further align the two, I took some of the muted‑red velvet left over from Leontes’s vestments and lined the inside of the bear’s jaws with it.

17The students shrieked like banshees as I walked into the rehearsal‑room one day, wearing the bear head and front paws. It rapidly gained the pet name of Neil (as in « Shall I live on to see this bastard kneel », Leontes’s angry words in 2.3.153), and gave rise to a wealth of literally unbearable jokes.

18The link between Leontes and the bear became even stronger when « Leontes » in the first group begged to be allowed to play the bear himself ; brilliant academically, a few weeks into rehearsals this student revealed in a diary that he suffered from attention deficit disorder (ADD), and that he read Leontes as a person of the same temperament and personality type, whose deeds are « not the actions of a madman, but of someone whose emotions drive his body, without a safety net to bring him back to earth ». On stage, he invested both Leontes and the bear with this impulse‑driven, restless body language, and it worked a treat.

19The student playing Antigonus wanted to be, and was, a hero in our version, drawing the bear’s attention away from Perdita and onto himself, proving himself to be what the student in his diaries called « a courageous man stuck in the body of a coward ». After a lifetime of being a hen‑pecked husband and a yes‑man to the king, this Antigonus chose to put his foot down at last, making up for his failures by committing suicide by bear. It made excellent sense, and the student was happy.

20All the same, I was still worried that the bear moment would be embarrassing and awkward ; everything I knew about staging seemed to say that this bear was a bad idea. But, as so very often happens, I had underestimated Shakespeare, the enthusiasm of the students, and the power of playfulness. The audience’s reaction of happy and willing suspension of disbelief immediately undid my own carefully constructed theories of what the bear should or should not be, as our Antigonus exited, pursued not just by a bear, but also by shrieks, laughter and applause. In the second, outdoor, performance, the bear was allowed a second entrance ; as Autolycus was taking the audience with him from the part of the park representing Bohemia to the part representing King Leontes’s court in Sicily, the relocation was speeded up considerably by the bear, emerging from the shadows under the trees and making several very convincing attempts to catch its dinner from amongst the slower members of the audience.

21If, in this mythical moment, we were perhaps closer to recreating Shakespeare’s own « pantomime » spirit than to emulating the modern and icily convincing scariness of the likes of Dominic Cooke, or the wow factor of Lucy Bailey’s CGI bear, that surely cannot be a bad thing for a production serving as the « oral exam » for an academic course devoted to making students understand and love Shakespeare.

II. « I That Please Some, Try All » : Time

22The second moment I want to discuss is the appearance of Time –a character who seems to have casually wandered in from the pages of a morality play. Allegorical yet physical, both metaphor and man, in difficulty to stage Time is second only to the bear, and is quite as liable to embarrassing literality. No wonder, then, that many directors (among them Doran and Bailey) have seen fit to remove him altogether.

23However, in spite of the difficulties, and even though Time wants to turn his glass and begin anew rather than actually take his audience through the sixteen years that change Perdita from helpless infant into blooming maid, it is important that we get to feel the passing of those years. Thus, even those directors who do away with the character Time tend to re‑interpret and re‑visualise him, or put his words in the mouths of other characters.

24Cooke’s staging of the play started in the mid‑fifties, in a world of what the director describes as « McCarthyist paranoia and formality22 », and moved to a Bohemia in the world of the late sixties : Woodstock, hippies and flower power. Time was a gardener, quietly at work long before his big moment, intent on which grain would grow and which would not, all the while listening to music on his battered old transistor radio. The passing of time was simply suggested by the gardener switching his radio off in the middle of a 50ssong, then, post‑speech, turning it back on again for a typically 60sone ; brilliantly, it gave us the time gap in a single moment (though it would seem the precise number of years was not to be taken too literally : the first song was Perry Como’s « Catch A Falling Star » from 1957 and the second « California Dreamin » from 1964, which would have meant that Perdita was approximately seven in act 4. 

25Bergman’s Time was a woman sitting still on the stage the whole time, calmly watching the events as they unfolded ; she was holding a long trailing panel of red fabric, creating associations not only to the Greek Fates but also to their sisters the Norns from old Norse mythology, controlling the threads of human life, and actually deigning to help untangle this particular man‑made knot. Her enigmatic smile seemed to speak forbearance with the folly of the human race.

