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  • 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
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    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.

    5A ballad of the birth of a monstrous child


    Ballads, printed on single wide sheets of paper (broadsides) were a popular form of entertainment, gossip, and scandal. They often contained exaggerated and sensational news of events, both in politics and nature. In The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare mocks the exaggerated claims of ballads as the pedlar Autolycus advertises those he is selling:

    Here's one to a very doleful tune, how a usurer's wife was brought to bed of twenty money bags at a burden, and how she longed to eat adder's heads and toads carbonadoed.

    The "Ballad of the birth of a monstrous child" may well be reporting an actual birth, however, a fact that makes it more painful for the modern reader. The writer of the ballad blames the child's deformity on the allegedly licentious behavior of the child's parents in having the child out of wedlock. The original broadside included a woodcut of the deformed child. It was printed in London by Thomas Marshe, 1562 (STC 12207). The current selection has been modernized from the copy of the original in the British Library recorded on Early English Books Online. I would like to record my thanks to Jeffrey R. Wilson for his fine site on Stigma in Shakespeare for bringing my attention to this work and to that of Richard Jones.

    The ballad

    The true report of the form and shape of a monstrous child, born at Much Horkesley, a village three miles from Colchester in the county of Essex, the eleventh day of April this year.

    This monstrous world that monsters breeds, as rife
    As men tofor it bred by native kind,
    By births that show corrupted nature's strife
    Declares what sins beset the secret mind.

    I mean not this as though deformèd shape
    Were always linked with fraughted mind with vice,
    But that in nature god such grafts doth shape
    Resembling sins that so been had in price.

    10So grossest faults burst out in body's form,
    And monster caused of want or too much store
    Of matter, shows the sea of sin, whose storm
    O'erflows and whelms virtue's barren shore.

    Faulty alike in ebb and eke in flood,
    Like distant both from mean, both like extremes. . . .

    In him behold by excess from mean our breach
    And mid'st excess yet want of nature's shape.

    To show our miss, behold a guiltless babe
    Reft of his limbs (for such is virtue's want)
    Himself and parents both infamous made
    With sinful birth, and yet a worldling scant.
    Fears midwife's route bewraying his parent's fault
    In want of honesty and excess of sin.
    Made lawful by all laws of man, yet halt
    Of limbs by god, 'scaped not the shameful mark

    Of bastard son in bastard shape descried.
    Better, far better ungiven were his life
    Than given so. For nature just envied
    Her gift to him, and cropped with maiming knife

    15His limbs, to wreak her spite on parent's sin.
    Which, if she spare unwares so many scapes
    As wicked world to breed will never sin;
    Their lives declare their maims saved from their shapes

    Scorched in their minds (oh cruel privy maim
    That fest'reth still; oh unrecurèd sore)
    Where th'others, quiting with their body's shame
    Their parents' guilt, oft linger not their lives
    In loathèd shapes, but naked fly to skies.

    John Lyly passes on the advice of Plutarch


    Shakespeare's contemporary, John Lyly, gained considerable fame from his first work, Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit; it is a prose romance of the life of a young man, and is filled with sententious and didactic passages debating the proper way to conduct life and love. This section is taken from the chapter "Euphues and his Ephoebus," which Lyly based on the opening section of Plutarch's popular work Moralia, De Educatione Puerorum (Of the Education of Children). Plutarch argues that a happy father must be a moral one, since the father's faults will be passed on to his son.

    This extract has been modernized from the edition of Lyly's Works edited by R.W. Bond (1902), 1:261-2.

    20From Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit

    That the child should he true born, no bastard

    First touching their procreation, it shall seem necessary to entreat of whosoever he be that desireth to be the sire of an happy son or the father of a fortunate child, let him abstain from those women which be either base of birth or bare of honesty. For if the mother be noted of incontinency or the father of vice the child will either, during life, be infected with the like crime, or the treacheries of his parents as ignominy to him will be cast in his teeth. For we commonly call those unhappy children which have sprung from unhonest parents. It is, therefore, a great treasure to the father and tranquillity to the mind of the child to have that liberty which both nature, law, and reason have set down.

