Continuing our series on Shakespeare and Mythological Animals (our new course that will be available in full inside the membership area at the end of July), we are taking a look at the unicorn in Shakespeare’s plays. From the Bible to the ships of famous explorers, this legendary animal has made a great mark on history, so this week we are asking: Did Shakespeare Know About Unicorns?

The Virgin Mary and Unicorns

The unicorn has fascinated history and literature minds for literal millennia, as this beast with a  single horn, pointed and often spiraling out from his forehead. 

Shakespeare uses the word “unicorn” in his plays Julius Caesar, The Tempest, and Timon of Athens. He also mentions unicorns in his poem, Rape of Lucrece

In Act 4 Scene 3 of Timon of Athens Shakespeare writes

wert thou the unicorn, pride and wrath would confound thee and make thine own self the conquest of thy fury…

That line stems from a popular tale about unicorns being captured by a hunter who would stand in front of a tree and goad the unicorn into charging at him. At the last moment, the hunter would step aside, causing the unicorn to stab his horn into the tree and become stuck, allowing the hunter to capture it.

The medieval bestiaries that we talked about last week tell stories about unicorns including one story of the Virgin Mary holding a unicorn who falls asleep on her lap. This image was the foundation for the religious artistic interpretations of the unicorn, and some religious writers even interpret the unicorn and it’s death as the Passion of the Christ. The religious stories about the unicorn refer a one horned beast that can only be tamed by a virgin, and some writers used this story as an allegory for Christ and the Virgin Mary.


wert thou the 
unicorn, pride and wrath would confound thee and 
make thine own self the conquest of thy fury


Timon of Athens, IV.3

The Annunciation with the Unicorn Polyptych. circa 1480. Altar from the St. Elisabeth Church in Wrocław. Detail with the Virgin Mary holding the Unicorn. Public Domain. Source

Unicorns in the King James Bible

When it comes to Shakespeare’s life, the unicorn was actually a prominent feature in the King James Bible of 1611 (I talk with Jem Bloomfield on Shakespeare and the King James Bible here), when translators followed the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate to choose “unicorn” as the right translation for the word “re’em”. At the time, unicorn was a recognizable animal with existing proverbial religious associations with purity. In the present day bible this word is translated as “wild ox” 

  • “God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.”—Numbers 23:22
  • “God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.”—Numbers 24:8
  • “His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth.”—Deuteronomy 33:17
  • “Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee? Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him? Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?”—Job 39:9–12
  • “Save me from the lion’s mouth; for thou hast heard me from the horns of unicorns.”—Psalms 22:21
  • “He maketh them [the cedars of Lebanon] also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.”—Psalms 29:6
  • “But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of the unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.”—
  • “And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with their bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness.”—Isaiah 34:7

The classical Jewish understanding of the Bible does not identify the Re’em animal as the unicorn. And modern scholars are  (as you might expect) divided over exactly what kind of animal the original text might have been referring to when the original was penned. Some scholars points out that the Tahash (also spelled Tachash) animal (Exodus 25, 26, 35, 36 and 39; Numbers 4; and Ezekiel 16:10) while some biblical scholars believe that the Tahash was a domestic single horned animal, others believe it was a wild beast. The Tahash’s skin was used to cover the tent of meeting in Exodus, and some Hebrews would make shoes of the Tahash’s hide (to me that makes it sound a cow, but I’m no expert on Jewish shoes.) At any rate, the tahash with it’s single horn is similar to the keresh animal described by Morris Jastro’s Talmudic dictionary as a “type of antelope or unicorn” (p.s. According to the Dictionary, “Talmud” is “the body of Jewish civil and ceremonial law and legend comprising the Mishnah and the Gemara. There are two versions of the Talmud: the Babylonian Talmud (which dates from the 5th century AD but includes earlier material) and the earlier Palestinian or Jerusalem Talmud.” Just in case you’re like me and didn’t know what “Talmudic dictionary” meant at first. 

Remember that the King James Bible was completed in 1611, the same year William Shakespeare first performed the Tempest, where one of Shakespeare’s references to unicorns appears. 