26Like Cooke’s gardener and Bergman’s latter‑day Norn, Nicholas Hytner’s « Time » at the National Theatre was brought on early in the play ; Hytner’s staging began with Mamillius, complete with wings and scythe, being shown off like an infant phenomenon before Polixenes and the Sicilian court, reciting Shakespeare’s Sonnet 12 (« When I do count the clock that tells the time23 »). The device was a mixed blessing ; a Mamillius who, from the very first moment, reminds us that he will die and be taken by devouring Time, by that very act weakens some of his own poignancy as an innocent child who is very much alive until he, shockingly, dies. But it also gave us the realisation that the fact that his parents had put him up to this little performance meant that they had no premonition, no sense of tempting Fate, and would therefore be shocked enough for all of us when tragedy struck : « Time, for a family that has lost a child, is forever after measured by that moment24 ». Well, for Hytner’s royal couple, that was certainly true, and the death of Mamillius stood between them to the very end ; more of that later.

27Inspired by this recollection, and realising that Time is not just a hoary thing, but also perpetually young and fresh and full of nows, I felt we could make use of Mamillius as Time (or part‑Time) too, by combining this idea with the often‑tried device of doubling Mamillius with Perdita. In accordance with this, I gave Mamillius wings and a hobby‑horse as playthings for the first few scenes – apart from giving the actor some much‑needed stage business to concentrate on in the parts of the scenes where Mamillius does not speak, it prefigured swiftly‑moving time and enabled Mamillius to be very rowdy and alive indeed ; later, Leontes picked up the discarded toy and threw it away in impotent rage as he hissed to Camillo that Hermione is a hobby‑horse.

28The Time scene itself was discussed and played with a great deal in the groups, but after much experimenting and trying out of alternatives, this is what we came up with : Mamillius, dressed for bedtime in a long white nightgown (first worn by him in the scene with Hermione and her ladies‑in‑waiting, as if getting ready for bed), but still wearing his toy wings and clinging to the hobby‑horse, was gently led on stage by Paulina, as if into a new, unfamiliar world, and spoke a condensed version of Time’s first few lines (« I take it ’pon me in the name of Time/To use my wings... » [4.1.3‑4]). Then Hermione (alive ? dead ? dreaming ?) entered this strange, new universe from the opposite side of the stage, and was overjoyed to see her little boy, believed to be lost forever (a dream, this, to any grieving parent). Paulina then took the lead ; she and Hermione shared the next few lines between them whilst peeling off Mamillius’s nightshirt and cap, revealing « Perdita, now grown in grace » (4.1.24), in flower‑bedecked finery. Hermione could not take her eyes off her beautiful daughter, and when Paulina at the end of the speech very gently drew her away from her lost and found child, she still hung back, loath to go ; against all odds, it was a deeply moving moment, and one which also weighed into our happiness as audience members seeing Hermione and Perdita reunited in the Statue scene of the last act.

29In the second production of the same play, we used the same set‑up, but I managed to give it another turn of the screw by doubling Hermione with Young Shepherd and Paulina with Old Shepherd. Thus, the very people who had loved but been unable to protect the new‑born baby were given a second chance as her step‑family : a curiously comforting state of affairs, for actors, director and audience alike.

III. « Her Natural Posture » : The Statue Scene

30A statue coming alive to be a king’s wife ; a beloved woman brought back from the realm of death ; a daughter returning, like the spring to th’earth, her arrival allowing her mother to abandon grief and live again –the Statue scene, more than any other scene in The Winter’s Tale, seems full of echoes of myths like those of Pygmalion, Orpheus, Alcestis and Proserpina. To anyone familiar with these myths, the statue of Hermione coming alive is, perhaps, less of a surprise. However, to those of Shakespeare’s audience members who were less familiar with the works of Ovid and Euripides than with Pandosto : The Triumph of Time, Robert Greene’s popular novella from 1588, which is usually quoted as a primary source for The Winter’s Tale, Hermione’s return to life would in fact have been entirely unexpected. Shakespeare lets his Leontes create just such a monument and epitaph as Greene’s grieving King does, vowing to visit it once a day just like him, to shed tears of repentance. Having thus lulled his audience into unsuspecting acceptance with the resemblance to the already familiar story, Shakespeare then delivers a brilliant coup de théâtre : whilein Pandosto, the Queen remains dead (and Pandosto commits suicide), Shakespeare produces the statue, then makes it come alive.

