Shakespeare's King Richard III and the Problematics of Tudor Bastardy
Maurice Hunt, Baylor University
Granted Queen Elizabeth's touchiness concerning the subject of royal bastardy, Shakespeare ran a risk in King Richard III by focusing questions of bastardy in such a way that they invite comparison with problematical details of bastardy in the Tudor succession. The queen's life-long association with bastardy makes Shakespeare's emphasis surprising.1 Analysis of Tudor bastardy reveals the emergence of a paradigm of illegitimate legitimacy (or legitimate illegitimacy), a composite reproduced in the discourse on royal bastardy in King Richard III The ambiguous melding of legitimate illegitimacy that allowed Elizabeth, her half-sister and half-brother, and her grandfather to side-step challenges to their right to rule (or potentially to rule) reappears in the play in the rationale that Richard of Gloucester uses to dispossess his nephews and seize the crown. Nevertheless, Shakespeare's dramaturgy finally exonerates rather than undercuts the Tudor monarchy. In the play the growth of bastardy into a metaphor for a certain illegitimacy of human nature transforms the dramatic debate into one of everyman's existential legitimacy or illegitimacy. In this respect, a figurative bastard is much worse than a ruler of moral character who may (or may not) be a bastard in the technical sense of the word. The legitimately born "bastard" Richard and the pious, ethical Henry, Earl of Richmond, who is tainted with bastardy in the play (as he was in life), illustrate this paradoxical idea.
Understanding the problematical history of Tudor bastardy becomes a prerequisite for fully appreciating the representation of royal illegitimacy in King Richard III Charges of bastardy afflicted the Tudors before and even during the historical times depicted in King Richard III. Henry VII's paternal grandfather, Owen Tudor, and Catharine of Valois, the widow of Henry V, fell in love and had three sons (Edmund, Jasper, and Owen); but the parents may never have married. This ambiguity invited the stigma of bastardy. Because the boys were the children of a former queen of England, those guarding the rights of the minor Henry VI such as Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester regarded the children as a threat and so branded them illegitimate. Still, King Henry VI countenanced Owen Tudor's sons, making them royal half-brothers. Edmund Tudor—Henry VII's father—in 1453 at age twenty-three became the Earl of Richmond. Concerning this recognition, Eric Simons speculates, "whether [King Henry VI] and his Council were now convinced that [the young men's] parents had been truly married at their birth, or whether they considered it politically advisable to remove the stigma of bastardy from the royal half-brothers, cannot be said" (6). In 1459-60, an act of Parliament affirmed the legitimacy of Edmund, Jasper, and Owen Tudor, chiefly because of their father's Lancastrian services during the Wars of the Roses (Simons 5-6). Nevertheless, the taint of bastardy continued to surround the births of certain progenitors of the founder of the Tudor monarchy—Henry VII.
Henry VII's maternal great grandfather, John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, was—in Simons's words—"technically a bastard" (6). King Henry IV had specifically excluded the Beauforts from the order of succession. The kingship claim of Edmund Tudor's son, Henry, Earl of Richmond, depended principally on the young man's descent from Catharine of Valois and from Edward Ill's son John of Gaunt via Lady Margaret Beaufort, granddaughter of John Beaufort (Given-Wilson and Curteis 18). Yet we have seen that both of these routes included the quicksand of original bastardy charges. After the final Lancastrian defeat at Tewkesbury and the ascension of the York King Edward IV, Henry and his uncle Jasper Tudor sought refuge in France. In January 1485, the new king Richard III "obtained the outlawry of the Earl of Richmond and the Countess of Richmond, his mother" (Simons 26). In June 1485, Richard, waiting for Henry Tudor's imminent invasion, at Nottingham issued a proclamation declaring that Henry "'is descended of bastard blood both of the father's side and of the mother's side, for the said Owen his grandfather was bastard born, and his mother was daughter unto John duke of Somerset, son unto Dame Katherine Swynford, and of her in double adultery begotten, whereby it evidently appeareth that no title can or may be in him, who fully intendeth to enter this realm purposing a conquest'" (Given-Wilson and Curteis 159).
Richard labored incessantly to resurrect the skeleton in the Tudor closet. Just prior to Henry's second, successful departure from France with an invasionary force, Richard hysterically proclaimed that "Henry and his followers were 'open murderers and extortioners,' and imputing dishonour to his grandmother [Catharine of Valois], Henry himself a bastard of both families, an accusation of which his countrymen must by now have been growing weary" (Simons 33). The question of Tudor bastardy was sufficiently alive that Henry, after Richard's defeat, felt compelled to authorize his claim to the throne partly "by right of the formal legitimization of his birth previously established in an earlier session of Parliament" (Simons 67).
Henry VIII's reign again raised the specter of Tudor bastardy. Long-running accusations of illegitimacy blasted the lives of three of his four children surviving infancy—those of Mary, Henry (later Duke of Somerset and Richmond), and of course Elizabeth. Only the future Edward VI, the son of Jane Seymour, escaped unscathed. Mary's case is perhaps the most pathetic. On 20 April 1534, "all the craftes in London were called to their halls, and there were sworne on a booke to be true to Queene Anne and to beleeve and take her for lawfull wife of the Kinge and rightfull Queene of Englande, and utterlie to thinke the Ladie Marie, daughter to the Kinge by Queene Katherin, but as a bastarde, and thus to doe without any scrupulositie of conscience" (Wriothesley 1:24). Mary Tudor remained an official bastard throughout much of Henry VIII's and all of Edward VI's reigns, until 1553 (after her ascension to the throne) when Parliament declared Henry VIII's divorce from Katharine of Aragon illegal and Mary legitimate.
