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The Bastard to the Time in K in g John Ronald Stroud Despite the complexities of Shakespearean characterization, one occasionally encounters a figure around whom there has evolved a “standard interpretation,” and such is the case with the Bastard in King John. The Bastard’s essential dishonor is almost axiomatic among those who have commented at any length upon his character in the play. Some readers are un­ equivocal in their denunciations. Julia C. Van de Water calls him a “thinly-disguised vice,”l and M. M. Reese finds that, ex­ cept for Constance, Blanche, and Arthur, “no one else in the play is a person of integrity, not even Fauconbridge, who cheer­ fully admits that he is tarred with the same brush as the people he condemns.”2 Even those who are sympathetic toward the Bastard offer a no more positive assessment than that his dis­ honor is less pronounced toward the end of the play (if only be­ cause of John’s decline). Gunnar Boklund labels him a “crude materialist” even though he believes that the Bastard never really “throws consideration to the winds” to become a “faithful servant to commodity.”3 Noting a similar modulation, Irving Ribner ar­ gues that the Bastard has “little initial claim to virtue” and that “only as John declines does the Bastard’s moral stature begin to be evident.”4 Likewise, James L. Calderwood finds him obsessed with self-interest and lacking responsibility to England early in the play but yet resembling a political hero by the end.5 And in the same way, Adrien Bonjour feels that the Bastard becomes the “natural ruler John has ceased to be.”6 But alas for the Bastard, E. A. J. Honigmann disputes even his political honor.7 But despite the judgments of competent critics, there are weaknesses in the current view of the Bastard which I feel render it an unsatisfactory interpretation of his character in the play. For one thing, the tenacious adherence to this view despite obvious sympathy for the Bastard on the part of some of the critics has promoted an ambiguity bordering on contradiction in 154 Ronald Stroud 155 several of the above judgments. Professor Boklund, for example, leaves unexplained how the Bastard can be a “crude materialist” and not be a “faithful servant of commodity.” But a more im­ portant weakness of this view lies in the fact that it does not take fully into account Shakespeare’s revision of The Troublesome Raigne of King John. Despite the improvements Shakespeare made in the character of the earlier Bastard of this anonymous play, readers have shown little inclination toward specific de­ lineation and analysis of these revisions, apparently thinking them self-evident. ¿1 fact, Adrien Bonjour labels them “obvious” (although he cites a few ); but although these improvements may have been “obvious” to him, judging from the remarks cited above, they certainly have not seemed so to others.8 Finally, even when the current interpretation is modified to allow the Bastard a modicum of honor, it still does him a disservice by al­ lotting him only political honor, for the Bastard’s integrity ex­ tends into personal and familial contexts as well. What I am suggesting is that the Bastard himself defines his character in his first soliloquy when he says: . . . For he is but a bastard to the time That doth not smack of observation. (1.1.207-8) Realizing that he must either embrace the erring obsessions of his world or remain a moral “bastard,” the Bastard here acknowledges a moral cleavage between himself and society which defines his character throughout the play. That is, by re­ jecting the distorted values of his society, he becomes a “bastard to the time” and thus, a symbol of honor in King John. In a word, the Bastard rejects “expediency,” or as he calls it—“commodity.” I would label the followers of expediency, in contrast to the Bastard, “sons-to-the-time” who are perhaps best defined by Salisbury when he laments the nobles’ pact with Lewis: And is’t not pity, O my grieved friends, That we, the sons and children of this isle, Were bom to see so sad...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 154-166
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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