Exeunt, pursued by a bear (Dennis Aubrey)


The storm begins; poor wretch,
That for thy mother’s fault art thus exposed
To loss and what may follow! Weep I cannot,
But my heart bleeds; and most accursed am I
To be by oath enjoin’d to this.

Antigonus, Act III Scene 3 of The Winter’s Tale, William Shakespeare

Ordered by Leontes, King of Sicilia, to dispose of his own daughter, the elderly lord Antigonus abandons the King’s newborn infant on the wild and savage coast of Bohemia. He feels a sense of dread for the act, and the scene is concluded with the famous stage direction, “Exeunt, pursued by a bear.”

Scene from "The Winter's Tale" by John Massey Wright

Scene from “The Winter’s Tale” by John Massey Wright

Antigonus is attacked by a bear. While it is often referred to as a comic incongruity, I think of it as a fury unleashed by the brutality of Antigonus’ act. In my imagination, the bear appears like a spector during the course of his speech and as Antigonus realizes the import of his abandonment of Perdita, the beast is unleashed as Nemesis, a goddess of retribution. Antigonus understands this as his last lines are “This is the chase: I am gone for ever.”

Shakespeare is telling us that our evil acts create the monsters that pursue us. In a sense, we create the Nemesis that seeks us out. This was a theme well-explored by medieval sculptors and perhaps Shakespeare was using their visions, placing them on the stage in his modern context.

Demons and dragon, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Demons and dragon, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In today’s modern context, the daughters we abandon on the wild shores of Bohemia are the poor that we rob, imprison, and disenfranchise in the name of commerce. They are the earth that we deface in the name of progress. They are the children that we addict to drugs, alcohol, and rampant consumerism. Our abandoned daughters are those we let starve – or force to starve – so that we can enjoy our plenty.

Demon capital, Collégiale Saint-Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Demon capital, Collégiale Saint-Pierre, Chauvigny (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I am not ashamed to say that I sometimes wish for Nemesis today. The violence and greed that dominate the world fills me with loathing. To see the principles of religion turned into instruments of oppression and death is like watching a beloved family pet foam at the mouth and turn rabid. Perhaps a sense of dread would have some influence on the behaviors of the most vile among us. Perhaps. But that dread would need to be enormous, I am sure.

Trumeau, Église Abbatiale Sainte-Marie, Souillac (Lot)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Trumeau, Église Abbatiale Sainte-Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

I can only hope that Nemesis takes on a form monstrous and implacable. It must be as great and unforgiving as the nature of the acts that it seeks to redress. In my mind I try to re-enter the imagination of those medieval sculptors, seeing and feeling as they did. I try to see the monsters from their churches as real and feel their fury. I imagine them rending the flesh of the transgressors. For the greedy, I imagine them forcing a silver coin into each gaping wound. For the murderers, I imagine them tearing the bodies but leaving the victims to die with excruciating slowness. But in doing so, in these inhuman imaginings, I can only see a human face. No animal would think like this.

Detail, trumeau, Église Abbatiale Sainte-Marie, Souillac (Lot)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Detail, trumeau, Église Abbatiale Sainte-Marie, Souillac (Lot) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Nemesis is a double-edged sword. Timothy McVey saw himself as Nemesis when he detonated a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing his hundreds. Certainly anti-abortionists who bomb clinics and kill doctors see themselves as Nemesis. I am positive that ISIS sees itself as Nemesis, punishing the wicked of the world. They kidnap 150 people from Assyrian Christian villages and will probably execute them as brutally as they killed the Egyptian Copts. But they are murderers all. And one thing is clear – we humans are pathetically incapable of righting our own wrongs. And just as incapable at preventing those wrongs in the first place.

22 responses to “Exeunt, pursued by a bear (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Nemesis is the worker of divine retribution: take her role into our own hands and we show the very hubris she punishes.

    I think that we can right our own wrongs, but it takes the confidence to talk to each other, the confidence to stand by each other, the confidence in our own judgement; all matters that our current society makes so difficult by the monopoly of the media, which defines what is ‘news’ and what is not and by the close control of governments masking their real intentions behind the screen of ‘anti – terrorism’ measures.

    • I would like to think that you are right about our ability to right our own wrongs, but sometimes I believe I lack the strength that you show in all of your writing, Helen. Thanks for writing, as always. Sorry we won’t see you this spring in Airvault! (We thought you lived in Costa Rica, but your note gave us a flurry of hope).

      • Any strength I have comes from others….it’s something I’ve learned through the years of my husband’s illnesses.
        I doubt that I’ll be in France again….but your photographs and words bring back a great deal that I remember – and show me a great deal that I wish I had made the effort to see.

  2. What very profound words accompany your matchless photographs. Thank you, Dennis for thoughts we should consider more often than most of us do.

  3. Beautifully articulated (and with such appropriate imagery). Thank you for posting this– what so many of us have been thinking about recently.

  4. I happen to be working on The Winter’s Tale right now with youth and students from Pomona College. We just had a long discussion (the college students) about that stage direction. My feeling is as yours. I do not see the bear as comical. Never have. You have helped me to articulate the reasons. While my production may not be able to support this particular thought, (we’re working with middle-school students new to the stage), we will be focusing on accountability and I will be sharing this with my college students.

    I don’t respond often – rarely, in fact – but am always grateful for your words, art, and friendship!

    • Rose, this is one of those posts that seemingly came out of nowhere. For some reason, I was thinking about the stage direction, so I went back to the text to test out my thoughts. The result was this post. PJ read it, of course, gave me “the look” and said, “This is one of the strange ones.”

  5. Thank you Dennis… I think of the high number of suicides by veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and can only imagine the demons that crawled through their brains, reminding them every day what deeds they had witnessed and committed in the name of “freedom”. The “conscience” of every human should have consequences for their actions, but then we encounter men like Dick Cheny and Paul Wolfowitz, and Saddam Hussein, and Haffez Assad, who have convinced themselves that what they had done, or are doing, was right. Where are the John Lennons of the world?

  6. Oh, yes, my heart bleeds. The medieval sculptuors made nightmares visible, in an age when there was reason to fear sin and the loss of the immortal soul. We no longer recognize things as sinful, many doubt or downright deny the existance of the immortal soul. We are accursed, by our own hands, our own minds and see the medieval nightmares as comedies and jokes, missing the lesson that the wages of sin are real and we are seeing ample evidence of them now.

      • In those times those nightmares were very real, things people dreaded the possibliity of. I’ve read comments about those silly creatures on the capitals, or how very funny the look of the man being eaten by the monster.
        Nice to know I can still turn a decent phrase once in a while.

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