Near the end of his classic 1606 play Macbeth, William Shakespeare included a scene in which the doomed title character says that his enemies, “have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly, / But, bear-like, I must fight the course.” The line might seem inconsequential to modern readers, but for the audiences that watched the Bard’s plays 400 years ago, it would have been an obvious reference to one of the most popular pastimes of the day: bear-baiting. In fact, many of the same Londoners who flocked to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre were also patrons of the nearby “Bear Gardens,” where bears, dogs, bulls, chimps and other creatures routinely fought to the death in front of roaring crowds.

Along with the theater, animal blood sports were among the most beloved entertainments of 16th and 17th century England. In London, the shows took place in the seamy Bankside district, which was home to several purpose-built arenas. “There,” wrote one 1639 visitor, “you may hear the shouting of men, the barking of dogs, the growling of the bears, and the bellowing of the bulls, mixed in a wild but natural harmony.”

By far the most popular sport was bear-baiting. In this brutal test, a bear would be led into a pit and then chained to a stake by its leg or neck. As spectators cheered and placed bets, a pack of dogs—usually bulldogs or mastiffs—would be unleashed into the arena to torment and attack the bear. “It was a very pleasant sport to see,” the Elizabethan court official Robert Laneham wrote of a 1575 bear-baiting. “To see the bear, with his pink eyes, tearing after his enemies’ approach…with biting, with clawing, with roaring, with tossing and tumbling, he would work and wind himself from them. And when he was loose, to shake his ears twice or thrice with the blood and the slather hanging about his physiognomy.”

The gory spectacle typically continued until the bears had killed several dogs or been bitten into submission. Still, since bears had to be imported from abroad at great cost, steps were usually taken to ensure that they didn’t die in the ring. After several bouts, some of the animals even became minor celebrities. London’s bear pits were home to creatures with nicknames such as “Ned Whiting,” “Harry Hunks” and “Blind Bess.” Another famous bear, the great “Sackerson,” was even referenced by name in Shakespeare’s play The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Bear-baiting in England dates back to medieval times, but it first became big business in the mid-1500s, when impresarios such as Philip Henslowe established dedicated animal fighting venues on the south bank of the Thames. The noisy, blood-soaked arenas were hugely popular, and they were later considered the main competition to the plays put on at theaters such as the Rose and the Globe. Even after Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson ushered in a golden age of English drama, audiences of all social classes continued to relish the visceral thrills of the bear pits. Queen Elizabeth I was said to be a bear-baiting fan, and once organized an exhibition for the visiting French ambassador. King James I, meanwhile, was such an aficionado that he hosted private shows involving polar bears and lions borrowed from the Tower of London’s animal menagerie.

Along with bear-baiting, the English arenas also hosted a range of animal fights that the scholar Stephen Dickey once called a “carnival of cruelty.” There were rat-baitings, badger-baitings, dogfights, cockfights and other stomach-turning displays such as staged whippings of blind bears. Bull-baiting, in which dogs were set upon chained male cattle, was particularly popular. Audiences delighted in watching the bulls throw the attack dogs into the air with their horns, and it was widely believed that baiting helped make the bull’s beef more tender and safe for consumption. Perhaps the strangest show of all involved a chimpanzee, or “jack-an-apes,” which would be strapped onto the back of a horse and then set loose into the ring to be chased by a pack of snarling dogs. An Italian merchant who once witnessed the spectacle wrote that, “It is wonderful to see the horse galloping along, kicking up the ground and champing at the bit, with the monkey holding very tightly to the saddle, and crying out frequently when he is bitten by the dogs.”

While many visitors to the Bear Gardens considered the violence to be exhilarating and even funny, the blood sports also won their fair share of critics. Puritan ministers and other clergymen denounced the arenas as dens of idleness and vice, and it was said that the games encouraged gambling, drunkenness and prostitution. “There are as many civil religious men here, as there are saints in hell,” one critic wrote of the bear pits. Others were more disturbed by the violence being perpetrated against helpless animals. After a visit to the Bear Gardens in 1670, the English diarist John Evelyn pronounced the games a “rude and dirty pastime” that reveled in “barbarous cruelties.”

Bear-baiting in the 16th century
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Bear-baiting in the 16th century

Despite the protests of critics, England’s animal blood sports continued unabated through most of the 17th century. London’s main bear-baiting arena was briefly closed in 1656 as part of a moral crackdown orchestrated by Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, but it wasn’t long before the games had roared back to life. By 1662, a new Bear Garden had been built that featured an onsite pub as well as special windows that allowed patrons to watch the animal baitings while they ate and guzzled ale.

It wasn’t until the 1700s that the blood sports finally fell out of favor. By then, shifting attitudes about animal cruelty had led many to write the games off as a vile and despicable practice. Animal baiting was later banned outright in England following an 1835 act of parliament, but a few remnants of its history have survived to today. Two streets in South London are still called “Bear Gardens” and “Bear Lane” after the gruesome displays that once took place in the area. The iconic English bulldog, meanwhile, earned its name from its past use as an attack dog in bull and bear-baiting shows.