Can I prove shakespeare read the King James Bible? No. Would he have been a fool and lacking in basic business sense to ignore the text of such a monumental publication during the height of his career? Yes. So am I calling this one plausible? Absolutely. But wait, there’s more!

A man may, if he were of a fearful heart, stagger 
in this attempt; for here we have no temple but the wood, no 
assembly but horn-beasts

Lewis the Dauphine

Henry V III.7

There are two images in this gallery. Scroll left or right to see both. First image: Drawing by Pierre Pomet, 1694, that was originally published in the book Histoire Générale des Drogues and today is published in the book The Unicorn by Nancy Hathaway Pomet pictured both a sea unicorn (top) and a narwhal (bottom). Unlike the first creature, the second was real, and its horn was often mistaken — or deliberately passed off — as a unicorn horn, believed capable of curing all kinds of diseases and poisonings. As Europe’s upper-crust families showed such a fondness for poisoning their own, such antidotes were always in demand. Not long after Pomet’s book was published, the narwhal was identified as a “false unicorn.” Source The second image is of unclear origin. Claims to be a 16th century french woodcut image of a sea monster. Source


A really great documentary on the Arctic includes a section about Narwhals that we showed a snippet of in today’s episode. To see the full documentary, check it out from Open Library Here. 

The Narwhal

According to popular folk tales of Europe, the unicorn was either a white horse, or a goat, with a long horn and cloven hooves. 

During the Renaissance, the unicorn was commonly described as an extremely wild forest creature, a symbol of purity and grace, which could be captured only by a virgin. The unicorn horn was said to have the power to neutralize poison and to heal diseases. During Shakespeare’s lifetime (and indeed throughout medieval times, the Renaissance, and right through to the 18th century), the narwhal tusks would be sold as unicorn horns.

To me, these magical woodland creatures sound similar to the characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but unpacking that relationship will have to wait for another episode. 

 he loves to hear 
That unicorns may be betray’d with trees, 

Decius Brutus

Julius Caesar, II.1

Woodcuts by Erhard Reuwich, text by Bernhard von Breydenbach, Animals of the Holy Land, from Peregrinatio in terram sanctam, printed in Mainz, 1486, woodcut in printed book.


In Act 4 Scene 3 of Timon of Athens Shakespeare writes

wert thou the unicorn, pride and wrath would confound thee and make thine own self the conquest of thy fury…

That line stems from a popular tale about unicorns being captured by a hunter who would stand in front of a tree and goad the unicorn into charging at him. At the last moment, the hunter would step aside, causing the unicorn to stab his horn into the tree and become stuck, allowing the hunter to capture it.

A picture of one of the panels from the Hunt of the Unicorn panels. Public Domain Image. The original set of panels are part of a permanent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Source

The Hunt for the Unicorn

The actual Throne of Denmark, is made of “unicorn horns” which modern scholars have determined is most likely narwhal tusks. Not only were these horns used to make thrones for monarchs, but another fear of the royals in this time period was that of being poisoned. Since unicorn tusks, and powdered unicorn horn (alicorn) was thought to be able to neutralize poison, as well as heal anyone damaged by poison, unicorn horns were commonly used to make the ceremonial cups drank out of by monarchs at royal ceremonies.

The play, Hamlet, is set in Denmark, where the protagonists and the key players all suffer and die from poison, including the King who sits upon the throne of Denmark. 

Exactly what animal was defining the term “unicorn” is not only a matter of debate, but depending on which explorer you ask they would use that term to describe everything from an Indian ox to a rhinoceros, to a giraffe, and as we’ve mentioned, the narwhal from the ocean. As such, some of the ceremonial cups made of “alicorn” are actually made from ivory or walrus tusks. To find an entire narwhal tusk was very rare and they were considered highly valuable.

To tame the unicorn and lion wild….