    The guilty conscience of a father that hath trodden awry causeth him to think and suspect that his father also went not right, whereby his own behavior is as it were a witness of his own baseness, even as those that come of a noble progeny boast of their gentry. Hereupon it came that Diophantus, Themistocles his son, would often, and that openly, say in a great multitude that whatsoever he should seem to request of the Athenians he should be sure also to obtain. "For," saith he, "whatsoever I will, that will my mother; and what my mother saith my father sootheth, and what my father desireth, that the Athenians will grant most willingly." The bold courage of the Lacedaemonians is to be praised, which set a fine on the head of Archidamus their king for that he had married a woman of a small personage, saying he minded to beget queens not kings to succeed him. Let us not omit that which our ancestors were wont precisely to keep, that men should either be sober or drink little wine that would have sober and discreet children, for that the fact of the father would be figured in the infant. Diogenes, therefore, seeing a young man either overcome with drink or bereaved of his wits, cried with a loud voice, "Youth, youth, thou hadst a drunken father!"

    From The Book of Honor and Arms (1590)


    In his Book of Honor and Arms, Richard Jones discusses in detail the justification of duelling and trial by combat as a means of protecting one's honor, despite his admission that " the Christian law willeth men to be of so perfect patience as not only to endure injurious words, but also quietly to suffer every force and violence" (sig. A2). Jones expounds in considerable detail Jones writes of the kinds of insults that permit an honorable man to challenge the speaker to a duel, and defines the social status required for a person legitimately to enter into a challenge. In this passage he considers whether an illegitimate child (male, of course) should be permitted to take part in this tradition of settling a matter of honor.

    Whether a Bastard May Challenge a Gentleman to Combat

    For that by law no bastard can inherit the lands and honors of his supposed father, it may be reasonably doubted whether he be of such condition as may challenge a gentleman to trial of arms. Notwithstanding, for that such impediment proceedeth not from the bastard himself, and that no man ought justly be repulsed saving such as are condemned or infamed for their own vilety, methinks that bastardy ought not to disable a man to be admitted unto combat. . . . Whereupon we conclude that every bastard, having well and virtuously served in the war, or that for his good merit hath aspired to bear charge of reputation in the army, ought be received to fight with any private gentleman or soldier, because men so born have not only been oftentimes advanced to honor, but they and their posterity also have attained and continued in high dignity and greatest estimation.

    25True it is that men so born cannot maintain themselves to be gentlemen by birth and therefore directly must not claim such title or enter the trial of arms; and therefore in that respect may be repulsed, not as infamous but as ignoble, which defect either by valorous endeavor in arms or virtuous study in learning may be supplied.

    Also all such bastards as have long served loyally in their prince's court and that by privilege of their prince are made legitimate, or hath lived orderly among other gentlemen, in place of reputation may not be repulsed.

    Shakespeare's bastards

    When Hamlet kills Polonius in error, thinking that the movement behind the arras was caused by his uncle Claudius, he puts Laertes in a situation that mirrors his own: a son whose duty, according to the traditions of his society, is to revenge his father's death. Laertes storms into the palace at the head of a rebellious crowd demanding an audience with the King, and when the Queen tries to calm him, his reply vividly records the association of illegitimacy with lechery:

    That drop of blood that's calm proclaims me bastard,
    Cries "Cuckold!" to my father, brands the harlot
    Even here between the chaste unsmirchèd brow
    Of my true mother.
    (TLN 2860-2864)

    In King Lear, Edmund follows in this tradition, using his sexual attractiveness with both Goneril and Regan and becoming contracted to them both (TLN 3179). Two characters in Shakespeare's earlier plays are also bastards, but neither is noted for a tendency to lechery: one is, like Edmund, a schemer and troublemaker, the other, unexpectedly, becomes a heroic figure.

    The Bastard in King John

    The opening scene in King John begins with a diplomatic row between the French ambassador and King John about who rightfully rules England; the confrontation ends with a declaration of war. These high affairs of state are interrupted by a request for the King to adjudicate a much smaller quarrel concerning the rightful inheritor of the estate of Sir Robert Faulconbridge. The younger son, Robert, has been willed the estate because their father believed the elder, Philip, to be the illegitimate offspring of Richard Lionheart.

    Is that the elder, and art thou the heir?
    You came not of one mother then, it seems.

    Most certain of one mother, mighty King,
    That is well known, and, as I think, one father.
    But for the certain knowledge of that truth,
    I put you o'er to heaven, and to my mother;
    Of that I doubt, as all men's children may.