Mary was usually kept during her father's lifetime far from court, forced to follow with less pomp Elizabeth and Edward in royal processions. Even though she was a proclaimed bastard, Mary followed Edward in the line of succession in her father's will. However, in January 1553, Edward, with only a few months to live, "drew up .. . an elaborate 'device,' directing the succession in the event of his own death without heirs, to the descendants of his aunt Mary by Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. Both his sisters he excluded on the grounds of their illegitimacy" (Loades 15). The descendants of Edward's aunt Mary included the Ladies Catharine, Mary, and Jane Grey. Later the device was tampered with to exclude Frances Grey and make Jane Grey, who represented in early 1553 an unpopular radical protestantism, the royal heir (Loades 16). What allowed Edward VI and his protestant adherents to override the strong legality of Henry VIII's will in the matter of succession so as to bar Mary from the crown was the persisting cancer of her bastardy. Nevertheless, after Edward's death, Mary Tudor squelched Lady Jane Grey and her allies. Henry VIII's will—not Mary's birth—dictated her right to the throne. According to David Loades, "it was not the [legitimacy] of Mary Tudor's birth which was proclaimed in July 1553 but the force of her father's will, and of the statute which authorised it" (17). Only by stacking Parliament could Mary legitimize herself. But as history repeatedly demonstrated from the time of Owen Tudor in the mid-fifteenth century to the present day of 1553, this legislative method for "proving" (or "disproving") legitimacy had transparently become the tool of political opportunists, often of the crassest stripe. This fact made it easier for protestants, both at home and abroad, to continue to insist upon Mary's bastardy and thus upon her usurpation of the throne.
For a period of Henry VIII's reign, a legitimate male royal bastard was deemed a better heir to the crown than either one of two reputed female royal bastards. Henry, surnamed Fitzroy, was described as "a base sonne of our soveraigne King Henrie the Eight, borne of my Ladie Taylebuse, that time called Elizabeth Blunt" (Wriothesley 1:53). King Henry affectionately lavished honors on his first male offspring surviving childhood, making him at age six a Knight of the Garter and later Duke of Norfolk. Henry married his publicly acknowledged bastard to Lady Mary, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. On 26 July 1525, Henry the base son became Admiral of England; two years later he assumed the wardenship of the marches toward Scotland. The lieutenancy of Ireland constituted a final recognition of young Henry's worth. This preferment prompted contemporary and later observers of Henry VIII's reign to conclude that the king "procured the Act of Parliament empowering him to bequeath his crown in order that he might settle it upon young Henry in the event of his having no male issue by Jane Seymour" (Wriothesley 1:53). Likewise, H. Maynard Smith judges that King Henry's making his bastard Duke of Richmond involved the question of succession, "for Richmond had been the title of his grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, through whom the Tudors derived their claim to the throne" (7). Henry VIII's ultimate intentions with regard to his base son were never known; young Henry died on 22 July 1536, and legitimate Prince Edward was born on 12 October 1537. In many respects, the figurative legitimacy that King Henry created for his orthodox bastard problematizes the bastardy foisted upon his more legitimately born bastard daughters Mary and Elizabeth.
Since Shakespeare presented King Richard III during the reign of Elizabeth (the queen may in fact have seen one or more performances of the play), the complex problem of her illegitimacy becomes important for certain aspects of royal bastardy staged in the tragedy. Henry VIII covertly married Anne Boleyn near the end of January 1533; he had been living openly with her since 1531, after he sent Katharine of Aragon from the court. Conceived while Henry was still married to Katharine (Cranmer in mid-1533 declared Henry's marriage to Katharine null), Elizabeth was born only seven months after Henry's and Anne's secret marriage. On 11 July 1533, at Charles V's insistence, Pope Clement VII "issued a bull declaring that Henry was unlawfully cohabitating with Anne Boleyn, and that any child born of their union would be illegitimate" (Ridley 22). But Henry stubbornly insisted that Mary was a bastard and Elizabeth the true heir to the throne until God sent him a son. The Act of Succession of March 1534 required citizens on demand to swear that the children of Henry and Queen Anne were the legitimate heirs of the crown. But considerable grumbling and protest arose; for many of Henry's subjects, "Catherine was still 'the Queen' and Mary 'the Princess.' Anne was 'the concubine,' and Elizabeth 'the little bastard'" (Ridley 23).
On May Day 1536, Anne's arrest purportedly for having committed adultery with five men and for having planned to kill Henry suddenly authorized the murmurings about Elizabeth's baseness. Now Henry's opponents could argue that Elizabeth was not only a bastard but was most likely not even a royal bastard. The New Act of Succession of July 1536 legally bastardized Elizabeth and Mary, chiefly so that the expected children of Henry and Jane Seymour would have no rival claimants to the monarchy. Henry and Cranmer found a basis for declaring the king's marriage to Anne Boleyn illegal: Henry had had sexual intercourse with Mary, Anne's sister, before he carnally knew his future queen. Nevertheless, the official bastardizing of Elizabeth did not preclude her from a place in Henry's will, after Prince Edward and his issue, after the children that King Henry might have by Katharine Parr, and after Mary and her issue.
