If you’re like us, you were probably completely blown away when that bear ran out and chased Antigonus across the stage before devouring the poor guy (3.3). Yep, that’s pretty random alright, and to tell you the truth, we’re not quite sure what to make of it (except to say that Shakespeare obviously has a sense of humor). So, let’s think about this for a minute by reviewing some popular interpretations of the incident:
Option 1: Lots of people think that Antigonus gets mauled by a bear because he’s just done a really horrible thing – dumped off baby Perdita in the middle of nowhere. It certainly seems reasonable to assume that Antigonus suffers from bad karma. On the one hand, however, we could also point out that Leontes has got some pretty bad karma too but he’s never mauled by a wild animal.
Option 2: Leontes’s bad behavior brings us to our second option. According to some critics, the bear is a symbol of Leontes’s wrath, which means that Antigonus isn’t so much a villain as a victim. He’s bullied into ditching Perdita by Leontes and the bear mauling is just another version of Antigonus being attacked by a ferocious figure.
Option 3: Alternatively, some literary critics have pointed out that the whole bear mauling incident seems to echo fertility rites myths. As literary critic Jean E. Howard tells us in her introduction to the Norton edition of the play (2008), these kinds of fertility rites usually involve some poor old guy being sacrificed in order to usher in the spring season (think “out with the old and in with the new”) and bring about some sort of sexual fulfillment.
Option 4: The bear mauling isn’t symbolic of anything. It’s just Shakespeare’s way of having fun and making reference to a popular sixteenth- and seventeenth-century blood sport (bear baiting – when bears are chained up and set upon by a pack of dogs). Bear baiting took place in the same neighborhood as Shakespeare’s plays and there are references to it all over his work, so this definitely seems like a good option.
Option 5: What? You don’t like any of these theories? That’s fine by us. Let us know what you come up with!