"Performing The Winter’s Tale in the ‘Open’: Bear Plays, Skinners’ Pageants, and the Early Modern Fur Trade

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While theater historians have long engaged in raucous debates about the presence of actual bears in early modern playhouses, the search for a definitive answer to this riddle may be motivated by a problematic desire to draw clear-cut lines between human and beast. Rather than attempt to settle the question of whether a trained bear or an actor in a bear-suit pursued Antigonus off the Globe stage in The Winter’s Tale, this chapter frames ursine-human hybridity as an example of the indistinction promoted by critical animal studies, or the salubrious uncertainty that Giorgio Agamben terms the “Open.” Instead of peeking under the fur, it explores fur’s agency as a performing object that might threaten the speciesist logic that allegedly entitles humans to kill and flay other animals. Disturbingly, however, the chapter also implicates the theater industry in the commercial fur trade. It compares and contrasts bear plays, in which bears or furries appear as figures of hybridity, with a neglected variety of Jacobean street theater known as the “Skinners’ pageant,” which functions, I argue, as an anthropological machine for redrawing the taxonomic boundaries with a vengeance. While critiquing the fetishizing of fur in these brutal spectacles (modeled on the Roman triumph), the chapter exposes some frayed seams between new materialisms and critical animal studies, in that erasing the subject/object divide risks colluding with the Skinners’ pageant in its refusal to discriminate between a sentient creature and its fur.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Handbook of Shakespeare and Animals
EditorsKaren Raber, Holly Dugan
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9781003057192
ISBN (Print)9781138710160
Publication statusPublished - 10 Aug 2020

Publication series

NameRoutledge Literature Handbooks


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