    Out on thee, rude man! Thou dost shame thy mother,
    And wound her honor with this diffidence.

    I Madam? No, I have no reason for it.
    That is my brother's plea and none of mine,
    The which if he can prove, a pops me out
    At least from fair five hundred pound a year.
    Heaven guard my mother's honor—and my land.

    A good blunt fellow. Why, being younger born,
    Doth he lay claim to thine inheritance?

    I know not why, except to get the land,
    But once he slandered me with bastardy.
    But whe'er I be as true begot or no,
    That still I lay upon my mother's head;
    But that I am as well begot my liege—
    Fair fall the bones that took the pains for me—
    Compare our faces, and be judge yourself.
    If old Sir Robert did beget us both
    And were our father, and this son like him,
    O, old Sir Robert, father, on my knee [Kneels]
    I give heaven thanks I was not like to thee! . . .

    (Jn TLN 74-91)

    King John adjudicates the quarrel, finding that Philip should inherit the land since he was born after his parents' marriage, and the question of his paternity is moot. King John and his mother, Queen Eleanor, see in Philip's face and stature signs that he is indeed the son of John's elder brother, Richard Lionheart; the Queen then invites the Bastard to follow them instead of inheriting his land under dispute.

    I like thee well. Wilt thou forsake thy fortune,
    Bequeath thy land to him and follow me?
    I am a soldier, and now bound to France.

    Brother, take you my land, I'll take my chance.
    Your face hath got five hundred pound a year,
    Yet sell your face for five pence and 'tis dear.
    Madam, I'll follow you unto the death. . . .

    [The Bastard is knighted by King John.]

    Brother by th' mother's side, give me your hand.
    My father gave me honor, yours gave land:
    Now blessèd be the hour by night or day,
    When I was got, Sir Robert was away.

    The very spirit of Plantagenet!
    I am thy grandam, Richard, call me so.

    Madam, by chance, but not by truth; what though?
    Something about a little from the right,
    In at the window, or else o'er the hatch:
    Who dares not stir by day, must walk by night,
    And have is have, however men do catch:
    Near or far off, well won is still well shot,
    And I am I, howe'er I was begot.

    Go, Faulconbridge, now hast thou thy desire:
    A landless knight makes thee a landed squire.

    (Jn TLN 156-162, 172-186)

    By the end of the play the Bastard has become a heroic figure, remaining loyal to John when his nobles desert him and ensuring that the heir, Prince Henry, is able to ascend to the throne when the King dies, poisoned by a monk.

    Don John in Much Ado About Nothing

    Don John, in Much Ado About Nothing, is introduced to the reader of the published text in the stage direction for his first entrance: "Enter Sir John the Bastard and Conrade, his companion" (TLN 344). The audience, however. will be unaware of his doubtful pedigree until much later in the play, when Benedick points to him as the instigator of the plot that has caused all the trouble, blaming it on his dubious origins:

    The practise of it lives in John the bastard,
    Whose spirits toil in frame of villainies.
    (TLN 1851).

    45But even if the audience does not know that Don John is a bastard when he first enters, he very quickly establishes himself as an almost parodic villain, as this first interchange with his manservant makes clear.

    I cannot hide what I am. I must be sad when I have cause and smile at no man's jests, eat when I have stomach and wait for no man's leisure, sleep when I am drowsy and tend on no man's business, laugh when I am merry and claw no man in his humor.

    Yea, but you must not make the full show of this till you may do it without controlment. You have of late stood out against your brother, and he hath taken you newly into his grace; where it is impossible you should take true root but by the fair weather that you make yourself. It is needful that you frame the season for your own harvest.

    I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace, and it better fits my blood to be disdained of all than to fashion a carriage to rob love from any. In this, though I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain. I am trusted with a muzzle and enfranchised with a clog; therefore I have decreed not to sing in my cage. If I had my mouth, I would bite; if I had my liberty, I would do my liking. In the meantime let me be that I am, and seek not to alter me.

    (Ado, TLN 355-376)

    Work Cited

    Neill, Michael. "'In Everything Illegitimate': Imagining the Bastard in Renaissance Drama." The Yearbook of English Studies 23 (1993): 270-92. Print.