I have now spent a sizeable chunk of my day researching a contention I found on tumblr that the famous bear from /The Winter’s Tale/ was actually a polar bear cub.
This, of course, is in marked contrast to the standard accounts of the bear either being a person in a bear suit (a position that is generally preferred, I think, among more serious critics) or a drugged bear brought in from the fighting pits (a position that is generally preferred, I think, among anyone who has an acute/inflamed imagination).
If you do a simple google search of “Shakespeare Winter’s Tale polar bear”, which is what I did, you’ll find a lot of quasi-(at best)reputable sites claiming that some people believe the bear was one of two polar bear cubs recovered from an arctic expedition. I’m talking blogs and the Royal Opera House’s website as the best you can do. I was further disappointed to find nothing when searching on the MLA Bibliography.
However, even though it took me a long time to find any reputable articles making such a claim, eventually I found two papers by Lowell Duckert and Barbara Ravelhofer, respectfully, that argued for the possibility of the famous pursuing bear being a polar bear. Indeed, such a position seems quite possible given the record, as we know Philip Henslowe had access to the bears that nominally, it seems, King James possessed. Moreover, there is a sudden and rather suspicious influx of (often white) bears appearing on the London stage just when the bear cubs were stolen from home and brought to London.
While there are many respectable scholars who are complete holdouts, such as Stephen Orgel who denies that any bear of the period could have been well enough trained to be safely brought on stage, I think the polar bear theory has merit. If nothing else, even if the pursuing bear was a man in a bear costume, I would bet money (not a lot, but some) that the costume would have been a white one and that such a man would have been recognizably impersonating a polar bear. Given the evidence that at this particular moment polar bears were likely in vogue and a presence in the public’s imagination, I think either Shakespeare jumped on the bandwagon and used one of the cubs in his show or (with the costumed man) was making an effort to poke fun at the common interest in polar bears.
The original tumblr post I saw claimed, as a passing thought, that the “Exit, pursued by bear” line likely represented a meme we had lost track/evidence of. Given the presence of the polar bear cubs in London just when /The Winter’s Tale/ was being staged, even though I’m not sure one of the cubs was used, I am fairly sure that the pursuing bear was memic in nature, at the very least calling back to the polar bear cubs as its antecedent.