Elizabeth remained an official bastard throughout Mary's reign, especially once the new queen proclaimed in October 1553 that she was the legitimate daughter of Henry's lawful marriage to Katharine of Aragon. Even though Elizabeth's bastardy prevented Philip II of Spain from considering her a potential wife, once he was married to Mary, he favored Elizabeth, continually seeking a Catholic husband for her—mainly because Mary Queen of Scots had married the Dauphin of France and thus posed a succession threat in England that the presence of a married Catholic Elizabeth could obstruct. As Mary's savage reign wore on, tampering with Henry VIII's will to exclude the official bastard from succession became less and less advisable. Catholic efforts to protect base-born Elizabeth's royal status thus reflect the continuing problematics of Tudor bastardy, which from its inception paradoxically conflated legitimacy and illegitimacy.
Mary's death on 17 November 1558 gave Elizabeth rule of England, and the new queen quickly revealed her hidden protestantism. During the Parliament of 1559, a decision was made that would prove momentous for later sixteenth-century literary depictions of Elizabeth and the issue of royal bastardy. Elizabeth's counselors advised her not to repeal the Act of 1536 which bastardized her, or to proclaim her biological legitimacy. "This was done largely on the advice of Sir Nicholas Bacon, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. He argued that as Elizabeth was in any case entitled to succeed to the crown under Henry's will, there was no point in reopening old controversies by looking into the events of 1536. Instead Parliament quickly passed a bill which enabled Elizabeth to succeed to her mother's property, notwithstanding any forfeiture imposed by law or by previous statutes" (Ridley 85-86).
In effect, this decision made at the beginning of Elizabeth's long rule kept her bastardization official throughout her lifetime. It remained a major weapon in the unflagging campaign of her adversaries against the "bastard" queen and her "illegitimate" government. One noteworthy example can stand for the hundreds, even thousands, of accusations of bastardy directed against Queen Elizabeth until her death in 1603. In 1588 Cardinal William Allen, leader of English Catholics abroad, published in Antwerp in English a book titled An Admonition to the Nobility and People of England and Ireland Concerning the Present Wars, which was intended for distribution in England after the Spanish Armada had landed there. As was often the case, Elizabeth was unsuccessful in her attempts to suppress Allen's treatise and punish the European publisher and printer. In this book Allen "denounced Elizabeth [as] the issue of the 'incestuous copulation' of her 'supposed father' Henry VIII, with an 'infamous courtesan' Anne Boleyn" (Ridley 282). Similar blackenings of Elizabeth's character determined the compensatory nature of many literary depictions of the queen, including those of Edmund Spenser.2
If certain members of Elizabethan audiences of King Richard III sought a sixteenth-century context for understanding Shakespeare's staging of royal bastardy in King Richard III,3, memorable scenarios of illegitimacy from Henry VIII's reign supplied it. In act III, charges of bastardy become Richard of Gloucester's weapon for destroying the right of his nephews to the crown. Richard tells his henchman Buckingham to "infer the bastardy of Edward's children" (III.v.74)4 when speaking to the Mayor and citizens of London. So ambitious is Richard for the kingship that he additionally is willing to taint his brother Edward, his mother, and nearly himself with illegitimacy. "Nay, for a need," Richard instructs his tool Buckingham,
thus far come near my person:
Tell them, when that my mother went with child
Of that insatiate Edward, noble York
My princely father then had wars in France,
And by true computation of the time
Found that the issue was not his-begot;
Which well appeared in his lineaments,
Being nothing like the noble Duke my father—
Yet touch this sparingly, as 'twere far off;
Because, my lord, you know my mother lives.
After Buckingham returns from speaking to the Mayor and Londoners, Richard asks him, "Touch'd you the bastardy of Edward's children?" (III.vii.4). "I did," Buckingham replies,
. . . with his contract with Lady Lucy,
And his contract by deputy in France;
Th' unsatiate greediness of his desire,
And his enforcement of the city wives;
His tyranny for trifles; his own bastardy,
As being got, your father then in France,
And his resemblance, being not like the Duke.
Withal I did infer your lineaments—
Being the right idea of your father,
Both in your form and nobleness of mind.
Concerning this passage, Antony Hammond, the editor of the Arden text of the play, notes that verses 5-6, 8, and 11 of this scene do not appear in the 1597 Quarto of King Richard III (245). As a possible reason for the loss, Hammond cites an opinion appearing in the 1908 New Variorum edition of the play, that the lines may have been "deleted in deference to Elizabeth I's feelings, the charges being similar to those brought against her father" (245-46).
The evocation of Henry VIII in this respect becomes quite explicit in Shakespeare's play. At the time Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville (Grey), he was apparently engaged to both Elizabeth Lucy and Bona of Savoy through a dynastic contract made in France. Edward could be said to have had marital precontracts with the latter two women. "The ecclesiastical theory of pre-contracts which prevailed before the Reformation was the source of great abuses. Marriages that had been publicly acknowledged, and treated for a long time as valid, were often declared null on the ground of some previous contract entered into by one or other of the parties. In this way Henry VIII, before putting Anne Boleyn to death, caused his marriage with her to be pronounced invalid by reason of a previous contract on her part with Percy, Earl of Northumberland" (Shakespeare, New Variorum 255-56). Edward's mother, the Duchess of York, was evidently aware of a precontract, or even a secret marriage, between her lascivious son and Lady Lucy, "for she urge[d] it as one of several grounds of objection to her son's marriage with Elizabeth Woodville: 'It must needs stick as a foul disparagement of the sacred majestie of a Prince . . . to be defiled with bigamy in his first marriage'" (Shakespeare, New Variorum 256). For Elizabethan playgoers, the notion of a king's "simultaneous" marriages or betrothals later bastardizing his children would have evoked the recollection of a similar archetype in the troublesome reign of Henry VIII.
