Internet Shakespeare Editions

Editor: Michael Best
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On Bastards

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.