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Old Antigonus is a Lord at the Sicilian court and Paulina’s husband. Famously, he’s mauled and eaten by a bear right after dumping off baby Perdita in the middle of nowhere.
Is it a coincidence that the guy who agrees to “disappear” an innocent newborn baby in the Bohemian “desert” (as if she were an old, unwanted mattress or something) is the same guy that gets torn to shreds and snacked on by a bear? Both events occur in pretty rapid succession so we’re thinking Shakespeare is making a point.
What could that point possibly be? Here are some options. On the one hand, we could simply say that what goes around comes around. But the problem with this bad karma theory is that Leontes does some pretty awful things in the play and he never becomes bear food. Perhaps we should argue that Antigonus isn’t so much a villain as a victim. He’s bullied into ditching Perdita by Leontes (who also gives him a lot of grief about being a wimpy husband who can’t control his outspoken wife) and the bear mauling is just another version of Antigonus being attacked by a ferocious figure. (Psst. If you like this “Antigonus as a victim” reading, then you’ll probably like the idea that the Bear is emblematic of Leontes’s wrath, which is a theory we discuss in “Symbols.” Also, if you want to know more about Antigonus’s inability to “control” his wife, check out “Quotes” for “Gender.”)
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.