This evocation was not simply academic for Shakespeare's contemporaries. If Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was illegitimate, then their daughter Elizabeth was a bastard. And since she became Henry VIL' s wife, the possible illegitimacy of Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville further called Henry VIII's pedigree into question. "When Henry VII became king, and married the daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, any allusion to the precontract [with Lady Lucy] was treated as disloyal" (Shakespeare, New Variorum 255). Interestingly, Richard's and Buckingham's accusations against Edward IV stand in Shakespeare's play; no character refutes them, or even makes an attempt to do so. At this point, one might counterclaim that the accusations stand not because characters necessarily think that they are true but because wary nobles and citizens refuse to commit themselves politically through speech in the rapidly destabilizing, treacherous atmosphere of the court and city. The assembled citizens do refuse to assent to Buckingham's pro forma rehearsal of the bastardy argument. But we shall see that their silence is only temporary. Later analysis of the latter part of act III, scene vii will show Richard's and Buckingham's bastardy charges against Edward and his children prevailing with the Mayor and citizens, breaking the people's silence, and giving Richard almost immediate access to the throne.
The source of Shakespeare's representation of King Edward IV's precontracts and "bigamy" was Sir Thomas More's History of King Richard III (pub. 1557) (Candido, "More" 139). More originally wrote this work in Latin and English in or near 1513, when he was still strongly supportive of Henry VIII. Ironically, a book written by an advocate of Henry VIII would one day become the source of a stage depiction potentially critical by analogy of the king and embarrassing to his daughter. Analysis of More's History sharpens the critical commentary on Henry VIII latent in Shakespeare's dramaturgy. More emphasizes Elizabeth Grey's widowhood as the basis for the Duchess of York's claim that marriage to her would be bigamous: More's Duchess tells Edward, "'wheras ye only widowhed of Elizabeth Gray though she wer in al other thinges conuenient for you, shold yet suffice as me semeth to refrain you from her manage, sith it is an vnsitting thing, & a veri blemish, & highe disparagement, to the sacre magesty of a prince, yt ought as nigh to approche priesthode in clenes as he doth in dignitie, to be defouled w t bigamy in his first mariage'" (62). In canon law, bigamy included marriage to a widow, especially by ecclesiastical clerks. "'And as for ye bigamy,' More reports Edward as replying, 'let ye Bishop hardely lay it in my wai, when I come to take orders. For I vnderstand it is forbidden a prieste, but I never wiste it yet yt it was forbidden a prince'" (64). Edward had sired at least two illegitimate children—a son, Arthur Plantagenet, definitely by Elizabeth Lucy, and a daughter, Elizabeth, perhaps by Elizabeth Lucy. The girl was born about the time of Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville Grey. More's Edward boasts to his mother, "'That she is a widow and hath already children, by gods blessed Ladye I am a batcheler & have some to: & so eche of vs hath a profe yt neither of vs is lyke to be barain'" (64). Because of the story of Edward's precontract with Elizabeth Lucy and the Duchess's accusations, the bishops refused to marry Edward and the widow. They relented only after Elizabeth Lucy publicly equivocated on the matter of the precontract.
Few literate playgoers of the 1590s were unfamiliar with Henry VIII's argument that his marriage to the widow of his brother Prince Arthur—Katharine of Aragon—ought to be considered bigamous and thus null and void. Mary was bastardized upon this pretext. The issue enmeshes Elizabeth too. If Henry VIII's marriage to Katharine of Aragon was not bigamous, then Elizabeth was a bastard. This possibility remained a primary Catholic argument for the queen's illegitimacy and—until 1572—for Mary Stuart's right to the throne. Shakespeare triggers the above-described Henrician associations by making the bigamy of More's text part of his play.
How this happens deserves further analysis. In act III, scene vii, Richard and Buckingham perform a previously agreed upon dialogue designed to place Richard on the throne (III.vii.94-246). Because of "the corruption of a blemish'd stock" (III.vii. 121)—Edward IV's and his sons' imputed bastardy—the crown "as successively from blood to blood" and "right of birth" ought to be Richard's (III.vii. 134-35). Or so Richard and Buckingham argue. After Richard hypocritically rejects Buckingham's royal overtures, his fellow Machiavel develops his earlier speech to the Mayor and citizens:
You say that Edward is your brother's son:
So say we too—but not by Edward's wife.
For first was he contract to Lady Lucy
(Your mother lives a witness to his vow),
And afterward by substitute betroth'd To Bona, sister of the King of France.
These both put off, a poor petitioner, A care craz'd mother to a many sons, A beauty-waning and distressed widow,
Even in the afternoon of her best days
Made prize and purchase of his wanton eye,
Seduc'd the pitch and height of his degree
To base declension and loath'd bigamy.
By her, in his unlawful bed, he got
This Edward, whom our manners call the Prince.
More bitterly could I expostulate,
Save that for reverence to some alive
I give a sparing limit to my tongue.
Alluding to a gloss in the New Cambridge Shakespeare edition of the play, Hammond enlarges More's definition of bigamous widowhood by generalizing that "marriage with a widow was bigamy according to canon law" (254). The charge made by the Ghost of Hamlet's father—that Claudius's marriage to the widow Gertrude is adulterous, thus incestuous—constitutes evidence for Hammond's judgment. If the sacrament of marriage made man and wife one flesh, after the first marriage there could be no other. A wife could not share her flesh twice in a lifetime. This, too, was one of Henry VIII's arguments that his marriage with Katharine of Aragon was bigamous and his child of that union a bastard.
