THE AMATEUR WORD NERD: ‘Exeunt’ and a Shakespeare unsolved mystery

By Barbara McAllister


If you read plays, you might see the stage direction, “exeunt.” Exeunt is Latin for “they go out.” The difference between this and the familiar “exit” is numbers. Exit refers to the direction when one person leaves the stage and exeunt is the direction given when two or more performers leave the stage.
Among the most curious stage directions is “Exit pursued by a bear” found in Act III of William Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.” It leads to the off-stage death of one of the characters and it is unknown how the scene was staged when performed at the Globe theater during Shakespeare’s time. Was a bear suggested by a bear-shaped shadow? Was there an actor in a bear costume? There is even a theory that real bears were used, because the popular London bear pits were nearby.
These “bear gardens” were open structures for the popular sport known as “baiting,” a bloody spectacle that matched dogs against larger animals like bears or bulls. Queen Elizabeth, like many of her fellow aristocrats of the time, was said to be a big fan of the sport. The royal official in charge of the animals was known as a bearward, but it seems doubtful if the bear-keeper could train the bears to act on stage. They had to be restrained by huge chains in the ring.
Some 400 years after Shakespeare’s play was written and performed, the mystery reamins as to how the puzzling direction “Exit pursued by a bear” was originally staged.