What Does My Kingdom for a Horse Mean?

As is the case with so many of the common phrases explored here at The Word Counter, we’ve got William Shakespeare to thank for my kingdom for a horse. In fact, it’s one of the playwright’s most famous quotes. Although you may not see or hear the saying used word for word very often these days, you’re likely to come across variants of it, changed to suit particular situations. Read on for the meaning and exact origin of the phrase, plus to learn how to use it yourself when speaking and writing. 

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What Does My Kingdom for a Horse Mean?

First off, it’s important to know that when you see or hear this phrase used today, it doesn’t actually have anything to do with kingdoms or horses. When you encounter this saying, or variants of it (more in a minute), the speaker is simply expressing that they’re willing to give almost anything—including something of immense value—for a particular item. It’s a very similar saying to the common expression give my right arm. The speaker is saying they’ll give all that they have; they’ll trade their most valuable possession (their entire kingdom) in order to obtain what they lack but very much need/want (a horse). The item they need/want is technically of less worth than what they’re willing to trade, yet it’s invaluable to them because they need/want it so badly at the moment. (The use of kingdom and horse will make sense to you when you discover the origin of the expression; keep reading.)

Of course, when someone says they’d give their right arm for something, such as a job promotion, or concert tickets, or the chance to meet their idol, they’re speaking figuratively and not literally: They wouldn’t actually trade their right arm for those things. And the same goes for my kingdom for a horse. The phrase is used figuratively; the speaker is metaphorically saying they’d trade something of great value for an item that’s extremely important to them in that moment—and not necessarily that they’d actually give up the thing of great value for the other item.

The expression is also often used ironically, when someone is badly “in need” of something that is unimportant or insignificant. 

Most often when you see the phrase written or hear it said today, other words will be substituted for horse based on what the person either truly or ironically needs or wants.

Here are a few example sentences using the expression my kingdom for a horse, most with substitutions for horse as just discussed:

  • My car broke down on my way to a big work event. I called my friend and begged her to come pick me up. I told her, “My kingdom for a ride!”
  • It’s so hot in this house. My kingdom for a horse, and by horse I mean an air conditioner!
  • I swear, it’s been ages since the waiter came by our poolside cabana to see if we need anything. My kingdom for a cocktail!
  • The kids have been so wild lately; they’re always screaming, and I’m constantly chasing after them. My kingdom for a day of peace and quiet!

You can also substitute another word for kingdom, if you wish. The person, well character, who originally said this phrase was indeed a king in possession of a kingdom (more below). But you could sub in something more apt to you, something of great value or importance specifically to you and your life. 

The Origin of the Expression

As has already been mentioned, William Shakespeare coined this expression. He used it in Act 5 of his play Richard III, which tells the story of the brief reign of King Richard III of England.

In Act 5, Scene 4, King Richard is at war against his opponent the Earl of Richmond, or Henry Tudor, who wants to claim the throne for himself. During the Battle of Bosworth, also known as the Battle of Bosworth Field (what was the last battle of the Wars of the Roses), the king loses his horse. Richmond uses decoy soldiers to elude the king. As Richmond closes in, King Richard the Third realizes he stands no chance of winning without a horse and exclaims to his ally, Catesby, not once but twice, “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” He recognizes how valuable a horse is at that moment; he knows that he’ll lose his kingdom without it and he’d do anything to get one.

Of course, he isn’t saying that he’d give up his kingdom for a horse. He’s fighting to keep his kingdom, after all. Rather, he makes a cry of desperation. And that’s, as you now know, how the phrase is used today: when you desperately need/want something, and you want it so badly in that moment that you feel like you’d give anything to get it.

Here is the exact dialogue from Shakespeare’s Richard III:

Catesby: Rescue, my lord of Norfolk, rescue, rescue!
The king enacts more wonders than a man,
Daring an opposite to every danger.
His horse is slain, and all on foot he fights,
Seeking for Richmond in the throat of death.
Rescue, fair lord, or else the day is lost!

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!

Ultimately, King Richard and Richmond finally come face to face. Richmond kills King Richard and becomes King Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch.

The line has been satirized by other playwrights, including John Marston, Ben Jonson, and George Chapman. In their play Eastward Hoe, they included the line: “A boat, a boat, a boat, a full hundred marks for a boat!” Marston even satirized the line again in another one of his plays, The Scourge of Villanie, writing, “A man, a man, a kingdome for a man.”

Other Shakespearean Sayings

Shakespeare is also known for his plays Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Henry VI, Macbeth, and Richard II, among many others. Countless common expressions used in modern English today come from the mind and work of Shakespeare, although you may not be aware that they do. Here are just a few other popular phrases to his credit:

Summary

Use the expression my kingdom for a horse when you need/want a particular item so much that you’re, at least metaphorically speaking, willing to trade something of great value for it. You can use the saying when you truly are in serious need of an item, and so that item is of great importance to you at the moment, or you can use it ironically to express a want/need for something rather trivial. The expression comes from the line “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse,” which can be found in Act V, Scene IV of William Shakespeare’s play Richard III.