Bear ne­ces­si­ties

Country Life Every Week - - Town & Country -

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

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