Thus far we have been exploring the Tudor echoes in the first two of the four verses deleted from III.vii.5-14 in the 1597 Quarto of King Richard III The third excised verse—"and his enforcement of the city wives"—strengthens Edward IV's association with bastardy and with Henry VIII. By all accounts, Edward was a lecher, dallying with his subjects' daughters and wives, including the notorious Jane Shore (Given-Wilson and Curteis 4-5). In the script he sketches for Buckingham, Richard says, "Tell them how Edward put to death a citizen / Only for saying he would make his son / Heir to the Crown" (III.v.75-77). Evidently several royal "sons" throughout the city compete with the two princes for succession. "Moreover, urge his hateful luxury," Richard counsels Buckingham,
And bestial appetite in change of lust,
Which stretch'd unto their servants, daughters, wives,
Even where his raging eye or savage heart
Without control lusted to make a prey.
Richard thus suggests that the king's bastardizing certain families in his realm somehow connects with (or derives from) the reputed bastardy of himself and his supposedly legitimate sons. His begetting bastards on other women in this context justified labeling the princes bastards. Or so Richard's rhetorical logic runs.
Considered in the context of the associations with Henry VIII already evoked, this dimension of Edward's bastardy intensifies the linkage. King Henry had a notoriously roving eye, and his carnal relations with Anne Boleyn and other women before he had extricated himself from the marriage of the moment were popular knowledge. It was Henry VIII's "bastardizing" lust that partly made both Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate as subsequent "marriages" blighted the girls' mothers and their origins. The resonances here are sufficiently disturbing that the verses missing in the 1597 Quarto, which were presumably part of the playhouse script, may have been cut because of the shadow they cast upon Henry and Elizabeth. By saying that Elizabeth Grey "Made prize and purchase of [Edward's] wanton eye, / Seduc'd the pitch and height of his degree / To base declension and loath'd bigamy" (III.vii. 186-88), Buckingham reprises the charges of Henry's and Anne's enemies, that the king's wanton, courtesan-like woman had harnessed the king's giant libido and consequently disinherited Katharine of Aragon and bastardized her child Mary. And it was Anne's supposedly promiscuous nature and spotted reputation that made Elizabeth a bastard in the minds of some of her antagonists. That Henry should have gotten Jane Seymour pregnant before he had found convenient reasons for ridding himself of Anne in order to marry her merely repeated the scenario that had bastardized Mary (Bowie 200-1). This time, however, Elizabeth was its victim.
The illegitimate legitimacy (or legitimate illegitimacy) that disturbed the Tudor succession marks the family romance of Edward IV. The disruptive role of bastardy in Henry VIII's life strikingly reprises its place in the mid-fifteenth-century York kingship as depicted by Shakespeare. That Shakespeare should portray unworthy Richard using mainly bastardy charges evocative of problematical Tudor illegitimacy in a bid for the crown was a bold, potentially reprehensible stroke throughout the 1590s. Buckingham urges Richard "to draw forth your noble ancestry / From the corruption of abusing times / Unto a lineal, true-derived course" (III.vii.197-99). Richard agrees to be crowned legitimate king only after Buckingham threatens,
Yet know, whe'er you accept our suit or no,
Your brother's son shall never reign our king,
But we will plant some other in the throne
To the disgrace and downfall of your House.
Admittedly, this dialogue is a set-up between two Machiavels; nevertheless, it convinces the Lord Mayor—speaking for the silent citizens—that Richard should be king (III.vii.200, 236). When Buckingham concludes by exclaiming, "Long live Richard, England's worthy King," citizens and Mayor alike pronounce "Amen" (III.vii.239-40). One might object that the citizens' validation of Buckingham's royal salute to Richard—their saying "Amen" to his "Long live Richard, England's worthy King!"—may reflect their prudent fear rather than the persuasiveness of Buckingham's argument. A wary silence signified their reception of Buckingham's initial presentation of the bastardy charges. In the present case the citizens most likely take their cue from the Lord Mayor, whose affirmation of Richard's right to the throne rings with conviction (HI.vii.200). The Mayor's spoken endorsement of Richard apparently encourages—perhaps obligates is a better word—the citizens to voice their obedience. Thus for all practical purposes, Richard's and Buckingham's use of bastardy charges places the crown within Richard's grasp.
As he plots the deaths of his nephews, Richard continues to stress their supposed illegitimacy:
Foes to my rest, and my sweet sleep's disturbers,
Are they that I would have thee deal upon.
Tyrrel, I mean those bastards in the Tower.
Interestingly, Richard's conversation with his assassin reveals the weakness of his own belief that bastardy publicly disqualifies his nephews from succession. He believes that he must have them murdered to keep them off the throne. Ironically, Richard's insecurity about his right to the kingship moves him to grovel before Edward IV s wife in order to gain her daughter in marriage before Henry does. Richard seeks to unite with a member of the family that he previously bastardized but who now represents a legitimizing match; if Henry Tudor were to marry her, he would powerfully blend the white Yorkist and red Lancastrian roses. Richard's desperate matrimonial begging amounts to a potentially just punishment for his political use of bastardy to win the crown. In a humiliating fashion, he ultimately feels compelled to reverse the bastardy charges he once made.
