Tom Levenson pursues the parlous question of Shakespeare’s exiting bear. Levenson writes about the book Verdi’s Shakespeare, by Garry Wills:
There, in the first chapter, Wills made mention of Winter’s Tale, and its alpha and omega of stage directions: “Exit, pursued by bear.” …
Wills tells me — laconically, first, in the body of his text, writing that “when it [Shakespeare’s troupe] had a young polar bear on hand, he wrote a scene stopper…”
That was curious enough. A polar bear? In London. In 1610?
Dive into the footnotes, and it gets better:
“It used to be thought that the ‘bear’ was a man in costume. But scholars have now focused on the fact that two polar bear cubs were brought back from the waters off Greenland in 1609, that they were turned over to Philip Henslowe’s bear collection (hard by the Globe theater), and that polar bears show up in three productions of the 1610-1611 theatrical season….Polar bears become fierce at pubescence and were relegated to bear baiting, but the cubs were apparently still trainable in their young state.”
…[see Levenson’s essay for further details]
BONUS: For a further — but earlier and disagreeing — look into the question, see “‘Exit Pursued by a Beare’: A Problem in ‘The Winter’s Tale‘”, Dennis Biggins, Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Winter, 1962), pp. 3-13 1962.