31The surprise element gone, this coup has admittedly been more difficult to carry off successfully in the subsequent four centuries –although for instance Kean’s contemporary William Charles Macready and his Hermione Helen Faucit by contemporary accounts seem to have succeeded ; in a review, The Glasgow Herald wrote of Faucit’s performance that

[s]o complete was the illusion, so still the figure, […] that you seemed insensibly to forget it was a living being who stood before you : and when […] she turned her head towards the king, the whole house started as if struck by an electric shock, or as if they had seen the dead arise25.

32Faucit herself, in her famous account of first playing the Statue scene with Macready, claimed that « [i]t was such a comfort to me, as well as true to natural feeling, that Shakespeare gives Hermione no words to say to Leontes, but leaves her to assure him of her joy and forgiveness by look and manner only26 ». Others have ascribed the mutual silence of Leontes and Hermione to less gentle feelings, of course. Common nowadays is what Alan Dessen calls « the "cool" ending27 », in which the focus is on the mother‑daughter reunion while reconciliation between husband and wife remains at best doubtful. In Hytner’s production, for instance, it was clear that Hermione’s reappearance among the living was for her daughter alone ; and as for Leontes, he seemed nothing so much as apprehensive before a Hermione who was no longer a sad memory but potentially a living breathing Nemesis. The scene ended with mother and daughter weeping inconsolably together, Leontes excluded and desolate. Hytner’s bleak staging even rejected the pairing off of Paulina and Camillo ; Hytner, fearing its trivialising, comical effect and wishing that « Shakespeare hadn’t felt the need to marry them off as if they were in some low‑rent opera buffa28 », rhetorically asked : « How do you stop the audience from laughing at your play29 ? »

33My own personal answer as a playgoer would be : do not stop it ; celebrate it ; trust the playwright’s instinct for when comic relief should be provided. We need to laugh after great emotion. For instance, in David Farr’s production of The Winter’s Tale, it became increasingly clear, during Leontes’s « honourable husband » speech, that Polixenes thought it was him Leontes was pairing off with Paulina –his anxious discomfiture, bravely hid from Leontes and Paulina but obvious to us, eliciting a delicious warm ripple of laughter from the audience ; we all needed it at that point, and both director and playwright knew that we did. Staging our Art Museum production, this moment was in my mind ; when we let our Autolycus stay on for a moment after the Statue scene, making a nimble‑fingered (though unsuccessful) attempt at stealing an invaluable Léger sketch from the wall, he was greeted by the same warm laughter from the audience.

34But back to the mythical moment of the statue coming alive ; how could we create that for our productions ? And how could we get the statue on stage in the first place ? We had no discovery space at our disposal ; nor did we have access to any of the devices employed in professional productions, such as sending a huge jutting platform with the statue into the promenade space (Cooke), having the statue flown in under a canopy (Farr), or, admittedly somewhat underwhelmingly, rolled in like a Trojan horse, under what looked like an IKEA mosquito net (Bailey). Bergman’s statue was a recumbent effigy which was carried in by pall‑bearers ; a beautiful and striking image, but only possible with an elevated stage so that the audience can see properly. To travesty Doran’s words quoted earlier : The problem is not Hermione descends ; it is Enter Hermione. How could we bring her in unseen, and make the Statue scene truly magical ?

35For us, the solution to the problem lay in working with the surroundings. The Museum of Public Art at this point became Paulina’s private gallery, with much to admire for the royal guests, who were led in by their hostess Paulina. Leontes was clinging anxiously to his new‑found daughter ; the student playing Leontes wrote poignantly about his guilt‑ridden character that « [s]ince he cannot forgive himself, he cannot believe that Polixenes has forgiven him, and so every moment is filled with fear that Polixenes will change his mind and leave, taking Perdita and Florizel with him ». We spent some time discussing and analysing where the characters would be (emotionally as well as physically) in relation to each other at this point, trying out different choices. In the final staging, Perdita’s body language gave away that she was still wary of Polixenes (he had, after all, threatened to kill both her and her step‑father) ; it was also obvious that the relationship between Polixenes and his son remained somewhat strained.

