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Off with his head

“Off with his head” is a quote used by William Shakespeare in his history play, Henry VI, Part III and in Richard III. 

The quote is short but has become synonymous with royal executions and what can happen when one attempts to overthrow a monarch in similar fiction. 

Today, it’s possible to find many different forms of fiction that include this line. It might be seen in televisions shows, films, novels, and more. 

Off with his head meaning


“Off with his head” Meaning

The phrase “off with his head” can have different meanings. In the context of Shakespeare’s plays, the phrase is genuinely used to ask for someone’s decapitation. Often, the phrase is used to demand someone’s death in similar circumstances.

Because of its context, the phrase can come across as very flippant and cruel. In Richard III especially, the title character uses it when he suddenly turns on Hastings and decides to cut his head off for questioning Richard’s assertions. 

Where Does Shakespeare Use “Off with his head?”  

Henry VII, Part III

This quote is first used in the history play Henry VI, Part III. It features in Act I, Scene 4 and is spoken by Queen Margaret. She’s describing what she wants to be done with York’s body after his death. The Act starts with York making a claim on King Henry VI’s thrown. York claims he has royal lineage, but Henry is unwilling to give up his position. The former specifically mentions the way Henry’s grandfather came to sit on the throne. 

More arguments occur, and a battle takes place, with York fighting to take over the throne. Events eventually result in York’s death at the hands of Margaret and Clifford. York’s final words are: 

Open thy gate of mercy, gracious God.

My soul flies through these wounds to seek out Thee.

Margaret then commands the following: 

Off with his head, and set it on York gates, 

So York may overlook the town of York.

Here, readers can see the famed line “Off with his head.” It is not used in a particularly dramatic fashion, but it does make a big impact, appearing as some of the last words in the act.

Richard III

Shakespeare also uses this line in his far more commonly read play, Richard III. It appears in Act III, Scene 4. It is spoken by the title character, Richard. Here is the quote: 

If? Thou protector of this damnèd strumpet, 

Talk’st thou to me of “ifs”? Thou art a traitor.— 

Off with his head. Now by Saint Paul I swear

 I will not dine until I see the same.— 

Lovell and Ratcliffe, look that it be done.— 

The rest that love me, rise and follow me

Here, Richard is talking to Lovell and Ratcliffe about Hastings. He expresses anger over Hastings’s comments and says that he’s not going to eat lunch until he sees Hastings dead. Just like with Margaret, when Richard uses this phrase, he means it genuinely. He wants to see Hasting’s head cut off. 

Why Does Shakespeare Use “Off with his head?” 

Henry VII, Part III

When Shakespeare uses this phrase within Margaret’s speech, she’s being entirely serious. She wants York’s head cut off and placed on the York gates so that everyone can see him. The use of this quote here shows Margaret’s anger and her desire to show everyone who might doubt her husband’s rule that he’s the rightful king of England. York’s fate is what is going to befall anyone who tries to depose him. 

Richard III 

Shakespeare used this phrase as a way to once again emphasize Richard’s cruelty. Seemingly, out of nowhere, Richard decides that he wants to kill Hastings. The latter doubts, using the word “If,” that Edward’s wife has cursed Richard using witchcraft. Richard, in his madness, turns on Hastings and demands he be beheaded. 

Richard’s cruelty is seen again through Hasting’s response to his death sentence. He knows there’s nothing he can do to get out of it and accepts it immediately. 

Woe, woe for England! Not a whit for me,

For I, too fond, might have prevented this.

Stanley did dream the boar did raze his helm,

And I did scorn it and disdain to fly.

Three times today my foot-cloth horse did stumble,

And started when he looked upon the Tower,

As loath to bear me to the slaughterhouse.

O, now I need the priest that spake to me!

He’s mourning for the state of England rather than for himself. He felt a bad omen that morning, with his horse attempting to lead him away from the Tower and therefore away from this fate. 

FAQs 

What Shakespearean play is “off with his head” from?

The phrase “off with his head” can be found in Henry VI, Part III, and Richard III. Queen Margaret uses the phrase in the former, and Richard III uses it in the latter. 


What does “off with his head” mean?

It’s an idiom that directly commands that someone is decapitated. It is usually seen in historical fiction plays, novels, and short stories. It is sometimes overdramatic and always used when one person in command wants to get rid of someone else quickly or dramatically. 

Who is famous for saying “off with his head?”

One of the more famous iterations of this phrase is in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Queen of Hearts utters this famous phrase. 

Where did the phrase “Off with your head” come from?

It’s believed that the phrase originated with monarchs demanding what plays out in Shakespeare’s works. It was adapted by writers and used in their portrayals of similar situations. 


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