William Shakespeare

Rape of Lucrece

Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the style used by Queen Elizabeth II from 1953 to the present (as used only in Scotland). “ Quarterly, First and Fourth Or a lion rampant within a double tressure flory counter-flory Gules (for Scotland), Second quarter Gules three lions passant guardant in pale Or armed and langued Azure (for England), Third quarter Azure a harp Or stringed Argent (for Ireland), the whole surrounded by the Order of the Thistle; for a Crest, upon the Royal helm the imperial crown Proper, a lion sejant affrontée Gules, imperially crowned Or, holding in the dexter paw a sword and in the sinister paw a scepter both erect and Proper, motto ‘In defens’; Mantling Or and ermine; for Supporters, dexter a unicorn Argent armed, crined and unguled Proper, gorged with a coronet Or composed of crosses patée and fleurs de lys a chain affixed thereto passing between the forelegs and reflexed over the back also Or, supporting a tilting lance proper flying a banner Azure, a saltire Argent (Cross of Saint Andrew); sinister a lion rampant guardant Or imperially crowned Proper, supporting a tilting lance proper flying a banner Argent, a cross Gules (Cross of Saint George); Motto ‘Nemo me impune lacessit’ in the compartment below the shield, with the thistle. ” —PINCHES, J.H & R.V., The Royal Heraldry of England, 1974, Heraldry Today. | Coat of Arms (for use in Scotland): 1st and 4th Quarters: 3 Gold Lions on a Red Field, representing England; 2nd Quarter: A Red Lion on a Yellow Field, surrounded by a red double royal tressure flory counter-flory device, representing Scotland; 3rd Quarter: Gold Harp on a Dark Blue Field, representing Northern Ireland | Used by CC BY-SA 3.0 | Source

Scotland National Symbol is the Unicorn

The unicorn is famous in Scotland for being the natural enemy to the Lion (the historic symbol of England), and when England and Scotland officially unified in 1707, the unicorn and the lion were added to the country emblem together. 

For Scotland, the unicorn embodied their national spirit, being an animal that would rather die than be conquered.

There is a famous series of tapestries called The Hunt of the Unicorn which was completed int he 16th century that shows nobleman, accompanied by hunstmen, pursuing a unicorn. They bring the animal to bay with the help of a maiden who traps it with her charms, appear to kill it, and bring it back to a castle; in the last and most famous panel, “The Unicorn in Captivity”, the unicorn is shown alive again and happy, chained to a pomegranate tree surrounded by a fence, in a field of flowers. (A pomegranate is an ancient symbol for fertility and marriage, but also was the marriage symbol of Henry VIII to Katherine of Aragon)

This theme and overall story was popular in the Renaissance, and during Shakespeare’s lifetime, with many artists recreating their own version in tapestries and paintings. One very famous recreation shows up in Scotland, when a record of the castle’s 16th century inventory includes a record for a series of tapestries featuring the unicorn was placed on permanent display at Scone Castle (The place where Malcolm is crowned King at the end of Macbeth) 

Emblem of the Clan Cunningham in Scotland. The copyright for this representation of the Scottish crest badge is held by the author of this image. In Scotland, the usage of heraldry is governed by legal restrictions, independent of the status of the depiction shown here. The crest and motto elements of the crest badge are always the heraldic property of an individual (the crest badges, used by most Scottish clan members, are usually the heraldic property of a clan’s chief). Though a crest badge can be freely represented, in Scotland it cannot be appropriated or used in such a way as to create a confusion with or a prejudice to its owner. Source

 According to Scone Castle’s website,

Only the very wealthiest of people could afford tapestries and James V had a large collection, including two sets which showed unicorns.

A set of tapestries based on The Hunt of the Unicorn hangs at Scone Castle. Intricate and beautiful this set of seven hand-woven tapestries hangs on the walls of the Queen’s Inner Hall in the royal palace.

In the 15th-16th century, there was a gold coin which was called the unicorn, and another coin known as a half-unicorn, circulated in Scotland as currency. Undoubtedly some came to England when James and his company arrived as well. Scotland also used unicorns as the decorations carved into pillars known as the Mercat crosses which was the Scots name for “Market Crosses”;  To hold a market, a town had to be granted permission by the monarch. To demonstrate they had the authority to hold the market, the town often erected a tower like cross featuring the unicorn, as a show of authority given them for that purpose. These were called market crosses. Following this role as a symbol of authority, noblemen were sometimes given special permission to put the unicorn on their coat of arms. It was a special honor, and the Clan Cunningham uses a unicorn head in their arms as an example.

