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
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.
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...
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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 him a job and the offer actually precedes formal recognition of his royal parentage: "I like thee well, wilt thou forsake thy fortune, / Bequeath thy land to him and follow me? / I am a soldier and bound to France" (K, 1.1.148-50). He accepts the job and only then does the king dub him "Sir Richard, and Plantagenet" (K, 1.1.162). His social rank, his rise to greater "honour," is contingent upon his choice of occupation.17 It is in this spirit that he takes on his project of acquiring the noble linguistic habitus.18
In the first scene, the Bastard speaks in language more appropriate to Falstaff and Pistol in the Henriad than to the nobles who surround him in King John. In this...
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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 does after all have royal blood even if it does not burn with "honour's fire" to make him speak, while inclining towards a less natural or inborn notion of nobility. In essence it is the Bastard's talent, not his blood, that ennobles him.41 If the Troublesome Raigne's Philip is not the strategist Shakespeare's Bastard is, it is because Philip, being essentially noble, has no need for conscious strategy, while the Bastard clearly does.
The Bastard initially sees language as a strategic tool, viewing the acquisition of a noble linguistic habitus as essential to the advancement of his career, an awareness wholly lacking in Philip. If the Bastard is to be an effective and successful member of the class he...
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