"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.