‘My kingdom for a horse’ is a quotation from act 5, scene 4 of Shakespeare’s Richard III, At the end of the play Richard has lost his horse on the battlefield and we see his extreme frustration. Richard’s opponent, Richmond, has sent men out on to the battlefield as decoys, dressed like him. Richard has killed five of them but Richmond himself has eluded him and is now hunting him down.
Richard has done well without a horse but has no chance now with Richmond closing in on him. Richard’s ally, Catesby, tries to help him. The dialogue between the two of them goes:
King Richard: A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!
Catesby: Withdraw, my lord: I’ll help you to a horse.
King Richard: Slave! I have set my life upon a caste,
And I will stand the hazard of the die,
I think there be six Richmonds in the field;
Five have I slain instead of him.
A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!
Those are the last words of Richard as he dies on the battlefield. He has lost his horse, which was a vital component of a fighter’s equipment in medieval times. Leading up to that he rushes about the battlefield killing everyone he meets, shouting, “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
The idea of a king wanting a horse so badly that he would give his whole kingdom for one is an overstatement, and ‘My kingdom for a horse’ is a now very well-known quotation. It’s meaning refers to being prepared to give anything for some small thing one needs above all else. Because the phrase refers specifically to a horse it is not often used but is the concept behind such sayings as “I would give my right arm for a drink right now,” or “I would give a month’s pay for some shade,” – modifying Shakespeare’s line for one’s own circumstances. The phrase is so striking and memorable that it’s become one of Shakespeare’s most recognisable quotes.
Material objects around us in our lives are many and variable. Any one of those things could be either significant or insignificant at different times. A horse may be almost meaningless to a king in a time of peace, but indispensable in a battle. Without one he faces defeat and even death. We find the shifting significance of things in our lives, too, and that’s what really makes it such a universal phrase.
‘My kingdom for a horse’ is the last we hear from the pathetic, villainous Richard III. Richmond finds him, they fight and Richmond kills him and becomes the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII.
Never knew where this phrase came from until now. Thanks for taking the time to write such a great summary ????????
Surely the phase means that if he does not have a horse he will be unable to ride in the battle field and if unable to ride he will lose his kingdom. He is not offering his kingdom for a swap
Ah yes of course that is the meaning! As if there should be a question mark of astonishment at the end of the line. It seems obvious now. Thank you.
Absolutely not. It’s a metaphor.
Excellent! A new view, to me anyway, of The Bard’s meaning. After all these years of thinking Richard was whining for his life, a new possibility. Maybe was insane with hate and the need to kill Richmond blinded him to everything else. When Catesby offers to lead him away from the fight and find him a horse, he replies, “…I will stand the hazard of the die…” He’s not whining. He wants to stay and fight and kill. Though, I’d bet WS wouldn’t mind the double meaning. Your translation: ‘A horse? A horse? (Lose) my kingdom for (lack of) a horse?’ Would have just made Richard more angry and vicious; which is how he went out.
I always confused this with the poem ‘my kingdom for a nail’. And having never read R3, I assumed he was bemoaning the fact that he would soon lose his kingdom for want of a horse. But I now see it’s different to the nail poem and that WS created a meme
Richard’s dramatic phrase, in my view, should not be trivialised as mere hyperbole. Obtaining a horse in battle was literally a matter of LIFE or death. Richard knew this.
In his desperate plea to his wingman, we could therefore substitute the words “a horse” with “my life”. The immortal iambic phrase should therefore be interpreted as follows: “[My life], [my life]! A kingdom for [my life]!
It’s definitely a logical barter. What good is having a kingdom if you’re dead? The horse was valuable beyond a superficial glance.
I was wandering in my home earlier this morning, desperation gnawing at my guts, when I found myself muttering, “Chocolate, chocolate, my kingdom for some chocolate…”
… and it occurred to me I had no idea where the original had come from or if my memory of it being for a horse was even accurate. Soooo… you fulfilled my mental need perfectly with this page! (Now, if you could just do SOMEthing about the CHOCOLATE!!!)
– MJM, who is currently working toward his third ton of chocolate in life…