Study Guide

King John

by William Shakespeare

King John Essay - He Is But a Bastard to the Time: Status and Service in The Troublesome Raigne of John and Shakespeare's King John

He Is But a Bastard to the Time: Status and Service in The Troublesome Raigne of John and Shakespeare's King John

Introduction

"He Is But a Bastard to the Time": Status and Service in The Troublesome Raigne of John and Shakespeare's King John

Edward Gieskes, Boston University

Shakespeare's King John, standing between the two tetralogies, marks a transition in his treatment of political and historical questions. This argument has been advanced by critics like Sigurd Burckhardt, Virginia Vaughan, Michael Manheim, and Marsha Robinson (among many others).1 Vaughan, for example, writes that the play "demonstrates Shakespeare's experimentation with more sophisticated dramaturgical techniques to convey political complexities, techniques he perfected in the Henriad."2 Most of the criticism focuses on Shakespeare's changing treatment of political questions to the exclusion of social considerations; but if King John marks a transition in Shakespeare's treatment of politics and history, it also marks a change in his depiction of the social issues attendant on that history and politics.3 This essay will focus on the Bastard, arguably the central player in the action, as representative of the play's engagement with expressly social concerns: issues of class, rank, and vocation distinct from the explicitly political issues which have been discussed elsewhere.

Despite the limited historical records concerning the Bastard Faulconbridge, both Shakespeare and the author of The Troublesome Raigne of John King of England make him a major player in the "history" of King John's reign.4 The different treatments of the same figure in these two plays represent different understandings of service to the crown. In the Troublesome Raigne, Philip Faulconbridge claims royal ancestry (after direct supernatural prompting) and proceeds to behave as a person of noble descent. He goes off to war in France, pursues and kills Austria, receives lands, and woos Blaunch, all as though he had always been a member of the aristocracy. By contrast, Shakespeare's Bastard Faulconbridge exhibits a very different relationship towards his own rise in status. His status as adopted Plantagenet is treated by the play as a vocation in our modern sense of employment. By the end of the play he administers the royal succession to the throne without any real opposition from the hereditary nobles around him. Shakespeare's Bastard actively chooses a career as a royal servant in choosing to acknowledge his bastardy while the Bastard of the Troublesome Raigne is forced to avow his ancestry, against his better judgment, and in this involuntary manner enters the aristocracy, and from thence comes to royal service. The two plays exhibit alternative conceptions of identity—one chosen, the other essential—which are linked to the ability of each character to serve his King.

I.

Both King John and the Troublesome Raigne contain a recognition scene—each play's Bastard finds out the truth of his birth in the public and legal context of a land (or succession) dispute. In King John, the Bastard and his brother "come from the country" for judgment and in Troublesome Raigne they, having "committed a riot," appeal to the King on the issue.5 In both plays, Robert Faulconbridge accuses his elder brother of being illegitimate and thus barred from inheriting the family estate.6 The basic claim is identical but details of its presentation vary considerably.7

In the Troublesome Raigne, Philip (the Bastard) presents himself as the victim of his younger brother's slander and greed: "the wrong is mine; yet wil I abide all wrongs, before I once open my mouth to unrippe the shamefull slaunder of my parents, the dishonour of myself, & the wicked dealing of my brother in this princely assembly" (T, 86-90). He refuses even to address the "shamefull slaunder," in the best tradition of wounded honesty. Then Philip's younger brother Robert speaks, making his case in the face of his brother's silence. In the initial encounter the Bastard presents himself as slandered and offers no hint that he might know or believe his brother's accusation to be true. In the Troublesome Raigne, then, the Bastard believes he is the legitimate heir and desires his inheritance; it is only as a result of external intervention that he resigns his claim.8

Shakespeare's King John treats this scene differently. In the Troublesome Raigne, when King John demands who the brothers are and what their business is, only Robert makes reference to the Bastard's dubious parentage; in King John the Bastard himself raises the question. "What men are you?" asks the King, and Shakespeare's Bastard replies:

Your faithful subject I, a gentleman,
Born in Northamptonshire, and eldest son,
As I suppose, to Robert Faulconbridge,
A soldier, by the honour-giving hand
Of Coeur-de-lion knighted in the field.

(K, 1.1.50-54, my emphasis)

The "as I suppose" puts the matter into question from the very beginning of the encounter. The Bastard presents himself as uncertain of his parentage, immediately lending credence to his brother's accusation and eliciting wonder from the King and his attendants. Shakespeare's Bastard undercuts his own claim to the Faulconbridge land, suggesting that his actual desires run toward other goals. His specific desires can be inferred from his other speeches in this first scene. He noticeably fails to mention the inheritance in his first speech while making a point of referring to honor and status. His "supposed" father was "a soldier, by the honour-giving hand / Of Coeur-de-lion knighted in the field" and he himself is a "gentleman." Both these rank markers are discursively (if not actually) separate from direct dependence on land and inheritance. The Bastard thus appears to be more interested in status, soldierly virtue, and honor than in a regular annual income, however large and respectable.

