Mute Swan Cygnus olor, Cygne tuberculé.

17 occurrences (9 swan, 1 swans, 3 swan's, 1 swan-like, 1 cygnet, 2 cygnets)

Since the thirteenth century there had been many attempts to protect deer, hares, salmon, hawks and wild-fowl, but swans were among the first wild creatures to be "preserved for their beauty" and not for their utility for the purpose of hunting or falconry. From the thirteenth century to the eighteenth century, swans were the property of the Crown, assigned to others by licence and marked by cuts on the bill or foot-webs, but not necessarily confined. THOMAS says (p. 276):

The privilege of owning swans was a mark of high social status carefully controlled by the Crown, and those who possessed it would go to great trouble to safeguard their property. At Leconfield in the East Riding the villagers' animals were excluded from the Fens in 1570 because they disturbed the breeding of the wild swans prized by the Earl of Northumberland.

The nobility of swans was long-established, as they traditionally drew the chariot of Venus. In As You Like It Shakespeare makes them royal birds, belonging to the queen of gods, Juno: "And wheresoe'er we went, like Juno's swans" (AYL 1 3 75).

More associations are to be found as we enter the realm of mythology. Falstaff disguised as Herne the Hunter and wearing a buck's head for an assignation with Mistress Ford in Windsor Forest recalls the feats of Jupiter with Europa and Leda:

Remember, Jove, thou wast a bull for thy Europa ...

.. .You were also, Jupiter, a swan, for the love of Leda.

(WIV 5 5 3-7)

The noble and fierce character of the bird is also stressed in:

So doth the swan his downy cygnets save,

Keeping them prisoner underneath his wings.

(1H6 5 3 56-7)

The immaculate plumage and the connotations of purity going along with it enable Shakespeare to devise the strongest possible contrast in the description made by Benvolio, when he tries in Act I to help Romeo forget about Rosaline:

And I will make thee think thy swan a crow.

(ROM 1 2 89)

The prevailing use made by Shakespeare of this species rests upon the legend that the otherwise unmelodious swan sings just before his death. TILLEY (S1028) quotes with numerous references the following proverb: "Like a swan, he sings before his death."

Among the seventeen occurrences of "swan", no fewer than five are devoted more or less explicitly to this proverb: MV 3 2 44, JN 5 7 21, OTH 5 2 248, LUC 1611, PHT 15. One of the most interesting effects obtained by Shakespeare with this metaphor is described by Audrey YODER in Animal Analogy in Shakespeare's Character Portrayal as follows:

A swan image awakens unexpected sympathy at the death of King John. When Prince Henry is told that his dying father has sung a song, he says in wonder:

Confound themselves. 'Tis strange that death should


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." (JN 5 7 19-24)

We can find an explanation of the "organ-pipe" in the description by W. Vallans of the swan's death-song:

The Philosophers say it is because of the spirit, which, labouring to passe thorow the long and small passage of her necke, makes a noise as if she did sing. (VALLANS, W., "To the Reader" in A Tale of Two Swannes (1590), ed.Hearne, quoted by E.A.J. HONIGMANN editor of the Arden King John.).