Jeremy Irons in Henry IV: Part I and II
Source: BBC

"Heavy Is the Head That Wears the Crown" Originates From the Bard ... Sort Of

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Nov. 15 2022, Published 4:49 p.m. ET

The phrase "heavy is the head that wears the crown" is a commonplace saying to describe those struggling with responsibilities, but what is its origin?

An average person might be surprised at how many of our cultural idioms stem from the works of William Shakespeare. Popular phrases such as "wild-goose chase," "the world is my oyster," "it's Greek to me," and "something wicked this way comes" are still in common vernacular to this day.

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Keep reading for everything you need to know about "heavy is the head that wears the crown" and how modern-day audiences have updated the original phrasing.

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What is the origin of the phrase "heavy is the head that wears the crown"?

Technically, "heavy is the head that wears the crown" finds its origins from William Shakespeare, but the phrase is actually a misquote. The real phrase reads, "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," and it is spoken by King Henry in Henry IV: Part II, Act III, Scene I.

In the scene, Henry is alone in his palace at Westminster. It's the middle of the night, but he is awake and worrying about war. Henry then begins to talk to himself and the audience. He reflects that even his poorest subjects sleep happily in their beds, untroubled, but he is a king and too weighed down with anxiety to sleep peacefully.

Henry concludes that those with power are usually less happy than those without power.

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man wearing crown
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Although the two phrases are similar, the first is a more modern interpretation of the second. Both phrases mean the same — that sometimes, being a leader can be a difficult burden as well as a privilege.

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The phrase "heavy is the head that wears the crown" is not the only misquote of Shakespeare that is common. According to No Sweat Shakespeare, other popular misquotes include: "Lead on, Macduff," which is actually "Lay on, Macduff"; "Methinks the lady doth protest too much," which is "The lady doth protest too much, methinks"; and "Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him well," which is really "‘Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio – a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy."

a kid playing with a crown and sword
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Additionally, there are many quotes and phrases in pop culture that have been misattributed to Shakespeare.

While he was a prolific writer, the Bard can't be responsible for every idiom in the book. For example, the phrase "No man is an island" is actually from the poet John Donne, not Shakespeare. Similarly, "Come live with me and be my love" is often credited to Shakespeare, but it is from his rival Christopher Marlowe's famous poem The Passionate Shepherd to his Love.

Ultimately, whether you use the phrase as Shakespeare did or the modern interpretation, it sounds like wearing any sort of crown is not for the faint of heart.

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