Lions, Tigers, and Bears… Oh, My! (and toss in a swan, as well)

What King John lacks in manly men (there’s the Bastard and… well, there’s the Bastard), it (sorta) makes up in animal imagery.

The primary animal image employed is — no surprise here — the lion. Five of the first eight uses, are of “Coeur-de-lion” (I.i.54, 85, 136, 253, and II.i.12), a direct allusion of Richard I, Richard Lion-Heart. Of the remaining 12 uses, another four simple “lion” references are allusions to the same king. The best non-Richard usage comes from his son the Bastard about, you guessed it, himself: “O tremble, for you hear the lion roar” (II.i.294).

The Bastard (as we’ve mentioned earlier in the month) continually mocks the avowed killer of his father, Austria–who took Richard’s lion-skin and has taken to wearing it himself–turning lion imagery to calf imagery:

AUSTRIA
O, that a man should speak those words to me!

BASTARD
And hang a calf's-skin on those recreant limbs.

AUSTRIA
Thou darest not say so, villain, for thy life.

BASTARD
And hang a calf's-skin on those recreant limbs.
...
And hang a calf's-skin on his recreant limbs.
...
Hang nothing but a calf's-skin, most sweet lout.
...
Will not a calfs-skin stop that mouth of thine?

— III.i.130-133, 199, 220, and 299

To keep in line with the title of today’s entry, Papal Emissary Pandulph uses both lion and tiger imagery–“A chafed lion by the mortal paw, // A fasting tiger safer by the tooth” (III.i.259-260)–and King Philip alludes to the “muzzled bear” (II.i.249).

All of these allusions are to predators, dangerous creatures, but not a single one to our titular character. When we get to the end of the play, though, we get our first reference to King John, as well as to his son, when Prince Henry says,

I am the cygnet to this pale faint swan,
Who chants a doleful hymn to his own death,
And from the organ-pipe of frailty sings
His soul and body to their lasting rest.

— V.vii.21-24

Henry is the son (cygnet) to the swan, King John; Henry’s allusion to the “doleful hymn” is a reference to the legend that the swan sings a single song in its life, and that’s just before it dies).

Hmmm, the Bastard is a lion. Kings John and Henry are swans. Not exactly reassuring.

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