Shakespeare has a lot to say about power and politics in his plays. These six quotes touch on what it means to be a king, the power of the law, what separates royal from common, and speaking truth to authority.
Folger Director Emerita Gail Kern Paster provides some additional insight into the context of each quote.
1. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
The King in Henry IV, Part 2 (3.1.31)
At a time of night when most of his subjects are asleep, the king is up and busy about his affairs.
“Maybe more suffering from insomnia – really sleepless, feeling guilty,” says Paster. “The sleep which is so important (they felt and we feel) to health is not for him, alas.”
2. “My crown I am, but still my griefs are mine. You may my glories and my state depose but not my griefs; still am I king of those.”
King Richard in Richard II (4.1.200-203)
As Richard II speaks these words, he is handing his crown over to Bolingbroke. He may be relinquishing his power and position, but his griefs and cares remain. Watch Ben Whishaw and Rory Kinnear perform this emotional scene scene in a clip from The Hollow Crown: Richard II.
3. “I think the King is but a man, as I am. The violet smells to him as it doth to me. The element shows to him as it doth to me. All his senses have but human conditions. His ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man.”
King Henry in Henry V (4.1.105)
King Henry is in disguise when he speaks these words. It’s the night before a big battle, and in talking with the men in his army, he’s reminding them that the king is not immune to the fears they feel.
“The context is their cynicism, too,” says Paster, “since they expect he will let himself be taken for ransom, and they are too low to be eligible. He wants not only to insist on the common humanity but to do so because they are skeptical about the king’s motives. He has reasons for fear just as they do. The speech may remind some of the speech ‘Hath a Jew eyes’ in The Merchant of Venice, though the context is utterly different.”
4. “We must not make a scarecrow of the law, setting it up to fear the birds of prey, and let it keep one shape till custom make it their perch and not their terror.”
Angelo in Measure for Measure (2.1.1-4)
From his position of power, Angelo is arguing for strict application of the law and harsh punishment for lawbreakers.
Paster points out that Escalus—Angelo’s fellow deputy—puts the case for mercy: “Let us be keen, and rather cut a little / Than fall and bruise to death.”
Angelo doesn’t listen, and he ultimately fails to meet the law’s standards, revealing himself as a hypocrite.
5. “Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.”
Brutus in Julius Caesar (2.1.19-20)
Brutus is mulling over Caesar’s rise to power and the calls to crown him, which Brutus views as extremely dangerous.
“He asks himself here whether Caesar would in fact be one who—if he got power—would abuse it this way,” says Paster.
6. “Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak when power to flattery bows? To plainness honor’s bound when majesty falls to folly.”
Kent in King Lear (1.1.164-167)
Kent is King Lear’s loyal subject and friend, so he attempts to intercede when he sees the king making rash decisions and casting off the youngest princess, Cordelia. He pays the price for his boldness when King Lear banishes him on pain of death.
“As with modern heads of state,” says Paster, “the danger comes when their subjects fear to speak truth to power, when they are surrounded by flatterers. The Elizabethans were very much aware of this danger in their great men, and the dangers of flatterers are a common theme.”
These are just a few of the many lines in Shakespeare’s plays about politics and power. The next time you read a Shakespeare play or watch a performance, see if you can find some more.
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