SHAKESPEARE’S stage direction ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ is not as fantastical as you might think. The ‘very rude and nasty pleasure’ of bear baiting, to quote Samuel Pepys, was popular from Saxon times through to the 19th century and, during the Elizabethan era, it shared a stage with the latest entertainments from the likes of Marlowe and Jonson.
Last week, three bear-baiting pits in the Bankside area of London, near the Globe, were listed as scheduled monuments, scuppering further riverside high-rises. The ‘Bear Gardens’ are a rarity, as few animal-baiting locations are now known; they are hidden under car parks and buildings and are unlikely to ever be opened to the public.
The archaeological remains of two Elizabethan playhouses—the Theatre in Hackney, where Hamlet and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus were first performed, built in 1576–77, and The Hope in Southwark—have also achieved protected status.
These theatres are ‘where some of the world’s greatest stories were first told’, says Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England. ‘They deserve protection as part of England’s precious historic fabric.’
The popularity of animal baiting eventually eclipsed all other entertainments at The Hope. Its acting company departed in 1617 and the building was dismantled during the English Civil War.
This graphic wood engraving shows bear baiting in Clerkenwell during the 17th century