Nevertheless, Richard continues to use his favorite method of foisting bastardy upon rivals so as to consolidate his political power. In the final instance, this rival is the future Henry VII. Even though bastardy figured strongly in Henry VII's origins, explicitly implying that Queen Elizabeth's grandfather was a bastard would have been highly objectionable, almost certainly self-destructive for the playwright. In King Richard III, the taint of bastardy surrounding the Earl of Richmond gets displaced onto his troops. The effect, however, is to associate him distinctly with illegitimacy (since he is their head). During his battle oration at Bosworth Field, Richard tells his soldiers that the "scum of Bretons" in Richmond's ranks will, if victorious, "distain" Englishmen's "beauteous wives" (V.iii.314-23)—will, that is to say, make bastards the children of Richard's troops. "If we be conquer'd, let men conquer us!" (V.iii.333), Richard concludes,
And not these bastard Bretons, whom our fathers
Have in their own land beaten, bobb'd, and thump'd,
And in record left them the heirs of shame.
Shall these enjoy our lands? Lie with our wives?
Ravish our daughters?
No one has provided a satisfactory historical or political explanation for Richard's calling the Bretons, the men of Brittany, bastards. One could argue that Richard calls them bastards simply because he has become fixated upon bastardy during his rise to the crown. More likely, however, is the motive of associating Henry Tudor with illegitimacy. Richard deploys his obsession with bastardy so as to signify the political illegitimacy of the Earl of Richmond. If Henry wrests the crown from Richard, a multitude of English families will include bastards. Political bastardy will lead to widespread biological bastardy. Or so Richard's argument concludes. The bastard Bretons, if triumphant, will spread their bastardy by fathering illegitimate children on the losers' wives. In this conception, politically illegitimate Henry Tudor becomes the wellspring of bastardy in its most basic sense. Richard never directly challenges but in truth defers to, even respects, the principle of legitimate succession. He "never questions the right of Clarence to take the crown before him . . . nor the right of Edward's son; he accepts his place in the hierarchy even as he works to undermine hierarchy in general" (Carroll 213). Once he is on the throne, Richard, despite his murderous methods, becomes the genealogically legitimate holder of the scepter and the humane Richmond technically a usurper (Carroll 215-18; Reese 55; Hodgdon 103; Gurr 40-43, 46).5 "Richard is, after all, descended from the third son of Edward III," James P. Hammersmith remarks, "whereas the Earl [of Richmond] is descended from the fourth" (35). This suggestion of usurpation further strengthens the overtones of illegitimacy surrounding Richmond.
Nevertheless, tracing the development in King Richard III of bastardy into a metaphor for human corruption tends to absolve the original Tudor monarch of the charge. Richard's willingness to impute adultery to his mother opens the door to questions about his own legitimacy, a risk that reveals his potentially self-destructive loathing of his imagined physical "baseness." Jenny Teichman has copiously illustrated Western writers' tendency to portray bastardy in terms of physical deformity and violent rages. On both counts, Shakespeare's Richard III fits the profile. Francis Bacon in his Essayes implicitly equates bastardy and physical defects when he judges that "Deformed Persons, and Eunuches, and Old Men, and Bastards, are Envious: For he that cannot possibly mend his own case will doe what he can to impaire anothers" (28). Physically twisted, resembling the shape of neither his mother nor his father, Richard feels like a bastard, even though he is by all accounts legitimately born.6 Self-disgustedly, Richard feels himself to be illegitimately legitimate (or legitimately illegitimate). Several critics have compared Shakespeare's characterizations of Richard and the bastard Edmund of King Lear. "Edmund's bastardy works in the same way as Richard's crookedness," John F. Danby argues. "Richard resents both his shape and his position of contemptuous ridicule. He will react therefore against God and man. With both Richard and Edmund we feel that their resentment is understandable" (64). Danby notes that both Richard and Edmund become "sincere" hypocrites who sardonically unmask the hypocrisies of those seemingly sincere (such as respectively Edward IV and the Earl of Gloucester) (60-62). Both Richard's and Edmund's sense of dis-possession and social alienation drives them to displace rivals who have more legitimate claims to lands and inheritance. Richard's repeatedly voiced defiant credo of the "self alone" is the ethos of the early modern stage bastard, especially the memorable bastard Edmund.7 For William C. Carroll, "the connection between Richard and Edmund .. . is that for both characters the principle of 'lineal glory,' the 'form' and 'order of law,' is both the principle which denies them and so must be annihilated, and the principle which will define them and so is constantly desired" (214). This connection focuses the curious fact of Richard's deferral to the principle of legitimate succession that was documented in the previous paragraph. Now we can say that Richard's recognition of legitimate succession could amount to a compensation for his feeling of being a figurative bastard. Richard protects himself from this negative emotion by projecting bastardy onto his imagined rivals, including Edward, his nephews, and the Bretons (including Richmond).
Richard's struggle with a powerful feeling of personal illegitimacy takes several forms. Buckingham reports that in his address to the Mayor and citizens,
Withal, I did infer your lineaments—
Being the right idea of your father,
Both in your form and nobleness of mind.
Sycophantic Buckingham correctly guesses that Richard wants to hear reported his physical attractiveness in comparison to Edward's supposed ugliness. Buckingham makes Richard's obsession with bastardy serve as the occasion for easing Richard's apparent anxiety about his deformation and thus for ingratiating himself with his master. If Edward is a bastard, he must be ugly—"base"—and thus Richard must be handsome by comparison. Or so this parasitic subtext runs. Because of Richard's mother's purported bastardizing of Edward and Edward's subsequent bastardizing of his "sons," "the noble isle," Buckingham concludes, "doth want her proper limbs" (III.vii. 124). Shortly thereafter Richard's accomplice flatters his master's "gracious self (III.vii.130). This conflation equates England with physical deformity and royal legitimacy with gracious physique, supposedly the being of Richard who would cure the realm of the debilitating effects of others' bastardy.
