Internet Shakespeare Editions


City sports: bear-baiting

From Geoffrey Whitney, A Choice of Emblemes.

So much a national institution were the sports of bearbaiting, and bullbaiting by mastiff dogs that there was an office of the Court instructed to oversee and encourge them.

The illustration on this page is of a bear tied to the stake, within a circle which records the royal motto: "Honi soit qui mal y pense" (old French) --evil be to those who think evil.

The monarchs of the period highly approved of these pastimes: James, for example, ordered all Church of England ministers to read a declaration to their congregations every Sunday endorsing a number of lawful sports. The declaration was often referred to as the Book of Sports.

Shakespeare's attitude?

Shakespeare may have been sympathetic to the bear rather than the baiter. In King Lear, Gloucester realizes that he is to be tormented by Lear's daughters, and identifies himself with a bear: "I am tied to th'stake, and I must stand the course" (3.7.56). A few lines later his eyes are put out.