How could we not love Mummer, the splendid hairy central character of Shakespeare’s Bear. Mummer wins hearts and friends during his pampered cub-hood in the household of William the playwright, and even later in perilous London (‘the worst place in England for a bear.’). Through his eyes and ears and especially his nose, we readers learn something of Elizabethan life, politics, and the entertainment business.
Description: ‘In 1592 Elizabethan England is a perilous place, rife with plague, civil unrest, highwaymen .. and Spanish plots against the Queen … Darkly, alongside early English theatre, there flourished hugely popular yet immensely cruel bear-baiting shows, presided over by Queen Elizabeth herself, and Master of the Queen’s Bears, Phillip Henslowe, at Paris Gardens in London.’
‘Methought I was a child of the Shakespeare family but with more fur.’ Ch. 2′
Mummer explores the world to a great extent through his nose. He is consumed by thoughts of food, and the story is at times a journey along trail of oaten broth, goats milk, nuts, berries, honey, mushrooms, carrots and apples. But cubs grow, and bears can unintentionally cause fear among humans. Hamnet constantly strives to keep his bear safe, and hits on the idea of training him to make the crowds laugh before his father’s plays begin.
‘I performed many tricks such as swirling a cape and wooden sword, wearing Ceasar’s wreath and toga, holding my paw forth and growling a great declamation.. ‘
While Mummer performs and earns his keep, we learn of the popularity of stage plays. I loved the scenes where Master William jots down lines as they come to him, in case they might be useful someday, and tries them out on the family and on Mummer too. ‘Such amity and such love hath thy savage beast’. Author Harry Oxford adopts just enough of the Shakespearean roll of sentences to bring out the flavour of the times and yet remain easily readable. If you have ever felt doubtful about Shakespeare’s plays, perhaps having had them forced on you at school, Shakespeare’s Bear will give you a rich and different insight into the man and his work, and I think you will start to ‘really get into it’.
‘Hamnet was asleep somewhere in the city but all I knew was that I was without him for the first time in my memory since the dark woods had frighted my soul, for bears do have souls.’
As popular as the stage plays in Elizabeth England, or even more so, was the bear-baiting in which bears and dogs lost their lives. (‘Even Good Queen Bess herself is much amused and enjoys the baiting of a bear’. Stander to Mummer. ). Mummer learns of this horror from the bears he befriends, first Stander who has managed to escape that misery, and then Sackerson, still caged, and doomed like a gladiator to fight on until he dies. For a time Mummer is kept with the fighting bears. He smells their fear and hears the awful fights.
‘I am recalling all this now that I am an old bear and thus, no longer in my best years, live at the pleasure of fair or whimsical chance. ‘Ch. 2.
‘Whimsical chance.’ That phrase says so much about the fate of the animals in our lives. Will they fall among unkind humans, or will they chance to be cared for? Reading of Mummer’s life, I was reminded of Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, the famous book which first brought into reader’s minds the animals’ point of view about how it is treated. So too does Harry Oxford’s book reminds us of how the welfare of animals lives hangs always in the balance.
Without question, more novels need bears in them. Moreover, the next time I see Master Williams’s plays staged, I shall wait in expectation of seeing the actors make a hurried exit, ‘pursued by a bear’.
Where to find Shakespeare’s Bear: From Publisher Lulu, and look also at Bookshop Org (supporting local bookshops), at BookDepository (free shipping), at Amazon everywhere, at Barnes and Noble, at Dymocks, at Walmart and more.
‘This little story made me well up. A lovely, poignant story with delightful illustrations.’ Jackie Law, Amazon Top 500 reviewer, about It’s A Bright World To Feel Lost in.
The book brings back such nostalagic memories that it made it comforting, like a old security blanket.’ FNM Book reviews about Bright World.