I have been thinking recently about the significance of Bear-Baiting and Bull-Baiting in relation to Shakespeare's plays.
As you may know, bears or bulls were chained to a post in an arena and were then attacked by dogs, until either the dogs were dead, or the dogs killed their prey. Audiences would bet on who would win.
It was a bloodthisty sport for crowds that couldn't get enough of blood, especially in London. Perhaps the greatest fan was Queen Elizabeth herself. In Shakespeare's London, there were also public executions, public disembowelments, beheadings, criminals displayed around the city, decapitated heads on spikes mounted on London Bridge, and undoubtedly the killing and cutting of animals at every butcher's shop across town.
What has this to do with Shakespeare?
I think it was a challenge he faced when he wrote his plays. He had to compete with this. He had to lure people into a theatre to see his plays, when they might rather see a bear get killed, or see an execution elsewhere.
In fact, when he first started out, at The Theatre in Shoreditch, he would have had to lure audiences far from central London, outside the walls where the authorities would not police, and where people were at greater risk of being robbed or killed. I can't imagine that would have been an easy thing to do. The challenge would have been greater, and his plays would have had to be as exciting as possible to get the crowds to come.
He also had to get crowds to come and pay money! They had to pay admission to see Bears baited. But executions and other public displays of torture were free. He had to entertain crowds and excite them so much to get them to spend their hard earned money.
As I wrote my adaptations of Hamlet, Richard III and The Merchant of Venice, I couldn't help but think of this constantly. Shakespeare had to grab the crowd by the throat and never let go. He had to get them to laugh, cry, scream, and yell -- just as they must have made noise as they watched a bear or bull (or chimpanzee!) get killed by dogs.
It appears that in place of an actual bear or bull getting mauled to death in the theatre, Shakespeare created characters who would serve as a sacrificial bear. Hamlet and Shylock are both strong men who succumb. Richard III seems to be a particularly vicious bear who kills many dogs before he ultimately falls.
As you read my adaptations, I think you will agree that Shakespeare's plays must have been a riot to see, and may have indeed caused riots!
Thanks for reading and I hope you have a great week!