Bear-baiting was a popular form of entertainment in London in the sixteenth century. The bear-baiting pits on the south bank of the Thames frequently attracted large crowds to watch the blood-sport. The Bear Garden was one of the amphitheatres that staged the blood-thirsty spectacle of a chained bear defending itself against the mastiff dogs trained to attack it.
By the time Shakespeare arrived in London in the early 1590s, both Bear Garden and Paris Garden attracted large and enthusiastic crowds. These bear-baiting pits were open-air amphitheatres, almost identical in structure to the new public playhouses, with a large pit in the middle and tiered galleries for seating. There was an entrance fee of one penny, and people could pay more for comfortable seating or for refreshments once inside.
When Paris Garden was at the height of its popularity, it kept up to twenty bears and seventy mastiffs, along with bulls and even donkeys which were also thrown into the bear pit, sometimes with monkeys tied to their backs.
Some of the bears baited in the bear pits were famous and their names were known around London and beyond. George Stone, Harry Hunks, Ned of Canterbury, and Don Juan were all well-known bears, as was Sackerson, who is mentioned in The Merry Wives of Windsor. He was one of the famed bears from the London bear-baiting pits and Slender boasts of having taken him by the chain:
SLENDER: Why do your dogs bark so? Be there bears i’ the town?
ANNE: I think there are, sir. I heard them talked of.
SLENDER: I love the sport well, but I shall as soon quarrel at it as any man in England. You are afraid, if you see the bear loose, are you not?
ANNE: Ay, indeed, sir.
SLENDER: That’s meat and drink to me, now. I have seen Sackerson loose twenty times, and have taken him by the chain, but, I warrant you, the women have so cried and shrieked at it, that it passed. But women, indeed, cannot abide ’em. They are very ill-favoured rough things.
(Act 1 Scene 1)
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