36While all eyes were busy following the King’s party, Hermione, unseen and heavily veiled, quietly glided in from the opposite direction, and stood on an elevation, her hands resting on the balustrade. She remained there, unnoticed, until Paulina stepped up to her and drew the veil. There she stood, as if alive, among the other sculptures –a piece of art as beautiful as ever Browning’s Last Duchess, but with a repentant Ferrara at her feet. We wanted, not a « cool » ending, but a warm one ; our Leontes, his journey having taken him from a disapproving « Too hot, too hot » in act 1, scene 2 to a grateful « O, she’s warm » in act 5, scene 3, clung to his Hermione as though he would never let her go. The union of mother and daughter took place beneath another mother‑and‑child scene : the life‑size sketch for Matisse’s Madonna of the Vence chapel.

37For the outdoor production, we had Hermione stand behind the audience –a seasoned promenade audience by then, they turned around willingly at Paulina’s behest, and moved to the sides, revealing the veiled statue on a slight elevation in the centre of a tiny knot‑garden, leaning against a sundial ; a fitting reminder that Time, the great healer, had once more worked his silent, slow magic.

38This paper has tried to explore, albeit briefly, some different ways of dealing with three mythical stage moments in The Winter’s Tale –the Bear, Time and the Statue scene. As a playgoer, I have been impressed, elated, moved, baffled or frustrated (but rarely bored) by the productions referred to in the above, and the endless possibilities they offer–and for our productions we learned from them, borrowing, adapting, transforming and paying homage to some of their most inspired moments.

39Still, perhaps the most important lesson to be learned comes from the likes of those unsuspecting youngsters encountering Cooke’s frightening bear (or indeed from the students playing The Winter’s Tale with me) : to look at Shakespeare with fresh eyes every time. Do that –and there may be an entirely unexpected bear behind you.


Works cited

Bartholomeusz, Dennis, The Winter’s Tale in Performance in England and America, 1611‑1976, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1982.

BIGGINS, Dennis, « ‘Exit Pursued by a Beare’ : A Problem in The Winter’s Tale », Shakespeare Quarterly, 13.1 (Winter 1962), p. 3‑13.

COGHILL, Nevill, « Six Points of Stage‑Craft in The Winter’s Tale », Shakespeare Survey, 11 (1958), p. 31‑40.

DESSEN, Alan C., « The Director as Shakespeare Editor », Shakespeare Survey, 59 (2006), p. 182‑192.

DOBSON, Michael, « Shakespeare Performances in England, 2001 », Shakespeare Survey 55, (2002), p. 285‑321.

FAUCIT, Helen, « On Some of Shakespeare’s Female Characters (1891) », in Kenneth Muir (ed.), Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale : A Casebook, London, Macmillan, 1969, p. 45‑50.

FEINGOLD, Michael, « Winter Light [review of Bergman’s production] », The Village Voice, 5 June 1995.

HEDRICK, Donald K., « The Shakespeare Plays on TV, The Winter’s Tale », in Maurice Hunt (ed.), The Winter’s Tale : Critical Essays, New York, Garland Publishing, 1995, p. 403‑405.

HENSLOWE, Philip, The Diary of Philip Henslowe, from 1591 to 1609, London, Adamant Media Corporation, 2005.

HILL, David, « The Winter’s Tale, directed by Dominic Cooke for the RSC, The Swan, 4 December 2006 », Cahiers Élisabéthains (Special Issue 2007), p. 61‑63.

HYTNER, Nicholas, « Behold the swelling scene », Times Literary Supplement, 1 November 2002, p. 20‑22.

JAMES, Henry, The Notebooks of Henry James, New York, Phoenix and Oxford University Press, 1947.

LOMAN, Rikard, Avstånd – Närhet : Ingmar Bergmans Vintersagan, Diss., Stockholm, Carlsson Bokförlag, 2005.

