John Harington

Of Treason by John Harington

‘Of Treason’ by John Harington is a two-line poem that uses humor and wit to describes the nature of successful and unsuccessful treason.

The poem uses a perfect rhyme scheme and the same meter in both lines to make the content as memorable as possible. It’s a two-line poem that’s easy to memorize and share when the moment is right. While being humorous, ‘Of Treason’ is also insightful, sharing something about the nature of treason and control that a reader or listener may not have considered before. 

Of Treason
John Harington

Treason doth never prosper; what's the reason?For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.
Of Treason by John Harington


Of Treason’ by John Harington is a very short poem that expresses a truth about treason and control.

The speaker poses a question in the first line (a rhetorical question). They proceed to answer this question in the next line. They’re asking why treason doesn’t “prosper” or why it leads to nothing but failure and death. The answer is that it’s only called “treason” when it’s unsuccessful. When it is successful, it results in a new leader/ruler, and saying anything against this person would be unwise. No one would “dare” call what was done “treason.” 

Structure and Form 

Of Treason’ by John Harington is a two-line poem that is contained within a short stanza of text. It can also be called a couplet. The poem takes the form of an epigram. That is a short statement that expresses an idea in a unique and sometimes amusing way. Such is the case in these two lines as Harington speaks about treason and control. The poem’s two lines end with rhyming words, “reason” and “treason,” and both contain eleven syllables with a distinct pause in the middle of each line between the fifth and sixth syllables. 

Literary Devices 

Throughout this piece, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to: 

  • Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line. For example, “Treason doth never prosper; what’s the reason?”
  • Juxtaposition: can be seen when the poet compares what’s considered treason and that which transitions into being rightful rule. One is looked down on while the other is feared and respected. 
  • Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, the repetition of “prosper” in both lines and “doth” and “dare.” 

Detailed Analysis 

Line One 

Treason doth never prosper; what’s the reason?

In the first line of ‘Of Treason,’ the speaker begins by posing a question. They do not expect to get an answer to this question. In fact, they have an answer themselves in the second line. But first, readers are given a moment to consider their own answer. 

Harington’s speaker poses the following question: Treason doesn’t prosper or result in any success. Why is that? 

The poet uses a strong example of  caesura in this line with the use of a semi-colon between “prosper” and “what’s.” 

Lines Two 

For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.

In the second line, the speaker provides readers with the answer to their question in line one. They say that if treason is successful, or if it does “prosper” (result in a change of leadership), then no one would dare refer to the act as “treason” because this might result in their loss of power or even death. 

Returning to the initial question, it becomes clear that sometimes treason is successful, perhaps more often than people think. It’s just unsafe to call it by name in some situations. While speaking about the topic of treason with humor, the speaker also provides insight into the nature of treason and control. It is a good example of what dark or black comedy can accomplish. 


What is the theme of ‘Of Treason?’ 

The themes at work in this poem are control and power. The speaker alludes to how ability allows someone to control the narrative and how some people will do anything to attain it. 

What is the purpose of ‘Of Treason?’

The purpose is to create a light-hearted, although impactful, message about treason and control. First and foremost, the poem is meant to entertain. Second, it is meant to make the reader think about what happens to those who commit or speak about treason. 

Who is the speaker in ‘Of Treason?’

The speaker is unknown. Their identity is not needed for readers to appreciate the text. It is someone who is quick-witted and has insight into what happens to those who commit and speak about treason. 

What is the tone of ‘Of Treason?’

The tone is light-hearted and humorous. But, there is a darker, deeper level to the poem that readers may consider as well. This is seen through the speaker’s allusion to consequences for speaking about treason. 

Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some other related poems. For example: 

Discover the Essential Secrets

of Poetry

Sign up to unveil the best kept secrets in poetry,

brought to you by the experts

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The Best-Kept Secrets of Poetry

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry ever straight to your inbox

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry, straight to your inbox

Start Your Perfect Poetry Journey

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap