Internet Shakespeare Editions

About this text

  • Title: On Bastards
  • Authors: Anonymous, John Lyly, William Shakespeare
  • Editor: Michael Best
  • Coordinating editor: Michael Best

  • Copyright Michael Best. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Editor: Michael Best
    Not Peer Reviewed

    On Bastards


    1In The Winter's Tale, the old shepherd, hearing the sounds of youth hunting in the distance, complains about the lawlessness of young men—those we would today call adolescents. In his list of their misdemeanors he highlights their proclivity for casually creating bastards:

    I would there were no age between ten and three and twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest, for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting . . .
    (WT TLN 1501-1505)

    The children thus born to the wenches from their youthful encounters had a difficult time of it. For centuries they had been denied any form of inheritance from their fathers, and by Shakespeare's time the attitude towards children born out of wedlock was strongly influenced by both political expediency and moral judgement. In a fashion that is still familiar today, the poor were blamed for creating more mouths to feed, robbing the deserving poor and aged of their support from the parish (Neill 273 fn 14); in addition, the fact that they were seen as the result of a sinful and corrupt act attracted the zeal of Puritan reformers and their condemnation. Prime among their condemnations was the widespread belief that children born of an immoral coupling would inherit the tendency to sin, as their parents had done in creating them. In King Lear, Gloucester insensitively boasts of his youthful escapade in begetting Edmund while his son is standing by: "there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged" (TLN 26-27). The ballad "Of the birth of a monstrous child" is an extreme example of this kind of judgement, as the birth of a child with severe disabilities is blamed on the parents for conceiving him out of wedlock. John Lyly, following much earlier work by Plutarch, repeats the same assumptions in a more decorous fashion.

    However not all illegitimate children were rejected by society. Like Edmund, some, especially of noble parents, achieved a measure of social standing. Richard Jones, in The Book of Honor and Arms (1590), explains that some bastards should be accepted as worthy opponents in duels, jousts, and other feats of armed contests.

    Edmund was not the only character in Shakespeare to be labeled a bastard. One of the most important characters in his earlier King John was the Bastard, and in Much Ado About Nothing the villain Don John is also a bastard.