LOUGH, Robin (dir.), « The Winter’s Tale : A Production Casebook », Heritage Theatre Ltd, 2002.

MAGNUS, Olaus, Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, Rome, 1555.

NICHOLS, John, The Progresses, Processions, and Magnificent Festivities, of King James the First : His Royal Consort, Family, and Court ; Collected from Original Manuscripts, Scarce Pamphlets, Corporation Records, Parochial Registers, &c., &c. … Illustrated with Notes, Historical, Topographical, Biographical and Bibliographical, Volume 2, 1828, n.p. (eBook).

RUTTER, Carol, « Shakespeare Performances in England 2009 », Shakespeare Survey, 63 (2010), p. 338‑375.

SHAKESPEARE, William, The Winter’s Tale, Robert Kean Turner, Virginia Westling Haas (eds.), New Variorum Edition, The Modern Language Association of America, 2005.

_______________, The Winter’s Tale, Susan Snyder and Deborah T. Curren‑Aquino (eds.), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007.

_______________, The Winter’s Tale, Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen (eds.), London, Macmillan, 2009.

_______________, The Winter’s Tale, John Pitcher (ed.), London, Arden Shakespeare, 2010.

SPRAGUE, A.C., Shakespeare and the Actors : The Stage Business in His Plays (1660‑1905), MA : Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1944 [New York, Russell & Russell, 1963].

STUBBES, Philip, Anatomie of Abuses in England in Shakspere’s Youth, A.D. 1583, Frederick J. Furnivall (ed.), London, Bungay, 1877‑1879.

TatspAugh, Patricia, Shakespeare at Stratford : The Winter’s Tale, London, Arden, 2002.

Productions cited

1981, BBC TV, directed by Jane Howell.

1995, Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House (BAM), New York, directed by Ingmar Bergman.

1999, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, RSC, Stratford‑upon‑Avon, directed by Gregory Doran.

2001, National Theatre, London, directed by Nicholas Hytner.

2006‑2007, Royal Shakespeare Theatre (The Swan), RSC, Stratford‑upon‑Avon, directed by Dominic Cooke.

2009, The Courtyard Theatre, RSC, Stratford‑upon‑Avon, directed by David Farr.

2013, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, RSC, Stratford‑upon‑Avon, directed by Lucy Bailey.


1  All of The Winter’s Tale’s quotations taken from William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, John Pitcher (ed.), London, Arden Shakespeare, 2010.

2  Greg Doran in Robin Lough (dir.), « The Winter’s Tale : A Production Casebook », Heritage Theatre Ltd, 2002.

3  Nevill Coghill, « Six Points of Stage‑Craft in The Winter’s Tale », Shakespeare Survey, 11 (1958), p. 31.

4  From Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (History of the Northern Peoples), printed in Rome 1555 (as may be judged from the title, the original is in Latin ; my English rendition is made from a Swedish translation from 1909‑1925, reprinted by Gidlunds, in cooperation with Nordiska museet and Stockholm University, in 1976).

5  Quoted from John Nichols, The Progresses, Processions, and Magnificent Festivities, of King James the First : His Royal Consort, Family, and Court ; Collected from Original Manuscripts, Scarce Pamphlets, Corporation Records, Parochial Registers, &c., &c. … Illustrated with Notes, Historical, Topographical, Biographical and Bibliographical, Volume 2, 1828, n.p. (eBook), p. 259.

6  Phillip Stubbes, Anatomie of Abuses in England in Shakspere’s Youth, A.D. 1583, Frederick J. Furnivall (ed.), London, Bungay, 1877‑1879, p. 177.

7  Philip Henslowe lists « j beares skyne » in his 1598 inventory of properties, The Diary of Philip Henslowe, from 1591 to 1609, London, Adamant Media Corporation, 2005, p. 273.

8  William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, op. cit., p. 18.

9  Christopher Parry, quoted in William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, Robert Kean Turner, Virginia Westling Haas (eds.), New Variorum Edition, The Modern Language Association of America, 2005, p. 273.

10  Dennis Biggins, « ‘Exit Pursued by a Beare’ : A Problem in The Winter’s Tale », Shakespeare Quarterly, 13.1 (Winter 1962), p. 6.

