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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

    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.