Despite these ministrations, Richard continues to feel illegitimate. His frantic negotiations for a legitimizing marriage with Elizabeth, the daughter of his brother Edward and Elizabeth Woodville, partly derives from his barren marriage to Anne. He has no heirs to succeed him. The historical Richard and Anne Neville in fact had a son Edward (1473-84), Earl of Salisbury (1478) and Duke of Cornwall (1483). Furthermore, Richard, according to Sir Thomas More, "had at least two bastard children, Catherine Plantagenet and John of Pomfret or John of Gloucester" (211). (Also see Given-Wilson and Curteis 8, 160-61). More notes that Richard pledged his only lawful son to marry Buckingham's daughter, if Buckingham would help make him king (44). Shakespeare in King Richard III omits all mention of Richard's legitimate and illegitimate children. His barrenness in the play becomes an additional jealous motive for his smearing Edward's sons with bastardy. If he cannot (or does not) have any sons, then (in his mind) the sons of his brother Edward cannot (will not) be legitimate—that is to say, authentic.
Taken as a whole, Richard's cruelty and faults stamp him a defective person, a human manque. The Earl of Richmond in his oration to his troops calls Richard a "base, foul stone, made precious by the foil / Of England's chair" (V.iii.251-52). In this pejorative context, the word "base" catches the overtones of figurative bastardy inherent in Richard's own dehumanized conduct and his tacit self-appraisals and condenses them in the mouth of his adversary. Legitimate Richard's figurative bastardy (or baseness) by contrast makes other Yorkists and especially Henry Tudor who have been either labeled or associated with bastardy appear less culpable, even—in the Earl of Richmond's case—non-blamable. This dramatic strategy provides the basis for the play's concluding emphasis upon Tudor fertility and legitimacy. During his onstage nightmare, Richard hears the ghosts of his two murdered nephews tell sleeping Richmond, "Live, and beget a happy race of kings" (V.iii.158). Ironically, Shakespeare's audience, hearing this speech, might recollect that this "race" would include as many queens as kings, both of whom would have their happiness blighted at one time or another by the frost of bastardy. Yet this recollection concerns the unknown future of the play's characters. In this play the founder of the Tudor dynasty proudly proclaims his political legitimacy (through a powerful conjunction that—dramatically at least—overbears and mutes future questions about his biological legitimacy).
O now let Richmond and Elizabeth,
The true succeeders of each royal house,
By God's fair ordinance conjoin together,
And let their heirs, God, if Thy will be so,
Enrich the time to come with smooth-fac'd peace,
With smiling plenty, and fair prosperous days.
Phyllis Rackin has argued that "the problem of illegitimacy" in the cycle of Shakespeare's dramatized history "is never fully resolved until the end of Richard III, when the Lancastrian Henry VII turns to a woman to secure a crown he has won in battle, announcing that he will unite the warring factions by marrying the Yorkist princess Elizabeth. The best efforts of three generations of kings and their suffering subjects and the struggles of three generations of men killing each other in battle can never resolve the problem of royal legitimacy. It can only be resolved in marriage, with the incorporation of the necessary female ground of all patriarchal authority—in this case the Princess Elizabeth" (163-64). The stigma of bastardy that Richard, like a lightning rod, deflects from Richmond onto himself in Shakespeare's play prepares the way for Rackin's conclusions and makes them more persuasive.
For one brief moment, divine legitimacy in the formulation of Shakespeare's Richmond characterizes the origins of the Tudors, offsetting the many later political accusations of bastardy within the royal "race." Shakespeare's creation of a scapegoat figurative bastard in King Richard III must have made Richmond's claims nostalgically believable. Shakespeare later (most likely in 1594 or 1595) positively portrayed illegitimacy in the character of Philip the Bastard in King John, a figure who Ronald Stroud has shown gains a metaphoric legitimacy by comparison with the moral shifting of less honest courtiers.8 Shakespeare formulates this dramaturgy of King John in King Richard III when the moral bastardy of "legitimate" Richard and the hypocrites of the Yorkist court defines the moral integrity of the "bastard" Henry Tudor. Despite the generally negative cultural representation of bastardy during Shakespeare's lifetime (Elton 131-35; Hyland 6-9; Neill; Macfarlane 73, 77),9 the playwright in King Richard III found a novel way to evoke the problematics of Tudor bastardy in order to de-emphasize its seriousness. That a censor may have ordered the erasure of key verses of this evocation suggests that the approach may have been appreciated by only a segment of Shakespeare's audience.
I want to thank my former Baylor University student Jessica Watson for stimulating my interest in the topic of bastardy in King Richard III and for suggesting several resources for researching the subject of this essay.
1 Shakespeare's emphasis upon bastardy in a history play such as King Richard III is, per se, not surprising. Rather, I am claiming that, considered in light of Queen Elizabeth's distaste for public allusions to the topic of Tudor bastardy, Shakespeare's evocation of the subject in King Richard III is surprising. A number of recent commentators have demonstrated that bastardy becomes a major issue in many of Shakespeare's history plays. See especially, Candido, "Blots, Stains, and Adulteries"; Manheim (and less centrally several other essays in Curren-Aquino); Kerrigan 40-44; Rackin 53-54, 66, 76, 184-91; and Neill 275, 278-79, 283-84, 287-88.