11  Slender’s boast to Mistress Anne Page of his close encounters with a celebrated fighting‑bear (« I have seen Sackerson loose twenty times and held him by the chain ») is presumably meant to show her how brave he is – Slender is (or, more likely, wants to appear to be) an adrenaline junkie, proving his manhood by doing the Renaissance equivalent of the Pamplona bull‑run.

12  Quoted in Dennis Bartholomeusz, The Winter’s Tale in Performance in England and America 1611‑1976, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1982, p. 91. A.C. Sprague, Shakespeare and the Actors : The Stage Business in His Plays (1660‑1905), MA : Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1944 [New York, Russell & Russell, 1963], p. 68.

13  See for instance David Hill « The Winter’s Tale, directed by Dominic Cooke for the RSC, The Swan, 4 December 2006 », Cahiers Élisabéthains (Special Issue 2007), p. 61‑63.

14  Henry James, preface to The Turn of the Screw (New York Edition, vol. 12) ; here quoted from The Notebooks of Henry James, New York, Phoenix and Oxford University Press, 1947, p. 179.

15  Greg Doran in Robin Lough, op. cit.

16  Carol Rutter, « Shakespeare Performances in England 2009 », Shakespeare Survey, 63 (2010), p. 353.

17  For my references to Bergman’s production, I am indebted to Rikard Loman’s doctoral dissertation Avstånd – Närhet : Ingmar Bergmans Vintersagan, Diss., Stockholm, Carlsson Bokförlag, 2005.

18  Michael Feingold, « Winter Light [review of Bergman’s production] », The Village Voice, 5 June 1995.

19  While the discussions in this paper are based on both productions, all the photographs come from the second, outdoor, production.

20  Donald K. Hedrick, « The Shakespeare Plays on TV, The Winter’s Tale », in Maurice Hunt (ed.), The Winter’s Tale : Critical Essays, New York, Garland Publishing, 1995, p. 404.

21  Nevill Coghill, op. cit., p. 34.

22  Cooke in « The Director’s Cut : Interviews with Adrian Noble, Barbara Gaines and Dominic Cooke », in William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen (eds.), London, Macmillan, 2009, p. 165.

23  Michael Dobson describes him as an « unbearably precocious little boy [...] obliged to look continuously happy and over‑achieving in front of his parents’ friends », in « Shakespeare Performances in England, 2001 », Shakespeare Survey 55, (2002), p. 318.

24  Director Tom Rowan, quoted by Katharine Goodland in her review of Rowan’s 2002 production of The Winter’s Tale which similarly linked Mamillius to Time (quoted from William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, Susan Snyder and Deborah T. Curren‑Aquino (eds.), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 37).

25  Review of Helen Faucit’s performance in the Glasgow Herald (1848), in « On Some of Shakespeare’s Female Characters (1891) », in Kenneth Muir (ed.), Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale : A Casebook, London, Macmillan, 1969, p. 51.

26  Ibid., p. 49.

27  Alan Dessen, private e‑mail correspondence.

28  Nicholas Hytner, « Behold the swelling scene », Times Literary Supplement, 1 November 2002, p. 22.

29  Ibid., p. 21. Alan Dessen notes that in order to avoid laughter, Hytner also changed Paulina’s reference to herself as an « old turtle » to « turtledove », in « The Director as Shakespeare Editor », Shakespeare Survey, 59 (2006), p. 184.

Pour citer cet article

Kiki LINDELL (2015). "Exit Pursued by a Bugbear : Stage Renderings of Mythical Moments in The Winter’s Tale". Shakespeare en devenir - Les Cahiers de La Licorne - N°9 - 2015 | Shakespeare en devenir.

[En ligne] Publié en ligne le 22 avril 2015.

URL : http://shakespeare.edel.univ-poitiers.fr/index.php?id=821

Consulté le 26/06/2017.

A propos des auteurs


Kiki Lindell is Senior Lecturer of English Literature, Lund University, Sweden. She also stages Shakespeare plays with her students. Her doctoral dissertation Staging Shakespeare’s Comedies with EFL University Students (2012) will be published in Lund Studies in English in 2015.


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