Word of the Day: Unicorn

August 1, 2011 in Word of the Day

As befits an animal so rare that Sebastian, brother to the King of Naples, lists it among the previously incredible rare phenomena in which he will now believe after witnessing Propsero’s masque in The Tempest, there are only four mentions of the unicorn in Shakespeare’s opus. This makes the mythical creature rarer than elephants, basilisks and parrots (to name a few). Funnily enough, however, the unicorn appears with the elephant in a speech by Decius just prior to the fulfilment of the conspiracy at the heart of Julius Caesar. Decius is giving examples of how even the most special and powerful of beings can be brought low, as Caesar will be on the Capitol:

> DECIUS [...] unicorns may be betray’d with trees,
> And bears with glasses, elephants with holes,
> Lions with toils, and men with flatterers:
> But when I tell him he hates flatterers,
> He says he does, being then most flattered.
> Let me work;
> For I can give his humor the true bent,
> And I will bring him to the Capitol.

The idea that unicorns, like other creatures, have their weaknesses, is also something brought up by Timon of Athens during a rambling debate on the topic of the humane and the bestial with the philospher Apemantus. The misanthrope counters Apemantus’ wish to be a best as follows, taking the unicorn as a climax in his argument:

> If thou wert the lion, the fox would beguile thee; if thou wert the lamb, the fox would eat thee; if thou wert the fox, the lion would suspect thee, when peradventure, thou wert accused by the ass; if thou wert the ass, thy dulness would torment thee, and still thou livedst but as a breakfast to the wolf; if thou wert the wolf, thy greediness would afflict thee, and oft thou shouldst hazard thy life for thy dinner; wert thou the unicorn, pride and wrath would confound thee and make thine own self the conquest of thy fury; [...] What beast couldst thou be that were not subject to a beast?

The combination of rarity and special power that the above passages find in the unicorn is complemented by another idea in The Rape of Lucrece. As many know already, unicorns were famous for being wild and free, and only susceptible to taming by a virgin. This sexual element lurks in the background of a long speech on the wonders of time given by Shakespeare’s heroine, where it is – conspicuously – time and not virginity that triumph over the unicorns power, “To slay the tiger that doth live by slaughter, / To tame the unicorn and lion wild”. If there were any doubt over the sinister application of this example in the mouth of a vulnerable woman, one need only look elsewhere in the same passages to see that the tragedy of the unicorn (special, proud, vulnerable and desired) is the same as Lucrece’s, for Lucrece invokes time with the terrible feeling that its power will not aid her, even though it should “eat up errors by opinion bred, / Not spend the dowry of a lawful bed”.

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