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Shakespeare Quarterly 54.1 (2003) 63-82

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When Theaters Were Bear-Gardens;
or, What's at Stake in the Comedy of Humors

Jason Scott-Warren

On 12 february 1667, Thomas Killigrew, manager of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, told Samuel Pepys how drama had been faring since its Restoration revival. He complained that audiences at his playhouse had halved since the great fire of the previous year, and he expressed high hopes of a promising new actress. Then he boasted that—thanks to his own efforts—the theater was much improved since the king's return:

[T]he stage is now by his pains a thousand times better and more glorious then ever heretofore. Now, wax-candles, and many of them; then, not above 3 lb. of tallow. Now, all things civil, no rudeness anywhere; then, as in a bear-garden. Then, two or three fiddlers; now, nine or ten of the best. Then, nothing but rushes upon the ground and everything else mean; and now, all otherwise. Then, the Queen seldom and the King never would come; now, not the King only for state, but all civil people do think they may come as well as any. 1

Killigrew's distinction between his newly glorious theater and the slovenly spaces that had passed for playhouses before the closure of 1642 is heavily overdrawn. But his account is worth having for its perception of change, its celebration of a new age in which theatrical spectacle is civilized, cultured, and at last fully visible. It is also noteworthy for the simile that Killigrew employs to express the incivility of the pre-Civil War theater: "Now, all things civil, no rudeness anywhere; then, as in a bear-garden." Ambiguously poised between bear-garden's familiar figurative meaning, "a place of strife and tumult," and its literal referent, "a place originally set aside for the baiting of bears, and used for the exhibition of other rough sports," that simile is liable to collapse into literalness in other ways, since of course the older theaters were not just like bear-gardens: in some cases, they actually were bear-gardens. 2 This article opens that fact to fresh examination. [End Page 63]

The idea that theater and blood sports were closely related in early modern England is something of a commonplace. As such, it has attracted skeptical comment, thanks to which we can no longer claim that the first permanent public playhouses in London were actually modeled on the bear-pits. 3 Still, the areas of overlap remain too many and too striking to ignore. When the stands in the Bear Garden on the South Bank collapsed under the weight of an unexpectedly large crowd in 1583, the venue was rebuilt on the model of the new, three-story playhouses. The men who ran professional theater in late-Elizabethan and Jacobean London also made their money from commercial blood sports; in 1604 Edward Alleyn was "sworne the Princes man and Maister of the Beare Garden," and in 1613 Philip Henslowe oversaw the rebuilding of the Hope as a "place or Plaiehouse fitt & convenient in all thinges, bothe for players to playe in, and for the game of Beares and Bulls to be bayted in the same," with a removable stage and a permanent stable. 4 Comparably, in 1617, the entrepreneur Christopher Beeston employed Inigo Jones to convert the cockpit in Drury Lane into a theater; by that date Henry VIII's cockpit in Whitehall Palace had been used for plays for at least a decade. 5

Blood sports and drama also shared constituencies. The godly frequently damned the two entertainments in one breath, despising bearbaiting because it took place on the Sabbath and playing because it was popular enough to fill the house every other day of the week. 6 Meanwhile, courtiers displayed as marked a penchant for animal-baiting as they had for theater. An aristocratic pastime in the Middle Ages, bearbaiting became a commercial activity toward the end of the fifteenth century, when bearwards wearing the...


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