What is the meaning tothe line "uneasy lies the head that wears a crown" from William Shakespeare's history "Henry IV?"

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Part I, Act III, Scene I of William Shakespeare’s historical play Henry IV, the scene opens with an obviously distraught Henry IV, struck with sleeplessness despite the late hour, pondering in the presence of his Page the burdens of leadership and responsibility.  Amidst no shortage of palace intrigue, the king is feeling the weight of responsibility on his shoulders or, more precisely, on his head:

“How many thousand of my poorest subjects

Are at this hour asleep! O gentle sleep,

Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee . . .

Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

In the context of the play in which this scene opens, there is no shortage of drama, not least the machinations of Falstaff with respect to Prince Hal, the future King Henry V.  At the moment, it is the present king, Henry IV, for whom the burden of leadership is the cause of insomnia and middle-of-the-night ruminations in the presence of a servant.  When Warwick and Surrey enter, the depth of the king’s despair is expressed in the following aside:

King Henry IV: “Have you read o’er the letters that I sent you?”

Warwick: “We have, my liege.”

King Henry IV: “Then you perceive the body of our kingdom

How foul it is; what rank diseases grow

And with what danger, near the heart of it.”

The “head that wears a crown” is responsible for a vast kingdom with a population of nobles and peasants, knights and beggars the welfare of whom lies with the man at the top.  One is reminded of the oft-cited line by the late American president, Harry Truman: “The buck stops here.”  In the middle of a sleepless night, such individuals are prone to lie awake contemplating the burdens of their positions.

Read the study guide:
Henry IV, Part I

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