Printed edition of King James VI and I's Basilikon Doron or 'The King’s Gift', 1603


This book’s title, Basilikon Doron, is a Greek phrase meaning ‘The King’s Gift’. Here that gift takes the form of a letter from King James to his ‘dearest’ son Henry (1594–1612). James draws on his own experience as a king to offer fatherly advice on how to be an effective ruler.

The book is in three sections covering a monarch’s duty to God, his duties of office, and advice on his daily behaviour.

What is special about this 1603 edition?

The book was first written and published in 1599, when James was king of Scotland, but he printed only seven copies at that time, and aimed to keep them secret. In 1603, however, when James became the English king, a revised text was printed and ‘set forth to the publicke viewe’, as James explains in his preface (sig. B2v). This text was widely translated, becoming hugely well known as an international best-seller.

Basilikon Doron and Measure for Measure

Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure was written and first performed in 1603–04, at the time James reissued Basilikon Doron. As many critics have noted, the play explores questions of kingship that are also raised in James’s book:

  • King James insists that anything ‘spoken in darkenesse, should be heard in the light’ – secret feelings should be matched by virtuous action (sig.B1r). Of course, in Measure for Measure, the seemingly virtuous Angelo is actually the most sinful, and Isabella exposes him as a shameful ‘hypocrite’, an ‘arch-villain’ beneath all his ‘dressings’ (5.1.41; 56–57).
  • James uses a theatrical metaphor to suggest that kings, ‘by reason of their office’, are set ‘upon a publicke stage, in the sight of all the people’ (sig.B1v). Shakespeare’s Duke says, ‘I love the people, / But do not like to stage me to their eyes’ (1.1.67–68). The idea of rulers as actors is further explored through the many instances of deception and disguise, performance and substitution in the play.
  • James confesses that he was not strict enough ‘at the beginning’ of his reign. In hoping ‘to win all mens heartes’, he had instead created ‘disorder’ (p. 31). He stresses the need for ‘severe justice’ according to ‘good lawes’ (pp. 29–31). Shakespeare’s Duke also admits his failings in giving the people ‘scope’ and wants Angelo to reimpose ‘strict statutes’ (1.3.35; 18).
  • But King James insists that Henry should ‘mixe justice with mercie’ (p. 30), and this idea is key to Measure for Measure. Isabella pleads with Angelo to show ‘mercy’ to Claudio (2.2.63), and ironically both women later ask the Duke for mercy towards Angelo (5.1.434).

‘Your behaviour to your Wife’ (pp. 81–82): Marriage, kingship and The Taming of the Shrew

In this section, James makes comparisons between the king as the head of state, God as ruler of his people, and the husband as head of the family. He says it is his son’s ‘office to command’ his wife, and her duty to ‘obey him’. He should ‘cherishe her’ as his helper, but stop her ‘meddling’ in politics, leaving her to preside over the ‘rule of the house’.

This idea of marriage as analogous to monarchy emerges in Kate’s notorious speech at the end of The Taming of the Shrew. Kate says, ‘Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, / Thy head, thy sovereign’ (5.2.146–47). ‘Such duty as the subject owes the prince, / Even such a woman oweth to her husband’ (5.2.155–56).

Full title:
Βασιλικον Δωρον [Basilicon Doron]; or His Maiesties instructions to his dearest sonne Henry the Prince
1603, Edinburgh
Book / Octavo
King James VI and I
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

Full catalogue details

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