2 In the April Eclogue of The Shepheardes Calender, the poem in praise of Queen Elizabeth, Spenser wrote, "For shee is Syrinx daughter without spotte, / Which Pan the shepheards God of her begot: / So sprong her grace / Of heavenly race, / No mortali blemishe may her biotte" (Yale Spenser 72-73). While Elizabethan writers often mythologized King Henry VIII as the protean, all-powerful god Pan, Spenser's identification of Anne Boleyn with Syrinx is a bit unusual. Pan—Henry VIII—made a kind of immortal music—the miraculous child Elizabeth—through playing the reed that Syrinx had become. In this reading, Syrinx—Anne Boleyn—sacrifices her life so that she and Pan can make something wondrous. While the phrase "without spotte" mainly attaches to Elizabeth, it also modifies Syrinx, suggesting by its ambiguous syntactical position that Elizabeth's legitimacy proceeds from her pure mother. "No mortali blemishe may . . . biotte" Elizabeth because she came of a clean "heavenly race." Spenser's recreation of Elizabeth's virginal conception reappears in Book III of The Faerie Queene, wherein the sun's rays innocently beget a prototype of Elizabeth—Belphoebe—within the body of sleeping Chrysogene (III.vi.1-28). Chrysogene/Anne Boleyn in the myth thus preserves her "chaste bodie" (III.vi.5.8), such that, as regards Belphoebe/Elizabeth, "her whole creation did her shew / Pure and vnspotted from all loathly crime / That is ingenerate in fleshly slime" (III.vi.3.3-5). Spenser's adaptation of the motif of the Annunciation suggests the imaginative degree protestant apologists were willing to go to defend Elizabeth from innuendoes of bastardy and sexual corruption in her origin.
3 In the past sixteen years, commentators on Shakespeare's King John and the plays of the First and Second Tetralogies in steadily increasing numbers have demonstrated the relevance of sixteenth-century English personages, doctrines, and events for their interpretations. See for example Trace; Richmond; Greenblatt; Wilson; Williamson; Marcus 51-96; Jackson; McCoy; Belsey; and Poole. One of the original authorizations for giving aspects of Shakespeare's history plays early modern readings was Queen Elizabeth's pronouncement that Shakespeare's company's playing Richard II on the eve of the Essex Rebellion especially identified her with King Richard (Kastan 468-69, 473).
4 All quotations of King Richard III refer to the Arden text edited by Antony Hammond. When Richard commands Buckingham to stigmatize Edward's offspring, Robert Ornstein refers to the "time-honored custom for usurpers to bastardize those they overthrow" (26).
5 "Yet it is the bloody butcher himself, Richard, who most clearly aligns himself with the ideology of loyal and 'natural' succession; and it is the re-sacramentalized emblem of'ceremonious' order, Richmond, who intervenes when the 'chair' of state is not 'empty,' when the 'empire' is not 'unpossess'd'" (Carroll 218).
6 Neill remarks that around "the 'rudely stamped' Richard of Gloucester['s] . . . monstrous birth and physical deformity hang metaphoric suggestions of the very bastardy with which he stigmatizes his own nephews. . . . In 3 Henry VI, V.5.115, [Richard] and his brothers are denounced by Queen Margaret as 'the bastard boys of York' in a context where York's patronage of the usurper Cade (a counterfeit Plantagenet) and appearance at the head of an Irish army associates the Yorkist faction with illegitimacy of all kinds" (283). For the early modern English notion that bastardy often revealed itself in the bastard's monstrous shape, see Neill's analysis of Volpone's "family" and the character of Thersites in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida (287, 289-92).
7 Neill asserts that 'the stage bastard repeatedly insists on his own self-begotten sufficiency in overreaching language that insolently travesties the divine 'I am'" (284). Richard shares many character traits with the stage bastards Edmund and Faulconbridge of King John. These include a proneness to tease or scoff, cynical commentary—often expressed in an aside—on the dramatic action, a darkly comic or ironic sense of humor and theatrical style of behavior and speech as responses to a sense of illegitimacy (Van de Water 141-43; Rackin 53-54); self-congratulatory doubleentendres, soliloquies suggestive of superior intellectual complexity, a fondness for spoken interruptions, expostulations, defiances, mockeries, and expressions of incredulity (Porter 139); and a penchant for Machiavellian policy, made attractive by a large capacity for personal charm (Danby 58-80). Richard shares these and other characteristics with the Shakespearean stage bastard represented by Edmund and Faulconbridge partly because all three figures ultimately derive from the Morality Vice.
8 Clearly, Shakespeare depicts the brave bastard Faulconbridge, who grows into an understanding and appreciation of moral truth during the course of the events of King John, as more qualified to rule England than the problematical but yet more legitimate John and Arthur, the former progressively unscrupulous and confused and the latter pious but frightened and ineffectual in his childhood. See the analysis of Herschel Baker in The Riverside Shakespeare 766-67; Manheim; and Rackin 184-91.
9 Peter Laslett has statistically demonstrated with reference to historical English bastardy ratios that there was "an illegitimacy wave in the latest decades of the sixteenth and the earlier decades of the seventeenth century" (233). Also see Ingram 157-59. For confirmation of this increase and an account of its probable socioeconomic origins within the disorderly popular culture of the 1590s, see Levine and Wrightson 158-75. The marked increase in bastardy rates that occurred while Shakespeare was writing for the theater may have played a role in his emphasis upon illegitimacy in King Richard III, other history plays, and several comedies and tragedies.
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