The difference between the Bastards of the Troublesome Raigne and King John becomes even more clear in the actual recognition scenes. Both plays show the brothers submitting to royal arbitration, but the confrontation between the brothers in the Troublesome Raigne culminates with an appeal from the King to Philip (the Bastard) in order to settle the dispute:

JOHN: Say who was thy father?

PHILIP: Faith (my Lord) to answere you sure he is my father that was neerest my mother when I was gotten, & him I thinke to be Sir Robert Fauconbridge.

JOHN: Essex, for fashions sake demand agen, And so an ende to this contention.

ESSEX: Philip speake I say, who was thy father?

PHILIP: Philippus atauis aedite regibus.

(T, 231-41)

In what appears to be an aside, Philip ventriloquizes Latin speech which is said to come from the air (and the river and the land and the trees), and this Latin reveals that he is the son of Richard I and thus of glorious birth:

Birds in their flight make music with their wings,
Filling the ayre with glorie of my birth:
Birds, bubbles, leaves and mountaines, Eccho, all
Ring in mine eares, that I am Richards Sonne.

(T, 252-55)

Despite this information, which he immediately accepts as fact, Philip still recalls his position among the country gentry:

How are thy thoughts ywrapt in Honors heaven?
Forgetfull what thou art, and whence thou camst.
Thy fathers land cannot maintain these thoughts,
These thoughts are farre unfitting Fauconbridge:
And well they may; for why this mounting minde
Doth soare too high to stoupe to Fauconbridge.
Why how now? knowest thou where thou art?
And knowest thou who expects thy answere here
Wilt thou upon a frantick madding vaine
Goe loose thy land, and say thyself base born?
No, keepe thy land, though Richard were thy Sire,
What ere thou thinkst, say thou art Fauconbridge.

(T, 257-68)

Philip evinces a highly sensitive awareness of the order to which he belongs in this speech. Lines such as "Thy fathers land cannot maintaine these thoughts, / These thoughts are farre unfitting Fauconbridge" reveal his awareness of the economics of his position. He simply cannot support what Harrison calls the "port, charge, and countenance" of a Plantagenet on his income; and, more importantly, he recognizes the inappropriateness of a claim to royal blood by one born to his minor rank. Regardless of his having royal blood, he was not born a prince, but the son of a country gentleman, and that fact outweighs his being a royal bastard.9 "Why how now? knowest thou where thou art? / And knowest thou who expects thy answer here?" he asks himself. Reminding himself of who he is (a country gentleman), where he stands (in what amounts to a court of law), and in whose presence (the King's), he claims Fauconbridge as his father and thus claims the land while denying his royal parentage.

Philip voices received notions of order and degree in this speech (an impression further reinforced by the denouement of the episode). He is born to one place in the hierarchy and will not willfully transgress the bounds of his ordained place: "Wilt thou on a frantic madding vaine / Goe loose thy land, and say thyself base born?" Obeying both economic and social pressures, the Troublesome Raigne's Philip wisely chooses to abjure his royal father and claim a merely gentle one. The final lines of his speech—"keep thy land, though Richard were thy sire / What ere thou thinkst, say thou art Fauconbridge"—evidence this decision to remain, as he says, "what thou art, and whence thou camst." The voices of the wind, birds, and "bubbles" make him briefly "forgetfull" of his place "ywrapt in Honors heaven." However, he comes back to earth and, despite the fact that he now somehow knows himself to be Richard's son, he decides here to say he is "Fauconbridge" and keep his land rather than...

(The entire section is 3156 words.)

II.

The Bastard's social trajectory can be traced through developments in his speech as he moves through King John. His choice of career, a choice made when he avows bastardy and thus enters the ranks of the attending nobility, takes him from a relatively low position in the hierarchy of rank—that of a country landholder resident on the land—to the much higher one of trusted royal servant. A crucial element in the Bastard's changing character is the fact that instead of being claimed by a mystical nobility, he claims (or professes) nobility and simultaneously acquires his rank and takes on the profession of servant to the crown. Eleanor does not merely recognize him as Richard the Lion-hearted's son, she offers...

(The entire section is 2661 words.)

Conclusions

King John represents a changing understanding of service and of legitimacy in government.40 This play presents the history of one character's movement up the social ladder and evokes the mechanisms of that rise. The Bastard's movement from rural landholder to the administrative voice that closes the play depends more on his personal choices and his talents than his birth. A comparison of the two plays suggests that the Troublesome Raigne holds to a more naturalized or traditional notion of noble status than King John. It is in Philip's blood to be royal while this status is more ambiguous in King John. King John seems to suspend two definitions of nobility: the Bastard...

(The entire section is 2743 words.)