It’s entirely possible that Shakespeare included unicorns in plays like The Tempest, which was first performed in 1611, while James was King of England as well as Scotland.

1658 woodcut is an illustration from the book The history of four-footed beasts and serpents by Edward Topsell. Source

Unicorns are not mentioned in Greek mythology, and were not considered mythological creatures by Shakespeare or his cintempories, but rather as a real being. Now whether they were considered really horses with horns is a matter of debate, but it is notable that unicorns do not show up in records of mythology, but instead in records of natural history. As we learned last week, the bestiaries recording the natural world often did include mytthological creatures, so the overlap between what’s real and what’s imaginary was blurred. For people like Shakespeare, far off places contained all manner of crazy and hard to imagine beings that no one had ever seen before (like elephants and rhinocerous, for example) So it was plausible to the renaissance mind that a unicorn would have been real, with all of it’s mystical, fanstastic, glory. 

The earliest description of a unicorn is from the book “indika” translated as “on india”, and described a creature known as a wild ass, which resemble a creature that lived in India, the auroch, which has massive horns and looks like a cow. For this reason, many travellers, exploreres, and writers, believed that the unicorn came from India. 

Exploration lent itself towards this belief, as a number of drawings that were discovered in the Indus Valley region depict unicorns. The author of On India, learned of his information while living in Persia, where sculptures of unicorns have been found in the Persepolis capital of Iran. Scholars believe Aristotle (a writer whom Shakespeare followed), was probably drawing on this book when Aristotle wrote about a one horned animal. 

A PICTURE OF AN AUROCH: Illustration from Sigismund von Herberstein’s book published in 1556 captioned : “I am ‘urus’, tur in Polish, aurox in German (dunces call me bison) lit. (the) ignorant (ones) had given me the name (of) Bison”; Latin original: Urus sum, polonis Tur, germanis Aurox: ignari Bisontis nomen dederant. Source

The auroch from india is one animal the biblical translation of a wild ox might have been based upon. In the last century, that has been the conclusion reached by Hebrew scholars.  The use of unicorn by the King James Bible in 1611, as well as the modernization of Unicorn to now say “wild ox” both make sense in context Pliny the Elder, who mentions the oryx and an Indian ox, or one-horned beasts, as well as

a very fierce animal called the monoceros which has the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits [900 mm, 35 inches] in length. Source

To me, it sounds like they are describing the rhinoceros, and while many Black and White Rhinos live in Africa, the Greater one-horned rhinos can be found in the swamps and rain forests of northern India and southern Nepal.

I recently saw at the Birmingham Zoo a tshirt which had a picture of a rhinoceros and said “Save the Chubby Unicorn” At the time, I thought that was a cute turn of phrase, but it turns out there is solid historical basis for calling the rhinoceros a unicorn, as Pliny the Elder’s description certainly sounds like that of a rhino.

1612 Petrus Plancius included a unicorn constellation, Monoceros, on his celestial globe, enshrining the magical beast in the stars. Source

Note from Cassidy: The source for this image on the Monocerous constellation is a fascinating write up about unicorns and the history of them in literature and influence on Shakespeare. If you want to learn more this blog is a great place to read. It has more information than I can possibly share here. That’s not an affiliate link, it’s just really cool place to learn more.

Marco Polo described unicorns as 

“scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant’s. They have a single large black horn in the middle of the forehead… They have a head like a wild boar’s… They spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime. They are very ugly brutes to look at. They are not at all such as we describe them when we relate that they let themselves be captured by virgins, but clean contrary to our notions.” Source

It is clear that Marco Polo is describing a rhinoceros, and is understandly disillusioned by their rugged appearance.

In one of his notebooks Leonardo da Vinci wrote:

The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it. Source

1605, “Lady with a Unicorn” – Barbara Longhi [Italian High Renaissance Painter, 1552-1638].
She painted this when William Shakespeare was 41 years old. Source


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